I am in the midst of one of the most amazing intellectual experiences of my life. It has got me thinking about the isolated and competitive, scarcity-based, defensive kinds of work we normally do as scholars and how, actually, we don’t have to work that way. That we could, instead, be generous, and generative, and collaborative, and that working this way produces more and better scholarship, of course, but also builds and tends interpersonal and research networks that can make this work a joy rather than a terror.
The catch is that it’s kind of expensive. And that it runs counter to how we imagine that excellence is produced.
What I want to tell you about is a workshop I attended this summer, in the context of a special issue of the journal Biography, dedicated to the concept of “biographic mediation” developed by Ebony Coletu.
I am going to break to post into two parts. Today’s post will be about the magic of bringing people together in real time and real geography, and feeding and watering them, and putting them to work on a shared goal. About how this magic is expensive and undervalued and available in diminishing quantities but is worth fighting for. Next week, I’ll write about what it means to be a generous reader, a “believing reader” in my friend Frankie Condon’s phrase, and how such generous readings can produce much better scholarship than we can create in the standard peer review setup.
Today, then, let’s consider the materialities of workshopping for a moment. This really matters, much more than we (or our funders) tend to give us credit for.
- The sponsoring journal paid for everyone’s travel, lodging, and food. (I have to mention, this was travel, lodging, and food in Hawaii, where the journal is based.)
- Again: they paid for everything.
- Lunches and breakfasts were catered with local Hawaiian food, and the cultural and geographic context of place were foregrounded and shared. Place and culture were made meaningful (perhaps more so because we were there during the Hurricane Lane crisis and were surrounded by sandbags and advised to stockpile food and water.) Dinners were undertaken as a group; everyone’s dietary needs were supported.
- The schedule was produced with ample (catered) breaks factored in, and each of us had a packet of information about special features of the campus and neighbourhood.
- Local hosts were incredibly generous and kind: picking us up from the airport, driving us to hotels and events, taking notes so the group could just talk, doing everything they could to make us feel safe and comfortable during the hurricane emergency. Craig Howes, one of the journal’s editors, knows that I run–he took me out on daily 5am runs around the campus and neighbourhood, a fount of local knowledge (“I used to see Haruki Murakami running along this road”), and, during the major rain storm, to his secret five-storey parking garage run route (not as weird as you think!).
If you are a faculty member, and particularly if you apply for grants, you will know that it’s nearly impossible to even justify attending a regular conference. It is well nigh impossible to imagine putting in a grant request to fly 8-10 people to a campus, pay all their expenses, and do group editing. I mean, we have Skype, and Google docs, and, hell, even email and track changes, right?
No. There is something magical and intense about being together, in a room, for three days. There is something about looking people in the eye as 15 of us work on the same problem at the same time, everyone scribbling. You can see some people nodding, others frowning, others pull out their phones to look something up. People finish each others sentences, cross-talk, laugh, roll their eyes, look delighted. It is an intensely embodied process, communication across textual, gestural, oral, and digital channels simultaneously, in ways that no other technology than In Person Meeting can really handle. It was an incredibly rich communication environment, multi-channel. I cannot believe how much we got done, how far everyone’s ideas developed.
All of this felt incredibly, well, human to me, attending to the whole person, intellectual, corporeal, social, emotional, in ways I have given up expecting to be recognized at work. I could have cried from simple gratitude at the attention and thoughtfullness with which we were fed and housed and just generally cared for during our time together.
When we come together, we make human connections. In the evenings, little groups gathered over wine or tequila or tea, and talked about TV shows, our jobs, our families, our hobbies, and, inevitably, our scholarship. By the end of it there was a lot of hugging: I met some absolutely incredible people I am honoured to now call colleagues and friends. Not unrelated to this, I have never ingested so many new ideas in three days in my life. Never felt so supported and cared for in an academic setting.
We like to think we can cheat time and expense. We like to think an email can take the place of a meeting, or a webinar can take the place of a conference. A lot of our digital tools are a lot better, though, at pushing reams and streams of information into our heads. They’re really no good for collaboration, in a lot of ways. We like to think we can devote ourselves fully to a conference call even as we try to tidy the kitchen. We like to think we’re going to find a five hour block of time to read all those papers and send careful feedback, without taking anything else off the schedule. But multitasking is bullshit: getting together in one place to do a shared task is often the most efficient and best way to get that task done. Yes, we have to not do all the other things, but we already do way too many things, and the more we do at once, the worse we do it. Workshops resist speed-up. There are structural reasons we multitask and cut corners the way we do, and this is often framed as an advantage–but it isn’t. Doing one thing, making the time, saying no to other things, is really valuable. It is, also, a privilege most of us can’t access, to everyone’s detriment, I think.
Our institutions and our funders, of course, would like us to not leave campus for five days, would like to not pay for us to go to conferences when we can read journals instead, not go to workshops when we could Google docs instead, not have catered meals for the day long meetings, not pay for overnight stays. Of course. But it’s penny-wise and pound foolish, if I can judge from what this workshop got done for me and everyone else.
It is not enough to put on the SSHRC application that you need conference funding to go to a conference. You have to say what is of value at that conference that you can’t get with just publishing and reading. And now of course no one can be funded to attend a conference without presenting at that conference, which has led inevitably to incredibly bloated conference programs where everything is so frantic no one learns anything–and where, often, all the coffee breaks are cancelled to make room for more sessions so more academics can justify the cost to come together and rush past each other in massive hotel hallways always trying to do three things at once.
So here’s to getting together, in small groups, in nice settings. Here’s to the mix of structured and unstructured time, to formal and informal interactions, to attending to and appreciating the specificity of the place you are and the people you are with. Here’s to making time, and making space, to produce and nurture a collective that is greater than the simple sum of its far-flung parts.
And a parting idea–the journal Biography gets the money together to do this every year, from its JSTOR revenues. It is a very high quality journal and draws a lot of page views and citations. One of the editors, in fact, tells me that their most popular and most cited issues are these self-same (two time award winning) annual special issues that come out of this intense and expensive workshop process. It’s something to think about.