A wired life with room to think

It’s no secret that an academic historian’s life is cyclical, tied to the ebb and flow of the teaching term, exams and papers, and “breaks” that allow for snatches of intense archive or library time. In the wake of the AHA this year, I’ve become more acutely aware of other cycles—and of my need to be more intentional in creating them or at least managing the flow.

Photograph taken by Jared C. Benedict on 26 February 2002. © Jared C. Benedict. Wikimedia Commons

I live in a semi-wired world.

At a meeting like the AHA, given my unwillingness to lug my not-so-light laptop to the wireless café zone, I went unplugged, quite happy to connect to my friends and colleagues face to face and to let the digital world race by without me. But that means I’ve spent a week catching up on emails, tweets, and blog posts, along with the rest of my teaching, research, and personal life, all of which went on hiatus for the four days of the conference.

For me, this kind of cycle—moving intensely into a conference for a few days—needs a different kind of planning on my part. And I’m only now starting to figure it out. I’m still mulling over the implications of research panels I attended , as I work to integrate comments from the teaching panel I was on into a paper I’d thought was abandoned—but that makes sense to me again in light of conversations I had at the meeting. I’m doing this work as I physically work around the stack of books I acquired at the book exhibit, but haven’t yet made time to put away (where I’ll find them when it comes time to teach with them in the spring quarter).

I consistently plan for the run-up to a conference: finish the paper on time, read the work of my co-panelists, get in touch with friends and colleagues to make sure we’ll see each other at the meeting. But I have not specifically planned follow up time. Instead, it’s back to work on Monday, but more so, since a few days absence means some catching up to do.

This week I was blessed by an abundance of intellectual stimulation after the conference: a great panel of graduate research in progress at UCI’s CGPACS; Susan Ferber’s amazing talk on academic publishing; and a stimulating talk by Ann Jensen Adams at the Southern California Netherlandish Studies working group. With so many new conversations starting up in a week where I was conscious of still trying to digest the import of conversations in previous days at the AHA, I felt acutely aware of the tension between nostalgic notions of the scholar as a deliberative and introspective thinker, a reader and writer with time to ruminate—and a socially networked, interfaced and interactive collaborator.

Both identities are attractive—and possible. Figuring out how to preserve time for reflection when so much new material is flying at you poses a significant challenge for the twenty-first century scholar. Energized by a steady stream of exciting conversations, I’m more determined than ever to manage the cycles of intellectual production, consumption, and interaction that work to organize a scholar’s life as strongly as the dictates of the academic calendar.

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