Old Boy Networked

February 19, 2007

There is no way around it: I am a member of the Old Boy Network. I attended an elite private liberal arts college, went on to earn my Ph.D. from a famous university and wrote my dissertation with an even famouser professor. And there is no doubt about it: Membership has its privileges. I am now part of a network of colleagues, mentors and classmates-turned-professors whom I will keep in touch with for the rest of my career.

Or at least I thought I was, until one day I woke up and found that I couldn't get on to JSTOR with my old grad student password.

And not just JSTOR. EbscoHost, Academic Search Premier, Chadwyck PAO -- all were suddenly closed to me. My alma mater had finally gotten its act together, realized that I was no longer a graduate student there, and withheld from my Web browser its Magic Fulltext Access Cookie.

Now lest my earlier mention of the old boy network seem smug, I want to point out that there is nothing wrong with leaving The Big Time for some more "provincial" institution. Indeed, some of us would argue that this is an improvement. For instance, you might actually get to teach someone something instead of neurotically obsessing about whether your work is going to transform your discipline more than the guy with the NSF grant in the office down the hall. But no matter how disenchanted you are with the elitism of old boy academic politics, there is no questioning the fact that elite research universities have resources that state schools can only  dream of. And this led me to wonder what exactly happens to the "old boy network" once it becomes, well, networked?

Back in the old days (so I am told) there were a variety of methods that professors used to keep in touch: telephone calls, mailing each other offprints of their articles, and of course recreating the collective effervescence of grad school by attending conferences where they all, temporarily, come under one roof again just like they did "back in grad school."

Technology has not changed much of how this works. There are conferences where we revert to type and talk, think, and drink with old friends just like we did in graduate school. We still call each other on the phone. Sure, the phones may not be plugged into the wall anymore, but the idea is still the same. Ditto with the demise of the genteel tradition of offprints and correspondence -- these days we are more likely to send a PDF of our work to our colleagues or just send them an e-mail. We can even check our old department's Web site and see what our professors have been publishing lately.

What I find interesting is that there are many technologies that allow old boys to network that they really haven't taken up. We don't really keep blogs, for instance. I mean sure, there are academic blogs. But the inherent publicness of this form means that our blogs tend to either be relentlessly careerist demonstrations of our knowledge of breaking news in the field, or else anonymous screeds about how much we hate our students. What we don't have is the sort of informal blogs filled with the "ohmygodmycatdidsomethingSOCUTE" kind of sentiment that -- admit it -- is typical of our correspondence with our friends and colleagues.

Social networking sites haven't -- to my knowledge -- taken off. I can use CiteULIke,, Friendster, FaceBook, MySpace, diigo, and so forth with the best of them. And sure, occasionally I'll check to see what my friends have added to their CiteULike bookmarks. But for better or worse, these sorts of tools haven't seemed to become a place where my real-life social networks come to get mediated.

The exception to this rule seems to be the e-mail listserv. Academics love listservs. They carve out exactly the right space between public and private that we need, and they use pre-existing technology that we understand. In the case of the lists that I subscribe to at least, there is plenty of proper academic discussion mixed in with decent helpings of gossip and joking.

It is not surprising, then, that since I have left graduate school and started as a professor I have come to value the way that the Internet keeps me connected to my alma mater through mailing lists. I still receive announcements about upcoming talks at my university and boy do I ever consider this to be a privilege. It keeps me in touch with who is doing what in my field and alerts me to new professors whose work I had not heard of before. There is no better way to vet the quality of a
professor's work than to know that they have been invited to speak Someplace Important by faculty who not only share your tastes, but have actually had a hand in making them.

I also am on my old department lists for dissertation proposals and defenses, which keeps me informed of what graduate students in my (former) department are working on. Hell, I'm even on the mailing list to receive information about job openings, despite the fact that I already have a job. A major part of what it means to be an alum of my program (or any program, I reckon) is that you are now plugged into e-mail lists which lend a strange sort of cachet. Never mind the endless requests for cat sitters and sublettors that I delete -- I never want to be dropped from my department's student mailing list.

There is also the Magic Fulltext Access Cookie. This is a big deal. The publishing industry is bleeding the academy white. Public universities like mine cannot afford to keep up with the cost of getting access to electronic journals. And in their attempts to find the money to keep at least some subscriptions, they often end up cutting paper journals.

Now it is true that my current institution has access to specialist journals that my alma mater does not. This is mostly because of our strong research focus in the Asia-Pacific. But overall there is no question that having access to my alma mater's electronic subscriptions was an enormous convenience. And more than that -- being able to use their cookie to access back issues of Cultural Anthropology Methods filled me with a deep and abiding sense that I was still loved and that they would keep my room just the way I left it even though I was now on the tenure track.

It seems clear to me that there is an opportunity in here somewhere for alumni associations to help keep their library budgets afloat by offering some sort of alumni rate for full-text subscriptions. I know that many colleges have some sort of deal for offering continued e-mail services to alumni. Could this be expanded to include Web space or other access to other services like RefWorks subscriptions? It may be that I overestimate exactly how many people would be interested, but one thing is certain -- this is the sort of thing that I have in mind when I think about getting my old boy
network network.

This also raises the issue of more formal alumni relations. I know that as a graduate student I have a different relationship to my alma mater than undergrads do, but the quarterly e-mails I receive from the dean of my former college about how much he needs my money strike me as flat-footed. I already gave them my money, and as far as I am concerned they can for more when I have paid off my student loans, thank you very much.

But more importantly: I am already creating and participating in my own digital alumni network. Like the other, analog one, it is growing organically out of my grad school experience in ways that no one, I think, really expected. Whether or not we will all start our own MySpace group is something that is still very much up in the air. But one thing is certain -- if my alma mater really wanted to show it still loved me, it would give me that magic cookie back.


Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.


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