A few years ago my mentor and I were chatting over coffee. I was nearly finished my dissertation and was in what I can only describe as a state of heightened anxiety. In addition to worrying about finding a job I was feeling adrift. While I had made good friends in my PhD programme I did not have people who were working in similar areas to mine. When I looked to my peers at my own institution and elsewhere it seemed as though there were many people who were falling into natural intellectual communities. There were reading and writing groups being formed, conferences being organized or attended. I was talking with my mentor about this and she said something simple that has stuck with me. She was talking about her favourite annual conference–an international one–and said that practically all of her intellectual community was there. When I asked her what she meant she told me that she found her intellectual community–those people with whom she did her best and most generative thinking, writing, and imagining–by going to interdisciplinary conferences.
It had only occurred obliquely to me that I would have to search out an intellectual community beyond the borders of my own institution. Sure, I had friends and acquaintances elsewhere, but how is one to forge a functioning intellectual community with colleagues who are far-flung? Here are a few ideas based on my own trial and –often–error. (You can find additional suggestions at the University of Venus’s Networking Challenge):
1) Talk to your peers about their work. Tell them about your own!
After that first semester of the MA or PhD, or the orientation session for the new job how often do we really sit down and talk about our work with our most geographically close communities? There’s something to be said for proximity. Proximity affords the luxury of hanging out, of chatting, of slow thinking together. Is it possible there are people on your own hallway whose work might chime with yours? Besides, talking about your work puts your own trademark on it, in addition to the benefits you get from the input of others.
2) Proximity isn’t enough, you need structure.
Sure, there is something quite wonderful about serendipity, but we’ll get there in a moment. If you want to forge an intellectual community that is sustainable you need a plan and you need to delegate. First, the plan: do you want to read together? Talk? Write? Identify the aims of your group and set some parameters. How often will you meet? Who will facilitate? What is everyone responsible for when you do meet? What will people get out of it? This last question is kind of a doozy. I’ve spoken to several friends who have attempted to start writing groups at their own institutions with varying degrees of success. While it would be wonderful to believe that people want to get together for the love of the work that isn’t always the case. Start with a clear structure and aim and the cult following will come.
3) DIY is great, but don’t reinvent the wheel. Find a conference and commit.
I have a tendency to take things into my own hands, and that has its benefits for sure, but it is also tiring, often lonely, and it can be a real waste of energy. For those who are affiliated with major research projects the forging of an intellectual community is a bit more organic: network both within and outside your group! But if, like me, your work isn’t affiliated with a clear-cut community then try committing to an annual conference. I started attending Congress when I was an Masters student. I was overwhelmed and excited. I was also pretty lonely, but I kept going. It seemed as though there were so many exciting people doing incredible work. I just wanted to be around them. Stick with it and you’ll start to meet people.
4) Look beyond your horizons. Cold call someone whose work you admire.
This is tricky, I’ll admit. However, we all know the handful of people whose work we turn to again and again. Consider introducing yourself. Who knows, you might strike up a correspondence, or you might not. The only thing that is certain is the you wont know until you try.
Do you feel you have an intellectual community? How did you find or forge it? Do you have any advice for other readers?
5 thoughts on “Find or Forge: Locating Your Intellectual Community”
Thanks Erin, this advice is useful.
I think one of the really good points you make that I have to remember is that proximity is not enough. There are other people who do roughly what I do in my general area, but without a formal reading group or even coffee group, we end up being mere faces. It ends up being, “Oh, hey, there's that guy who studies early modern gender stuff… wonder what he's working on? Crap, 100 student emails, guess I should get to REAL work!”
That is really true. My housemate and I keep meaning to set up regular groups, actually. None of us studies the same thing, but even having people to share a study space with helps me, anyway. I think the “real work” problem is what prevents a lot of us from forming regular work/study groups with people doing similar work.
In my department–a Modern Languages & Lit shop, with people from many national literature and language traditions working side by side–several pre-tenure women set up a writing/reading group where we read each other's article and conference submissions. It did not last forever and for a time threatened to get too big but what it set out to do–give each of us a pre-read of things we felt were important for making our tenure file shine–it did quite well. As a plus, we learned what our colleagues were working on in languages we couldn't read. If you set a goal, i.e. we'll each get one thing read by the group this year, and then re-evaluate your group at the end of the period, you can make even shorter-term communities work and bring lasting benefit.
Also, as a grad student I began attending the annual Women in German conference (on the recommendation of another grad student who had been invited by her undergrad mentor). It is a small conference attended by mostly women who all do some sort of feminist scholarship related to German literature, film, pedagogy, or cultural studies. Very few people in the group “do” what I do, but they are all an educated and appreciative audience for my group and were IMMENSELY supportive as I went through the job hunt, the mid-tenure and tenure reviews and, lately, my move into administration and a new round of academic soul searching.
While nobody in my intellectual community has helped me build my hut on my island of nineteenth-century literature for German girls, their intellectual an critical priorities are similar to mine; they are great readers and a good audience; and their (more contemporary) literary and theoretical agendas have helped me to keep my scholarship and teaching fresh.
This is a different type of intellectual community, but a few of my peers at different Unis and a few independent scholars are planning on putting together a small creative writing club. We are too busy right now, but we hope to have a few good people. So far we have someone who does comedy sketches, someone who does fan fic and short stories, and then a few who write poetry and short stories–but all very different styles and foci. We wanted a safe and inclusive environment to workshop ideas without being bound by uni affiliation.
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