Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Life of the mind, Google Scholar edition

I noticed a traffic spike on the blog, thanks to Lexi Lord’s essay on post-academic life in the recent Chronicle of Higher Education (thanks, Lexi!). She talks about how she decided to leave a tenure-track position, and her discovery of the fact that you don’t have to be an academic to have an interesting intellectual life (and indeed, can have a more interesting one if you’re not a professor):

Because I live in a large city, as opposed to the small college towns where I was a professor, I live in a world of museums, lectures, public seminars, extraordinary bookstores, fantastic archives, and libraries. I live in a place that has racial as well as ethnic diversity. All of those factors encourage me to think about historical problems in a rigorous albeit different fashion from how I saw them in academe….

I live where a lot of archives are—which makes research easier than it was in academe. I write and publish. My new book, researched and written completely outside academe, was just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Since leaving academe, I have continued to endorse the belief that being an intellectual entails analyzing and understanding issues from multiple angles. I hope that in advising their undergraduates, academics will encourage their students to share that view. More important, I hope faculty members will encourage students to do informational interviews and extensive research on career options—before entering a Ph.D. program, which is, after all, only one path to the life of the mind.

This is always good advice, but it’s especially timely, given that last night I had an experience that reminded me of the increased feasibility of pursuing academic projects outside the university.

I recently became interested in the concept of unintended consequences, and how the term is used to either describe or excuse the unexpected. It would be obvious to start such an essay with “a Raymond Williams Keywords-like analysis of its history,” and last night I decided to poke around a little bit and see if I could find some early uses.

A little time on Google Scholar turned up the fact that Robert Merton wrote an article about the term in 1936, and died with a book on unintended consequences still unfinished– a warning that I should be very tactical in how I approach the subject. (The fact that Google Scholar has “Stand on the shoulders of giants” as its motto warms my heart, since Merton wrote a book on the phrase.) That took a few minutes.

I then jumped over to the Stanford Library Web site, to see if Poole’s Index of 19th Century Periodicals was online. When I was writing my dissertation, I spent a LOT OF TIME with Poole’s– it was an invaluable resource, and I remember many hours in the Penn and UC Berkeley libraries, looking for article citations, then tracking them down in the stacks. Instead, I quickly found the 19C Index, an online repository / directory that includes Poole’s, but also a number of other 19th century indexes, publications, scanned magazines, etc.

For the next couple hours, I tracked down various combinations of unintended, unexpected, and unanticipated, and effects or consequences; by bedtime, I had a couple pages’ worth of material written (most of it is footnotes and quotations, of course).

All this happened on my couch, with the “Biggest Loser” finale in the background.

I wouldn’t give up those days spent in the library for anything; and I still really enjoy going to libraries to read and write. But the point of the story is this: that while fifteen years ago (when I did it) successfully leaving academia but remaining intellectual required geography and attitude– I could do it because I was living in Chicago, Lexi was in DC, and we both were willing to keep a growth mindset about the next phase of our lives– today, resources like 19C make it even easier to do serious scholarly work– at least preliminary scholarly writing– without being close to libraries. I’m about three miles away from Green Library, but with kids, work, and other stuff, it’s hard to get there, and impossible to just dash over to the reference section to check up on something (as I could do when I was single and living a mile from the Berkeley campus).

So what Lexi argues in her recent piece, and what I argued years ago, is more true than ever: the raw resources for pursuing academic projects are more accessible and portable than ever. It still often requires maintaining some kind of connection with an academic institution– my Stanford affiliation gets me access to the online databases like 19C and JSTOR– and you still have to manage all the logistical stuff required to carve out time for yourself, but the Web at least seriously lowers the barriers to getting access to the resources necessary to support a real intellectual life.

I know that projects like JSTOR are intended to support academics, but I think it’s even more valuable for people who are doing serious intellectual work but who aren’t academics. These services were designed to support scholarship is doing that… but the most profound benefits aren’t going to the people they were originally designed for.

Hey. That’s an unintended consequence.

4 Comments

  1. Alex:

    Thanks so much for this piece! It sums up what I feel and have felt for a very long time.

    As you know, your essay all those years ago meant and continues to mean a tremendous amount to me. I have read and re-read it countless times.

    I also love your comments here about the ease with which people can do research now. I discovered this while writing my book—the access to online archival material was extraordinary. There are still a few kinks in this (I hope JSTOR will allow independent scholars to search their catalogues and buy articles piecemeal). But even today, I can be at home, tucked up with my laptop reading wonderful things and thinking about what I would like to research and write about next. Yes, I still love libraries and archives and being in them is fantastic but it isn’t always feasible so the online access is crucial.

    And thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for kindly writing on the CHE blog to correct the bizarre and wildly inaccurate representations many posters had of me. I am still trying to figure out if any of them actually read the piece I wrote before they wrote took out their cudgels. Really quite extraordinary and quite devastating since it was so personal and so wildly inaccurate in terms of who I am and where I have been. So, thank you, thank you, for being a voice of reason.

    Hoping you and your family are well,
    Lexi

  2. Lexi, I was mystified by some of the attacks: some seemed like curious defenses of the status quo ("the fact that I can't imagine doing this proves that the academic training system really IS meant to produce academics"), while others missed the point by arguing that only Ph.D.s from elite academic institutions can make the jump. It sucks to feel that stuck, but this isn't all your fault….

    I need to correct a couple typos in the Google Scholar piece, but thanks very much for the kind words about it. Of course, it still helps a lot to have an affiliation that gives you access to a college's electronic library subscriptions– Google Scholar can point you to things in JSTOR and Emerald Online, but to get the .pdfs you often still need to get behind a firewall– but if you can solve that non-trivial problem, you're good.

    And given the talk about cutting humanities divisions and eliminating unprofitable undergraduate programs (something that's talked a lot about here in England, where I am this week– but not in any academic institution, I hasten to add, but rather the British government and Microsoft Research Cambridge), it's even less clear that 1) being in the ivory tower provides a unique advantage in resources (like-minded people and a passion or at least tolerance for weird scholarly interests is another matter), and 2) the academy will even continue to have much space for scholarly work, as opposed to teaching and more targeted (i.e., well-funded) research.

  3. As someone who struggles with access to intellectual resources from outside academe, this really resonated with me. Why is so much knowledge locked away where non-professors cannot easily read and interact with it? Why can’t I easily access articles and books from the 20th century without having to jump through accreditation hoops to get access to reading rooms? Why can’t I logon and get this info without having to pay 30 euros each time I want to read an article? It is a crying shame.

  4. Elizabeth, I agree that the restrictions that publishers put on journals are a pain; further, that they’re unnecessarily burdensome. There are plenty of journals that even Stanford doesn’t subscribe to, and so I regularly have the experience of having to choose between shelling out $30, looking for it in the library, or passing on an article. Given that there’s always more to read, you can guess what choice I usually make.

    Having worked in publishing, I’m not unsympathetic to the idea that journals add value to articles– in editing, fact-checking, constructing a system that encourages a critical review of articles, production, etc.– that should be recognized. Perhaps younger academics will feel (or already feel) differently, but for me there’s an alchemical process that happens when an article goes into proofs: the dross of my ideas starts to look more like Knowledge. But why are electronic reprints so damn expensive? Are they assuming that any file purchased will be shared with 200 other people?

    The situation with scholarly publishing now is one in which there’s a gigantic disconnect between the ideals of the authors, for whom publishing is about recognition and accessibility, and publishers, who make financial decisions that discourage both.

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