The social life of the academic

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites authors to guest-blog. This week’s featured blogger is Joel F. Harrington, author of The Changing Face of Violence.

I’ve devoted some time this week to J.H. Hexter’s classic 1954 work, “The Historian and his Day.” Today, I’ll focus on the social life of academics. This passage recounts a typical midday break, after a morning of teaching:

“Then comes lunch with a few of my colleagues. Conversation at lunch ranges widely through professional shoptalk, politics, high and ghostly matters like religion, the nature of art or the universe, and the problems of child rearing, and finally academic scuttle butt. At present there is considerable discussion of the peculiar incongruence between the social importance of the academic and his economic reward. This topic has the merit of revealing the profound like-mindedness, transcending all occasional conflicts, of our little community.”

Once more, I found myself having more in common with Hexter than with my current fellow historians. As I’ve observed, few academics still enjoy such collegial lunches (as I regularly do); most tend to eat either at their desks or at home. Obviously, my profession attracts a fair number of introverts, and all of us (including in Hexter’s day) tend develop daily routines that best suit our own personal inclinations and interests. Still, I think that there are two broader developments at work that help explain what seems to be a generational shift.

The first is a general transformation of the work-leisure balance in American society. Americans have always prided themselves on being hard-working, but over the past few decades, this core value seems to translate ever more into longer work hours, an increasingly blurred division between home and work, and less face-to-face sociability, especially at the work force.

Unlike hourly workers or many other professionals, academics have an enviable amount of unstructured time. This means that we can do most of our research and writing and whatever time of the day best suits our temperaments as well as our other teaching and personal commitments. Yet rather than provide more time for conversations colleagues, the perceived demand for ever greater productivity has resulted in a wariness about what might be perceived as “frivolous” — or at least “non-productive” — interactions.

I do in fact spend a fair amount of time discussing all the topics Hexter mentions with my colleagues, but not nearly as much as I expected I would when imagining this career. The endless intellectual and artistic debates of my undergraduate fantasies were probably never the reality anywhere, but I have no doubt that there was a stronger sense of a local community among university professors in the past. (And I am a member of an exceptionally collegial and gregarious department.)

Here, too. I think the current state of affairs among academics reflects a wider social change. Americans in the 1950s had far fewer social opportunities than we do today. The Vanderbilt of Hexter’s day, for instance, was an island of transplants from around the country, situated in a deeply traditional, insular, and dry county. Collegial meals and supper clubs represented for many academics not just the best but the only intellectually stimulating option around.

Today, by contrast, we no longer even talk about “long distance” phone calls, but take immediate interaction with colleagues anywhere in the world—by e-mail, Skype, Twitter—as a given. Like people all over the globe, in other words, academics identify as much or more with virtual, online communities as with their own departments or colleges.

This is neither intrinsically good nor bad. The bigger point is that the personal experiences that shape a modern historian’s scholarship are significantly different from those of Hexter in this respect. And I just happen to be caught between the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries in my own social preferences.

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