This week, like many academics across the country, we are busy getting ready for the new term and our new and returning students. At my institution, we’ve been having a week of reflecting on pedagogy, assessment and research and it made me exceptionally grateful to have started a new job with such fine new colleagues. They don’t mind my inane questions about how systems work or, as importantly, where to get the best cup of coffee on our side of the river. Mostly importantly, I’m very lucky to work with critical and creative colleagues whose work I find fascinating and who are prepared to take time to show me the ropes in my first permanent academic post. To work with poets, playwrights, prose writers, theatre practioners and fellow critics every day is a wonderful experience, especially when they occasionally make you a cup of coffee and ask you how your syllabus is coming along.
This made me think, though, about scholarly communities of colleagues that I have been part of over the years and really grateful to how they have sustained me and my work. These have been in diverse locations and disciplines, and have involved people from different walks of life. They have been in a seminar room in London, over Facebook messaging, plotting over the strongest Americano in Limerick or wandering down a country road in Lincolnshire. Sometimes they get thanked in book acknowledgements and sometimes their contribution is too difficult to pin down for a formal thank you. What I urge you to do, though, is to be a bit shameless in seeking out colleagues in and out of your subject, institution and background. Your work and your life don’t follow these boundaries, so who is to say that your inspiration will only come from narrow sources? I have sought community in different sources and, if it hasn’t been there, I have found enough people to make something (anything is better than nothing: don’t like the naysayers win!) happen. You never know where a conversation might lead. Be proactive in making introductions, too, if you can. Even if it’s not for you, connection karma will be yours. Go to a seminar that’s slightly out of your area: when I was in Belfast I drifted along to Politics, Law and History events and some of the ideas have directly informed my own work to this day (some of them irked me enough to write against them, but that’s another form of inspiration).
Social media is obviously a great place to make connections, and the historians are particularly masterful at the hashtag. Literature people: seriously, we need to catch up (let’s forget the one time I tried to make one and accidentally scandalised the world of contemporary lit with a rude word). I can’t get over the amount of new co-conspirators I have made through social media and how well it has worked for our Irish Studies association (@BAIrishStudies): I’ve managed to meet most of the people I tweet regularly at conferences and generally once you get past the awkward ‘Er… I think I sort of might follow you’, it’s never that bad and you have an ice-breaker for that awkward conference small talk as well as a way to follow up on chats afterwards. Following hashtags allows us to keep an eye on events we can’t attend, and some of the most senior academics in our field are often the most engaged tweeters. Yes, I’ve never really got over that time I was retweeted by Mary Beard.
For anyone engaged in activism, particularly on issues of gender, sexuality, race and ableism, the concept of solidarity is obviously not a new one. Powerful generations of women and men have been consciousness raising in groups for years and I’d strongly urge you to check out Sara Ahmed’s blog Feminist Killjoy, particularly the entry on Selfcare as Warfare: http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/08/25/selfcare-as-warfare/
I’ll write something in the future about trying to balance a career with the demands of doing work that is often a challenge: Ahmed’s blog is the place I go for a different sort of community and commonality. For anyone engaged in counter hegemonic or difficult work, the onus for collegiality and support, I’d like to argue, is even greater. I’m exceptionally lucky to have a network of good people who will accept rants, offer sympathy and buy cake. These are people across the world, in my institution and inside the academy and out. Be their support, too, even the most senior colleague might want to talk out that niggling theoretical idea or ethical problem or field-work challenge. We’re all in this to share knowledge: so be grateful for community where you find it and make it where you don’t. Your work will thank you for it.