In travel, detours present unlikely possibilities. As an academic, I have taken very few of these in my quest to get published and move at the top of my specialization. I have always taken a purposeful approach towards my time and effort-- whether attending a conference (network! find publication outlets! project collaborators!) or picking a topic to read or write about (must tie in with the military! build up, not out, onto existing corpus of personal publication!). I live my life like my subject of specialization: mission-oriented, parsimonious and driven. Stopping along the roadside to smell the flowers has never been my thing.
But in the past few weeks, I have embarked on activities which took me out of my well-trodden path as Political Scientist and military expert. I attended a university system-wide research workshop on the environment which brought together natural/physical and social scientists in one roof. This literal meet-and-greet was a first in my University, where faculty members are accustomed to talking only to their kind. Having a conversation with a marine biodiversity expert, an agricultural economist and a medical epidemiologist was an eye opening experience for me; it also brought to the forefront a long subsumed public policy analytical lens bequeathed to me by my professors from graduate school in Boston. Rather than being out of my element, I was buoyed by my ignorance of the scientific literature.
The second was another workshop that brought together faculty members from different universities in our region to introduce and socialize the idea of doing multidisciplinary research, this time under the auspices of the government Commission on Higher Education. Contrary to my previous roles as proponent, leader or resource person, I was engaged as a facilitator, to bring together a diverse group of ten overworked (they handle 8-10 classes per semester), teaching-focused academics to hammer out a proposal on “changing family structure” in two and 1/2 days. I had to suppress my natural instincts to dominate, impose and be goal-oriented (finish all the sections!) in this exercise. In the process, I learned to listen more attentively, to be inclusive, diplomatic and life affirming.
The third was a sociological conference, at which I presented a paper on the soft technology of counterinsurgency. While this is is not my first foray into another academic discipline (the other time was with a convention of statisticians!), the kind of questions I elicited from sociologists were insightful and refreshing. Moreover, the other papers read were so engaging, current, rooted and a tinged irreverent (case in point: ethnonationalist conflict between Muslims and Christians played in social network discourse), it made me reflect on how boring and pedantic by comparison the other conferences I have been to tend to be. It also made me want to read out into sociological theories.
This out-of-discipline experience considerably expanded and deepened my worldview and network. I am being invited to a play in a sandbox, for which concrete rewards (at least those that count) are not likely to come. I am not certain whether I would eventually decide to take up the invitation. Would I be involved in a research project with them? Publish in a sociology journal? These are daunting prospects for somebody like me, still trying to earn my wings. But I am glad to at least have taken the detour.