Reading through the old notes and papers that I’ve stuck in a closet and not touched for almost a decade, compiled from the decade of professional work before that (so the 1990s), is a sobering experience. On one hand, I’m struck by some of the consistencies in my thinking and interests, even in areas that felt to me today as if they’re newer or fresher areas of engagement. On the other hand, I was much more engaged in a constant stream of analog contacts with other scholars, building my networks and connections. I’m probably just as engaged today in some raw quantitative sense, but my digital sociality feels more embedded in the flow of everyday life, less formal. It leaves less of a paper trail, requires less conscious effort.
If I were going to map my social networks between the 1990s and now, I can also see some big differences that are a function of seniority (most of my contacts then were between myself as a junior person with peers who were also just starting as assistant professors or with senior people who were inviting me to participate in an event, a project or to do peer review work); a function of disciplinarity (most of my contacts then were with Africanists; today, my networks are much more diffuse in subject matter and disciplinarity); and a function of relative comfort (most of my “social labor” then is palpably more anxious and even aggressive in its feeling). There’s a difference in work-life balance that I can see acutely: all of this material comes from before I had a child, a house, or a sense of having burrowed into a community for good. I don’t ever seem to worry about time or shared domestic obligations in these old letters and conversations when I’m going to meetings, conferences, research sites.
The difference that’s hardest for me to put my finger on, though, is about a kind of transformation between then and now in what I care about most, about where my heart is. Reading these old materials, I cared much more about the maintenance and state of “Africanist scholarship” for itself and as itself, as a coherent object of collective curatorial concern in which I was one small member of that collective. I didn’t start to care very intensely about academia as a whole or the particular institution of Swarthmore College until I was tenured, until I put down roots. I mean, I cared, but I didn’t think about or write about or engage those concerns in a sustained way until after that point.
The flip side of that change is that I can see things more clearly in retrospect that were starting then to really bother me about scholarly life, ways of being and doing that I wasn’t even very aware about during my unsatisfying experiences in graduate school. Reading through my letters and papers, I’m a bit overwhelmed by seeing the tidal flow of unstinting generosity and petty cruelty through small scholarly networks built around specialization, noting how the ebb and flow of those tides become more and more intensely visceral the smaller those networks were. I’m embarrassed both because I often wasn’t as generous as exemplary people and because I sometimes dished out some of those small cruelties in reviews or other communications. I’m not saying that scholarly conversation should always be courtly and pleasant, or that there’s nothing at stake in it, but I think I went through a transition in my life where I suddenly found it viscerally stomach-churning to be in a conversation or a room where there was someone who wielded their personal command over microhistorical trivia like it was a license to kill.
The best way to get out of that room for me has been to care more about a much wider and more diffuse set of issues and to switch channels frequently. I describe myself as easily distracted in ways that aren’t entirely in my psychological and emotional control. But also I see distractability as an ethos, a way of being engaged and passionate while also being able to slip away if the stakes start to be too high, if too much weight is being put on any particular problem or focal point. Distractability and detachment are close kin for me. I’m much more comfortable now knowing that my greatest strength is spontaneous engagement, quick synthesis, on-the-spot explanations. I used to think that none of that was proper for a scholar, that scholars were about meticulous, incremental accumulation of comprehensive knowledge and precise selectivity about when and how to communicate that knowledge, that a scholar was someone with intense, persistent focus caught up in a lifetime of indignant crossing of swords over the substance of footnotes.
I’m sure that my version of strategic distractability feels like passive-aggressiveness at times to those I’m dealing with, and I’m sorry if and when it does. But on the whole, this seems to me like a saner way to live and a smarter way to care about the things that matter: it’s my version of wisdom, for whatever that’s worth.