academic reorganization · job notes · slow academy · turgid institution

The social scholar

How much of the life of the mind is solitary, and how much is social?

I got incensed yesterday by an article by William Pannapacker in the Chronicle of Higher Education on introversion and extraversion and the contemporary university. I admire Pannapacker: he’s a great writer, and pulls no punches, and it’s been interesting to watch him describe what’s happening in one of my fields, digital humanities, in which he’s an interested beginner. I have, in fact, written him fan emails years ago when he was still writing under a pseudonym there. So I was dismayed to see this particular piece, and the comments it engendered: it’s introverts versus extraverts, with some name calling.

I said my piece in the comments there, and even I got derailed into some essentialist arguments. What I want to think about today is a little different, distinct from who has what personality and such. I want to think structurally.

We refer, often, to the profession of professor as dedicated to the life of the mind. But what exactly does that mean? What picture does that call up in your mind? For me, I usually see some American looking Ivy League style library, or a well-appointed faculty office lit by an incandescent bulb ensconced in a tasteful table lamp, and sitting there is a man in a tweed jacket, reading a book. (Really, I am a professor, but my mental image of the idealized case of the life of the mind is some dude from the cliché). If I stretch, I see someone leading a small seminar with a dozen students, or lecturing to a big hall.

So the life of the mind in my imagination doesn’t actually match my experience or my own ideals, really.

Most of our reward structures in higher education are geared toward rewarding the fruits of solitary endeavour: peer-reviewed articles and scholarly monographs are the primary currency of faculty assessment from “R1” universities and increasingly on down to community colleges. Plaques and pats on the head are awarded for good or excellent teaching, and teaching ostensibly constitutes 40% of what we are assessed on at year end. But it’s telling that there’s no prescribed format on a CV for documenting teaching, but Victorianesque gradations and hierarchies of research output and its documentation. And when’s the last time anyone but a student evaluated your teaching, by actually witnessing it? And it is significant to note that when a university wants to be taken more seriously on the world stage one way it does so is by reducing the number of courses that faculty members have to teach. Service work, I think we can all agree, is something that matters–in the assessment sense, which is where the rubber hits the road–barely at all, unless one takes on a major administrative post where suits and regular business hours are required.

So the life of the mind that the university promotes and rewards looks pretty solitary, too: most important is solo-authored writing projects, less teaching is better for everyone, and being good at meetings matters hardly at all.

Let me reframe: in the way the university generally rewards (and thus seeks to shape) faculty behaviour, it pushes us away from the collective or the interpersonal and towards isolation and solitary work.

Is that how universities actually best function? I would put teaching at the centre of what a university is for, and teaching is among the least solitary activities I can imagine. Teaching, for me, is trying to win the hearts and minds of 40 individuals, while pushing them hard to conquer difficult material. Teaching is about figuring out the audience and plotting how to get them where I need to know: I have the knowledge, but if they don’t get on board, the ship of knowledge I’m trying to pilot is a ghost vessel. And service work. I don’t want to talk about meetings (much less go to them) but it’s hard to overstate how much the conditions of our work are debated and set in committees: curriculum, policy, new programs, new buildings, discipline. Pretty much all of it.

And this work is all social. You need to work with other people to get it done.

What I really wanted to write about today is the sociality of scholarship and the opportunities presented by social media. But just reading my (really long) setup above, I begin to see why many, many in the profession look askance at professorial blogging and tweeting and even conference-going or workshop attending. It’s of a piece with the more general elevation of solitary scholarly production and the deprecation of anything taking place in rooms (virtual or otherwise) with more than one person in them.

Hm. Maybe I’ll have to come back to this. But for now, I mostly think the idea that the institution discriminates in some meaningful way against solitary practices is bunkus: it looks like there’s a lot of teaching and meetings and events that we’re all supposed to go to, but at base these are all secondary or tertiary to the main thing.

2 thoughts on “The social scholar

  1. I read the article to which you refer and my impression is that the author feels disheartened and even resentful and his view is not at all balanced. I am an introvert, and I struggle to improve my oral presentation skills, but because being an academic is important to me I devise strategies to help me strive in the more social arenas like networking at conferences and workshop, and in interviews or meetings with potential supervisors or committee members. My enthusiasm for the work outweighs my introversion, so I can seem like an extravert. I think it would be more helpful to encourage students to develop strategies to help them succeed in the social arenas rather than being fatalistic.


  2. Ironically, I teach my students in my pscyh 101 course that personality theory is not terribly scientific, as all of the tests (not just the MBTI) are neither reliable nor valid. There are also other great personality theories out there that go overlooked which take into account the situation that the person is in. I think that theories like that, while more complex, are much more grounded in reality.

    At any rate, I was initially attracted to academia because I prefer solitary pursuits, and was disappointed to find out that there's really nothing solitary about it. In the sciences, a paper published by a single author is quite rare. There's no such thing as a solitary lab. You have to teach and interact with people all the time. Academia is more accepting I think of quirky behavior, and social awkwardness, but one is still expected to hold their own in a discussion and to communicate effectively a message to others, whether in a small or large setting.

    If anything, like the commenter above, academia has helped me to hone some more extroverted skills, and learn how to command attention. But I'll never get past my base autonomic nervous system response of People Looking At Me = heart racing, shakes and terror!


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