This Academic Life
In previous entries I have written about the sort of worlding that emerges from (s)wordplay and argument. But this is by no means the only type. I am aware of this, but recently I was reminded of another type: the kind of communal presence-ing that derives from communal endeavor, in which a (small) group alternates between performing and debriefing about their performance. That is what I always loved best about participation in choirs: working through rehearsals, discussing the performance beforehand, performing, and then reflexively reviewing and critiquing the performance afterwards. It's a very specific form of worlding, of a somewhat different flavor than the (s)wordplay kind; where the latter is borne on mutual exhaustion and a momentary stand-still, a kind of divine stalemate that abruptly produces stillness at the heart of the conflagration, the former involves communal effort towards a single goal, a shared endeavor within which everyone participating can become embedded -- at least for the duration. I know you and you know me through the work, rather than by taking one another's measure and working towards a mutual respect ushered in through noble combat.

[I think that these two can be combined, at least in principle: "we" work together to produce a response to "them," and vice versa. If it works properly, the moment of mutual respect dissolves both groups, at least temporarily. But I suspect that it rarely works like this, and that what happens in practice involves a continued clash until one side wins at least a temporary victory. But that's a different issue entirely.]

One of the odder things about academia is that most of what one does for a living does not involve this kind of worlding. Classroom teaching, except in rare circumstances, is a solo act; there are no collaborators and coconspirators to share the experience with. Publishing? The contours of the modern academic market work against co-authored work in most circumstances; I know several stories of such collaborations being actively discouraged by Rank&Tenure committees. Even the arrangement of panels for a conference is often just a series of solo performances: people meet, say their piece, and leave after a few pleasantries. Edited volumes? I have been in several where I have not even met many of the other authors. And the one edited volume I was involved in which grew out of a workshop didn't breed much of a sense of common endeavor. Search committees? Don't get me started on those. Ditto departmental decisions about designing programs and the like; a few committee meetings and a vote to approve doesn't quite cut it.

Indeed, I think it's problematic to regularly expect that kind of commonality among academics. Academia was, after all, designed for and by monks, and each of us is constitutively sealed in our little cells wrapped up in our own research and our own teaching. The exceptions to this are few and far between, and greatly to be prized:

1) co-authorship. Collaborating with someone to produce a piece of writing can produce that kind of connexion, although it need not -- I know of occasions where it has not. But when one can get away with it, and where one can take it seriously, there is a good deal of communal worlding to be explored there.

2) group projects. Throwing a workshop can produce the worlding of common endeavor between the coordinators, I think, as can the planning and execution of a conference or even a panel. but those dynamics can be odd: I once put together a roundtable (parenthetically, I think it may be easier to do this kind of thing with a roundtable than with a panel, given that panels demand papers whereas roundtables only call for memos or thoughts -- but this may also be a function of the kinds of papers involved) with six participants, and by the time it reached print we only had four left because of internal tensions and the like. Plus, the post-roundtable discussion was mostly about the substance of the arguments, and not so much about the communal endeavor itself.

Indeed, this is the problem: academics talk about their work. They don't talk much about the circumstances that produce it, or the formal and stylistic aspects of it -- it's not like musicians after a concert discussing their performance and that of others. It can be, but in my experience only is so rarely.

3) co-teaching, or, since that is not as common as I would like for it to be, the kind of co-teaching that involves one's TAs. TAs who are there in the classroom get to watch and assist; they occupy a unique position, in that they get to participate in something that is otherwise a very solitary performance. So one can debrief with them afterwards, and plan future activities, and engage in the kind of reflexive critique that results in better performances. Or at least results in that common endeavor sensibility.

At the conference this past weekend I (re-)discovered that conferences can be like performances, and can be like communal performances. I go say my piece at a panel, someone else says theirs, and later on we can compare notes, see what the effect was as observed by other people, talk about whether the resulting atmosphere was desirable…

Conferences can be performances in that way. I and my colleagues running around and working to interject points and shift the conversation(s), looking for people saying interesting things, even identifying morons who need to be publicly opposed: there's a pleasant commonality throughout that is missing in large portions of the academic life as I have experienced it to date. During the debrief sessions (generally in the bar, as usual) I did feel like I was, for a few moments, a part of some larger common enterprise. It's different than bitch sessions or gossip sessions, both of which are important parts of what goes on at conferences; where those involve huddling in the wings and comparing notes, this is more like playing. And the difference, I think, is two-fold:

1) this kind of worlding is produced by treating the conference as a game that we're all playing together, a game with rules and conventions and implicitly some way to keep score. I can envision -- and I have indeed played -- conference games with teams of (s)wordfighters, but this need not always be the case; there can also be more pedagogical games, or things like that game in the stands during sports events where you need to keep the beachball bounding between people and not let it touch the ground…

2) there is explicit and reflexive attention played to the context itself, to the conference and to the way it is organized and playing out. Talking about the field, or about the substance of the papers presented, or about politics, is good and helpful and fulfilling, but the special distinctiveness of this sort of worlding is that the subject-matter is the performative endeavor itself.

I wonder if the reason that this doesn't happen more often has to do with people not taking the conference seriously enough as performance. I often see people looking through it to the content of the arguments presented, or missing it entirely to focus on particular individuals (conferences as giant reunions) or on other, ancillary activities. And while at a conference I certainly do all of these from time to time. But there is also the rare distinctiveness of the activity itself, which is one of the very few moments of communal activity that this strange academic life seems to afford us. [Yes, teaching is communal between students and professor. But it's hard to debrief afterwards and run the class as a collaboration, given the authority relations involved. With my TAs some of that authority is displaced because of the common relation of each of us to the class members proper, and the same happens between senior and junior colleagues at a conference when both are playing together. The kind of worlding I'm after here involves relations between more or less equals, so that everyone is involved together in producing the outcome. Also, most students still think of classes as a technique for getting to matters of content, so they look through the class itself instead of focusing on the performance in the way that the professor and TAs do or can.]

We are often too concerned with tangible results in this business; we don't spend enough time on the process. And we don't spend anywhere near enough time reflexively monitoring that process in the way that generates that marvelous sense of being backstage with others, working together to generate a moving performance.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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