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.