Saving 30 Years

Terry Caesar considers networks, knowing the "right people," and prestige real and imagined.
June 11, 2007

In a memoir on Susan Sontag in a recent issue of Salmagundi, Sigrid Nunez writes at one point as follows: "[S]he never pretended that a person's success did not depend -- and to no small extent, either -- on being connected, or that she didn't know what Pascal meant when he said that being well-born can save a man 30 years." Once, Nunez adds, Sontag declared about a woman who asked her for a recommendation letter concerning a certain fellowship: "She'll never, ever get it -- not because her work isn't good enough, but because she just doesn't know the right people."

Nunez neglects to mention if Sontag wrote the letter anyway. If not, that's her difference from academics. Sontag, proudly, wasn't one. Therefore, she didn't have to write letters of recommendation. Better yet, at least from her point of view, she didn't have to acknowledge that a letter from her might alone constitute an example of knowing the right people -- and so, according to her own convictions she is almost obliged to produce the requested recommendation. Unless of course the fellowship was so lofty that even she herself was not worthy to breathe its air.

That's the trouble with "networks." They exist. Everybody knows they exist. Moreover, everybody knows knowing "the right people" can be absolutely decisive for extra- or inter-institutional activity -- getting selected by organizers for a panel, getting a publisher at least to pay attention to a submitted article or book, or getting hired by a department for a job. (Networks of course matter intra-institutionally in much the same way. But on a small scale they're not nearly so interesting to consider.) What nobody quite knows is how to define networks in the first place.

How permanent are they? Does it just depend upon the individuals? Are networks institutionally rooted? (But are you somehow automatically a member just because you're a graduate? See Alex Golub's column in these pages on how difficult it is merely to stay technologically connected.) How equivalent are the criteria of membership in a network to common identities of class, gender, or even race? (Or are any of these usually trumped by something else entirely, such as having the same dissertation adviser?) There is no easy or even coherent answer to any of these questions.

Common understanding seems to go roughly like this: Once there was something called an Old Boy network. This was in the days -- 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s -- when boys could be boys because there were virtually no girls. Then there were girls -- beginning in the 60s. What happened to the Old Boy network -- beginning in the 70s -- was one of two things: either it expanded to include the girls (albeit on the same terms as the boys) or -- by the 80s -- it was paralleled by a separate Old Girl network (albeit on the same terms as the boys). Now -- since the 90s -- nobody is really sure if any of this remains true anymore.

Or, more radically, if any of it was ever quite true. Networks don't offer themselves as objects of study. In order to be networks, they abide in informal ways, through casual word of mouth (or e-mail), unspoken assumptions (reinforced at conferences), and shared values that may not be shared at all (anywhere) if they have to be fully articulated. How do these values come into being? My own feeling is, through institutions. Their values, in turn -- ranging from how to dress or how to speak to what political or social attitudes to have -- are most akin to those of class.

The Old Boy network was -- and to the degree it continues, still is -- the product of the best universities in the country, which continue to be the best because they can perpetuate their wealth and prestige through ... networks. (I will set aside their additional, subject-specific, nature, assuming it goes without saying that all disciplines at an elite university partake of its status in the same basic way.) Everybody, top to bottom, knows this, and is stuck with a maddeningly circular argument if forced to try to explain it.

Example: a friend who lately applied to a department at one of the best liberal arts college in the country. (Names have been suppressed to protect the guilty.) Her doctorate is from Pittsburgh. Pretty good. But not as good as Stanford or Yale, which is where everybody in the department has a degree from. "I won't get in the door," she moaned. "No matter how many publications I have, they'll see I'm not one of them." Perhaps in this instance she won't be right. Enough doors can in practice swing open to make it seem like most are not effectively closed. And yet who among us is going to maintain that the department's search committee at this particular college is not going to judge job candidates on whether or not they are, in the vulgar phrase, "our sort"?

This was the most decisive consideration during departmental deliberations at the second-rate state university at which I taught for many years. For most of that time, the odd application from Cornell would send the search committee into a tizzy. ("Is she aware how much comp we teach?") Shortly before I left, the situation changed. There were many reasons, beginning with the job market itself. (At the M.L.A. a decade or so ago I met a recent Ph.D. from Harvard who wailed that he couldn't get a job. "Why else did I go to Harvard?") At the present time, "our sort"
-- whatever the sort -- constitutes probably a less stable, more mixed consensus than it has ever before.

But this is not to say that the judgement doesn't continue to be made, every day, in myriad ways. All these are not explicable by the notion of a network. (Any department can certainly be forgiven for wanting to adhere to its own idea of itself as a social unit, and to fear how just one additional person could disrupt it.) But many judgments are. Inquire into any one personal contact, for example, and I believe you usually find a broader base than a single individual, who chances to know another individual known to you. In turn, this base is often united by the structural and organizational protocols we commonly assume when we speak of a "network."

Again, we return to the difficulty of stipulating precisely what these protocols are. Perhaps it is helpful to compare the example of another country. In my own experience, none suits like Japan, because atop its academic summit stands one radiant institution: Tokyo University. None compares to it in presumed excellence or actual prestige. Every other institution is inferior to Tokyo. Whether or not this is in fact so is beside the point. The point is that everyone believes it to be so. Tokyo in U.S. terms is a miraculous fusion of StanfordYaleCornellHarvard.

What astounded me during the time I taught in Japan was how Japanese academics genuflected before the hierarchical fact. The graduate director of my department assured me, for example, that a flagrant case of dishonesty which I knew to be true was "absurd" because "such a thing could never happen at Tokyo University." End of discussion. This same man was an Anglophile, as so many Japanese academics are, part of the reason being that they can convert England into Japan, through substituting Oxford or Cambridge for Tokyo. The common idea is: We know there is hierarchy because of the one lofty example bestowing the idea of distinction upon all other institutions below.

Such a single, or dual, example is harder for Americans to believe in. In many ways higher education in the United States is actually more like Japan, with a bewildering array of public and private universities, each subject to fine status discriminations among themselves. Yet there remains one huge difference: the United States lacks Tokyo University. Thus, in a very real sense, because of this fact alone, the very idea of hierarchy here becomes more problematic, and the reality of networks (whether involving students, faculty, or administrators) more elusive and diffuse. Often, for example, graduate students or junior faculty are urged to attend conferences in order to "network." But usually this means little more than partaking of the opportunity to meet somebody, and then hoping that this person will be able to open up a wider opportunity, unnamed and maybe unnameable.

What to say? It could happen. And again, networks undeniably exist. The closer you get to the top, the more tightly knit and implacable their bonds may appear. Yet we're Americans. We're not Japanese or British. We believe in the power of individual will and the rewards of individual effort. Academic life, like all other forms, may be arranged in terms of hierarchy. Nevertheless, compare business or entertainment. (When the director, Quentin Tarantino, was asked what is necessary in order to make a film, he replied: "Know Harvey Keitel.") We academics believe we have within us the capability to change institutional arrangements that exclude us or to enter circuits of influence that prevent us from seeking the job we desire or publishing the manuscript we wrote.

Alas, though, there are networks and there are networks. Not only do some matter far more than others. Some hardly matter at all. I know of a small community college, 75 percent of whose English department is staffed by M.A. graduates of the largest area university. Do these people take themselves to comprise a "network"? Probably not. They merely happen to have been taught by the same professors or to know many of the same people. The idea of a "network" only comes into play when outsiders exert some pressure on the uniformity of the organization. In turn, the organization itself exerts no pressure on any other. So, although it possesses the integrity (perhaps not the best word) of a network, this particular community college department lacks the extensiveness of one.

On the other hand, the most powerful or influential networks operate nationwide; this is one primary reason they're powerful and influential. In turn, they authenticate the crucial difference between "knowing somebody" and "somebody worth knowing." We all desire contact with members of networks that enable mobility, prestige, financial reward, and other good things, all authorized by elites (or else they wouldn't be elite in the first place). That is -- let's say -- we all want to work at the best liberal arts colleges or research universities in the country. Too bad so few of us can.

Too bad the reasons why can be so crudely stated: there are too few networks and they are too exclusive. Finally, too bad that most of us work in places where the guarantees of the best networks can't even be realized. (Again, Golub's column can be recommended on this point.) Instead, the great majority of us have to try to be content with what we have. Either we enjoy our own networks, such as they are, or else we contemplate the absence of others. Meanwhile, we try not to acknowledge that it was simply never in our experience to have saved Pascal's 30 years.


Terry Caesar's last column was about the lessons he has learned writing Purely Academic.


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