Ten years ago, I sat with a senior colleague over coffee and listened as she pondered the future, given that her second book was published and her promotion secured. "I don't know what to do with myself, anymore," she sighed.
"Why not do you want to do?", I suggested. I admitted I envied her situation. She could invest her energy anywhere, which was not the case for me. She gasped and apologized, realizing I had just begun the tenure track.
Flash forward to the present. I'm currently in the same position she was and asking, "What now?" Although I'd like to start new projects and return to postponed ones, I'm also open to things not normally recognized as work. I don't believe in adding lines to my CV simply for the sake of it, nor do I wish to cram my annual report with more bulk.
So last semester, I set a goal of becoming more tuned in to what my colleagues publish, because that's what I wanted to do.
When most of us read, we tend to grab the material by scholars in our fields who are scattered across the country or even the world. The work of those whom we encounter on campus daily in fields different from our own usually takes a backseat.
I might regard the person in the office down the hall as someone I serve on a committee with. But what do I know about their mind when they sit at a computer with piles of research materials on their desk?
I called this venture of finding out "The Colleague Curriculum." Over a 16-week semester, I read 16 books by 16 colleagues. I prioritized books beyond my immediate field. For extra credit, I read an essay by someone whose job security doesn't require producing monographs and I listened to an album by a faculty member at the music school.
These texts comprised five by historians, four by literary or cultural studies scholars, three by creative writers, two by anthropologists, two by sociologists, one by a biologist, and one by a pianist. The authors came from seven departments and ranged from those tenured last year to those verging on retirement. When I finished each one, I emailed the author to explain what I appreciated about it.
At the beginning of the semester, I thought I might feel anxious about not putting the reading for my own research program first. That never happened. Although I would have accomplished more otherwise, following The Colleague Curriculum established new relationships and opened up unfamiliar areas of knowledge for me. I enjoyed it so much that I never yearned for different ways of spending my time.
The emails I sent authors sparked conversation. I was a new hire at my institution and eager to know people. Reading and showing interest in their work gave me something to talk about. Since I'm introverted and terrible at schmoozing over cocktails, these discussions acquainted me with new colleagues in a context where I felt comfortable.
I also read more for content than for field-specific interventions, which we tend to do when reading in our own areas. I learned about topics I wouldn't otherwise have: African soldiers who served in the German army, self-fashioning on makeover reality shows, a double murder in 19th-century Indianapolis, memory and state violence in Chile, evolutionary explanations for human sexual behavior, eugenics in Romania, and marital migration from China to Taiwan, among others.
To be fair, certain circumstances made this goal manageable. I do understand that these conditions are privileged. My university has an appropriate teaching load for its mission, which is further offset by course releases for service. Most of our service feels meaningful, not soul-killing. The administration treats faculty members with dignity and provides the resources for us to do our best. The campus culture is generous. We celebrate each other's successes.
Under these terms, which should be more common -- no, standard -- in academe, it's easy to loosen the grip on individual career advancement and invest in others.
When the semester ended, I didn't have much to show for my own writing -- only a fraction of what's typical for me. But I had these relationships and a better comprehension of the world, which will contribute much more to my workplace than yet another peer-reviewed article.
Would I do it again? As much fun as The Colleague Curriculum was, I probably won't repeat it with quite the same intensity. It does take time, and I want to finish my own work, too. But I'll definitely keep reading my colleagues' books and articles whenever I can.