Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Life of the mind slides

I’ve posted the slides from my AHA talk on SlideShare, and published the text (or a slightly cleaned up version of my talk) below. The talk is something of a sequel to my “Journeyman: Getting Into and Out of Academe” essay, which coincidentally I wrote ten years ago.

Unfortunately, SlideShare has a pretty limited range of fonts, and doesn’t handle comments, so I’ve had to work around both of those a bit. However, it’s still comprehensible. I think. If you just click on the slides here, you won’t get the transcript of the talk, which I’ve pasted into the comments on the SlideShare site (and also can be read after the jump; so I recommend clicking through and looking at the talk there.

When you’re looking at the first slide, look underneath the slide and click on the tab that says “Comments on Slide 1”; you’ll see the comment for that slide, and as you advance, you’ll see the comment for each later slide.

[To the tune of Keith Jarrett, “Vienna, Pt. 1,” from the album “Vienna Concert“.]

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The Life of the Mind

Talk presented at the American Historical Association, January 2008

What I want to talk about is the pursuit of the life of the mind outside the academy– something that many historians regard as an oxymoron, and something I once thought of as more or less impossible.

I got my Ph.D. in 1991, spent three years as a postdoc at Stanford and Berkeley, then two more years teaching at U.C. Davis.

In 1996, after several years on the academic job market, I left to take a job as managing editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica (back in the days when hand-coding a few course Web pages put you on the cutting edge of electronic publishing), then became a futurist in 2000. I’ve been working as a technology forecaster and futurist in Silicon Valley ever since. But I wasn’t supposed to do any of those things.

This image– one of many of Jerome in his study– better sums up where I thought I would spend my life. After all, I’m the son of a professor– a Latin Americanist who got his Ph.D. in 1970, and has been teaching ever since. I grew up on campuses, and never imagined doing anything but being a professor myself.

But internal changes in universities and academic labor markets; the breakdown of firm boundaries between the university, marketplace, and world at large; the rise of a vast intellectual service sector and the marketability of academic credentials; and the growing accessibility of scholarly tools and scholarly practices– all have changed the equation since my father’s time.

For those of us who are serious about the life of the mind, they’ve worked to both make it more necessary to think about how to live that life outside the academy; but they’ve also created resources and opportunities to make it possible.

I want to talk today about two things.

First, I’ll talk first about how historical training can be applied in the corporate world, or in the smaller world of think-tanks. My experience is that the kinds of skills historians possess are far more useful outside academia than we realize.

Second, I’ll talk about living the life of the mind anywhere: how the activities that many of us here cherish most are far more portable than they used to be.

Perhaps the best way to explain the continuities between my academic and post-academic selves is by showing a couple tag clouds.

The first, with keywords in red, shows some of the big projects I’ve worked on at the Institute for the Future, which is a non-profit think tank located in Silicon Valley. I joined IFTF in 2000, and since then have conducted research projects on science cities, corporate strategy, user-driven innovation, pervasive computing, and other topics. Most recently we started a very large, multi-year project on the future of science.

When I was a full-time historian of science, I worked on a rather different set of research projects, shown here in blue. My dissertation and first book were both on Victorian solar eclipse expeditions, and historiographically it represented a contribution to the literature on the history of astronomy; Victorian science; science and imperialism; and visual representation.

Like lots of dissertations, that project also spun out a couple side articles on visual culture in late 19th century astronomy, on gender and scientific fieldwork, and collaborations between astronomer and their printers.

And finally, I had the occasional graduate student course paper that turned into an article– smaller pieces on the geodesic dome, laboratory design, oral history and the history of science.

Finally, the green tag cloud shows the scholarly work I’ve done since leaving academia. I’ve published articles on the computer mouse; on the history of Silicon Valley; the uses of STS (science and technology studies) in the business world; and the uses of spaces and media in business meetings. Most recently, I’ve been working on a project on the end of cyberspace, which is part history of cyberspace, part examination of the future of computing and huamn-computer relations.

Looks like a pretty weird intellectual space, when you put it all together. But I think there are some common overarching themes.

Running through all these disparate projects are three big interests.

The first is an enduring interest in how knowledge is made— or, as we used to say when I was in graduate school, in the social construction of knowledge– whether it’s knowledge about the chemical composition of the solar corona, or knowledge about the future.

The second is the materiality of knowledge: the ways media or materials help shape the way we think, collaborate, and reason.

Finally, I like to understand what people really do, whether they’re doing scientific fieldwork in the 19th century, building geodesic domes, or peering into cyberspace. In all kinds of contexts, studying practices and the fine details of people’s work can tell us an awful lot.

So what does my experience teach?

1) Self-fashioning.

First, you can do serious, rewarding intellectual work outside the academy. It’s possible to continue working on research projects, or to find the intellectually interesting element of what you do.

You need to carve out some time for yourself. This does require discipline– just like it does when you’re an academic. I exercise a lot less, and sleep a little less, than I would like.

You also need some tactical shrewdness. Working a 40-hour job doesn’t necessarily leave you a huge amount of free time, so you have to think about projects that are more doable: that can be done using local archival resources, that you can do archival research on during vacations, that revisit things you worked on in grad school but never finished.

It also really helps to have access to JSTOR or other online resources. I get this through a Stanford affiliation, but plenty of universities offer alumni ongoing library access. The digitization of these collections, and of academic resources more generally, has made a difference for people on-campus, but it makes a HUGE difference when you’re off-campus.

2) Fewer (different) boundaries.

You can do different work– and that’s a good thing. You have opportunities to write for different kinds of places, and to develop ideas and arguments outside the format of the monograph, article, and conference talk. I’ve got a couple blogs that I use to develop ideas.

Of course, you don’t have to stop doing more familiar kinds of writing. Of 17 articles I’ve published in scholar journals or volumes, 12 appeared after I left Davis (and I’ve got another ten magazine pieces or op-eds, and a couple dozen book reviews). Right now I’ve got an article making its way through the pipeline of a peer-reviewed journal, and two in edited collections. My first book came out in 2002, and I’m halfway through a second big project, on the history and future of cyberspace.

You can create new ways to be useful and interesting to your field.

I bring a value to science studies very different from that that I’d bring if I were a professor. When I was at Britannica, I was able to play on my expertise in electronic publishing to do some work for scholarly journals; that also led to an editorial board seat. Now, I do work that brings me into contact with a lot of the kinds of people I used to study, and this has let me see new ways of leveraging STS in the business world.

3) The university isn’t the only place to pursue the life of the mind.

One of the downsides of learning to be a scholar– and it’s a tough thing to learn how to do– is that you come to believe that the only place you can pursue the life of the mind is in the academy– or more precisely, the kinds of research universities that have trained you. My father is a professor, so I was especially willing to believe this.

But particularly in a knowledge economy, this assumption is rubbish. For young scholars, it does two bad things: it makes them less willing to think seriously about the opportunities they could pursue in the non-academic world; and it helps foster a willingness to take poorly-paying, temporary jobs within the academy.

What’s special about academia is that it gives you the right to act like a professor– it’s access to a certain kind of culture, and one super-concentrated version of intellectual work. But it isn’t the only place that takes ideas seriously, or provides a venue in which you can create opportunities to think and write seriously. Today, academia is just one place to pursue ideas, and not always the best one– just as it’s one place to be entrepreneurial, but not always the best one.

You need to lose the tacit assumption that academia is the only place where people are serious about ideas, and pursue ideas seriously.

4) Finally, the sacrifices necessary to live the life of the mind are really choices.

For all kinds of reasons, we think that in order to pursue the life of the mind, we have to move to places where we don’t know anyone, to take jobs we may not be enthusiastic about, put off family and children– all in order to pursue big ideas and write what we want. Lots of us do it. Lots of our friends to it. It’s such a commonplace it’s hard to imagine that the assumption is wrong.

But it IS wrong. The sacrifices we think we have to make aren’t necessary. There certainly can be nobility in making them; but if you want to pursue the life of the mind, you don’t need to stay in the academy, and you certainly don’t need to sacrifice everything else that makes a life worth living to be a scholar.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for posting this Alex. It will be a useful link for many and serves as a kind of retrospective on your ‘Journeyman Project’.

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