DeWitt Scott is a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at Chicago State University. You can follow him on Twitter at @dscotthighered.
Many of us have fallen victim to it at one point and time: meeting that superstar scholar in our respective fields and being in total awe of him/her. You have consumed their research, read their works, listened to their speeches, and studied their backgrounds. You see them as authority figures on the knowledge that you seek to understand. As you work to ascend to their respective levels of expertise and accomplishments, you often contemplate what you would say to him/her when you meet them, how would you introduce your work to them, and state how much you appreciate their work without coming across as some sort of overzealous, fanatic groupie.
Then conference season rolls around and you suddenly find yourself at a session or socializing function where the scholar is present. You see this as an opportunity to approach an idol whom you’'ve admired for a really long time from a distance. You want her to know that you follow her and to know about who you are and what you do. As you move toward her to introduce yourself, you’re trying your hardest to suppress your groupie instincts. “Don’t say anything stupid or embarrassing,” you tell yourself. Saying the wrong thing, you believe, will make your intellectual idol shoot you a menacing look, accompanied by a dismissive remark, and have you banned from the intellectual community forever (not really, but somehow you think that, although it has never happened in the history of time, it can happen to you).
How do you handle this situation? Below are a few key steps you can take when encountering your discipline’s superstar. The following tips have been borrowed from advice given by other graduate students who have had this experience as well as senior scholars who are often approached by graduate students and admirers of their work. I have personally put these tips to work when meeting my intellectual heroes Marc Lamont Hill, Marybeth Gasman, and Shaun Harper.
1. Be succinct. Understand that the more acclaimed the scholar or academic, the more often they are approached by individuals who want to meet them and suck up their time. Introduce yourself, where you’re from, how you became familiar with their work, and the ways in which your work overlaps with theirs. From there, allow the scholar to respond and read from his/her response if he/she is willing to engage with you. If so, concisely explain your research and future plans. Otherwise, if the scholar does not seem open to engaging with you or would like to be left alone, respect his/her wishes, ask for contact information, and thank him/her for listening.
2. Shift the focus from you to them. Many people who approach renowned scholars and public intellectuals often get caught up in only talking about themselves and their own work. Be different and ask the scholar thoughtful questions about his/her work, approach, and interests. Many academics are introverts but do not mind talking about themselves. If the individual has made it clear through the response to your initial introduction that he/she is willing to engage with you for a moment, ask them questions about their methodologies and the philosophical underpinnings of a recent work. This will separate you from the numerous people who only talk about themselves when they speak with the scholar.
3. Ask for advice. Smart people love to give advice. Discuss questions about a particular issue or situation that you are experiencing and ask the scholar for recommendations. Please understand that this is not the time to solicit consultation on extremely personal matters such as marriage strife or disobedient children. Keep the questions within the academic and professional realm. The benefits of this act are twofold: (1) you get a chance to acquire suggestions from someone who is a proven success in your field, and (2) the individual may feel honored that you value their opinion.
4. Offer help. Most accomplished senior scholars who are internationally known for their work are approached by people who are seeking something from them. Be the one individual that offers sincere, genuine help by offering to assist with a project or endeavor. Offering help is a way to potentially build a relationship with the individual and to show them that you are not selfishly seeking their services. Extending help does not necessarily mean asking to co-author a project with the individual. Writing publishable articles and research studies is so demanding that asking to co-author with the scholar isn’t seen as offering help. It is usually seen as adding an additional item to an already overtaxed to-do list. Propose helping in ways that can authentically enhance or complement the individual’s work or responsibilities.
5. Remember, he/she is only human. As much as you may revere and idolize this individual and his/her work, understand that he/she is still human and no different than you. You must respect their work and the dues that they have paid, but as a graduate student you must also understand that it is your goal to get to their level and possibly higher. These individuals are senior scholars now but someday they will be your peers. If you view these people as humans and not deities it will put their accomplishments and your pursuits in perspective. Your ultimate goal is to one day sit at the table with these individuals as equals and to eventually become more accomplished than they are.
Coming into contact with someone you admire can be an inspirational and a career-changing experience. Know how to handle the situation without coming across as an intellectual groupie. Taking pictures and asking to have books signed is totally fine, but please refrain from fawning over them and telling them everything you think they want to hear. Save that for Beyoncé.
Do you have any tips for junior scholars who meet leading scholars in their fields? Post stories of your experiences in the comments section below.
[Image from Google Images and used under Creative Commons license]
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