The curious case of the professor of shmooze

Networking: Julia Hobsbawm

Networking: Julia Hobsbawm

I remember my father once telling me about an occasion when he ran into somebody with whom he had been at school several decades earlier. This man had done very well in business, as he explained to my father before asking him what he did. “I’m a photographer,” my dad replied.

“A photographer?” the man mused, stroking his chin. And then, after a few seconds: “No. I’ve no use for a photographer”, and promptly took his leave.

This exchange seems to me to strip to its essence that airy commonplace of our contemporary culture — “networking”. And so skewed is this culture (even to the skewed usage of the term “culture”) that the respectable Cass Business School at City University, London recently appointed, with some fanfare, the UK’s first “Professor of Networking”. The initial incumbent is the high-profile, public-relations innovator, Julia Hobsbawm, daughter of the near-legendary Marxist historian, Eric Hobsbawm.

In her introductory lecture, Professor Hobsbawm drew somewhat upon her Jewish roots, seeing herself as a kind of shadchan, not to mention maven and even macher. Inevitably, she has already been referred to as a professor of shmooze. But these terms, and the activities they involve, are not exactly the stuff of university teaching.
I have no objection to Cass’s new recruit passing on the benefits of her experience — which after all has brought her both commercial success and a degree of fame beyond her field. Indeed, I think it is an excellent idea. She is an engaging speaker. And I would swap business cards — or even texts — with her any time.

I do, however, find it demoralising that she is doing this under the imprimatur of an academic institution. That City University has introduced this “discipline” is, I fear, symptomatic of the contemporary culture to which I referred earlier and in which the august title, “professor”, is ladled out bounteously (the University of Exeter, for example, has a professor of retail and tourism management, while professors of public relations are common in America).

It is a culture that rates rap rather than Rimbaud (though, so far as I know, the rapper Professor Green has not — yet — been given university tenure) and where a curator of one of our great art collections equates Damien Hirst with Rembrandt.

In this rapid-eye-movement world, it is as valid to chase the crowd as it is to develop one’s individual ability and character. I shmooze, therefore I am. It’s enough to make Matthew Arnold turn in his grave. Arnold defined culture as the pursuit of “total perfection” by seeking out “on all the matters that most concern us… the best which has been thought and said in the world”.

But that was 143 years ago and I suspect many of today’s opinion formers dismiss it as outdated. These are the bien pensants who defend the widespread dereliction of grammar and verbal expression throughout our universities, schools and media outlets on the misunderstood ground that “language is dynamic”.
In fact, Arnold’s definition is far from backward-looking. For him, learning “the best” of thought and language (spoken and written) was with a view to “turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits”.

There is no point anyway in simply trying to hold back or retrieve time. Not even the North Koreans can do that. And, as a result of the spread of internet technology, we do actually live in a most exciting time.
Needless to say, Professor Hobsbawm makes much of social media technology. She is certainly alive to its democratic potential. But then, the it’s-not-what-you-know-but-who-you-know ethos of networking is hardly democratic. Rather, it is the opposite; it is nepotistic.

Professor Hobsbawm also cites as an example of her brave new academic world the fact that Lady Gaga has millions of followers on Twitter. That’s terrific, but Lady Gaga is an entertainer, not an educator. Yielding up the advances in internet technology to the maw of modern popular culture sadly privileges such inane outpourings as footballers’ tweets.

The professor also revealed that her favourite Twitter topic is The X Factor. Now, how many other professors could say that? A minyan? (Don’t answer that, I’m depressed enough.)
At least Julia Hobsbawm agrees with Matthew Arnold that human curiosity is important. “Curiosity,” she says, “is very zeitgeist.”

Zeitgeist, shmeitgeist! I hate to tell you, Prof, but curiosity has been around even longer than shmooze — and is far more stimulating.

    Last updated: 3:59pm, August 14 2012