Friends Who Never Leave Us Alone

Academics and friendship.

February 14, 2016

My husband, being a foreigner and trying to survive in a chaotic foreign city like Istanbul while living with me, often finds refuge in scientific documentaries on German TV channels, the broadcast of which we receive via satellite. Recently one Saturday morning, he woke up late and happy, saying that he was up all night watching a series of documentaries on the history of science. With a wide smile on his face, he started telling me about all these great men (and sometimes also women) who contributed to our modern world by their scientific discoveries. He said in a proud voice: “ You know, these are my people. They are all my friends.”.

I understood the feeling exactly.

In 2011, I attended a conference held partially in English and partially in German with no simultaneous translation.  The papers in English were fewer in number than those in German, since the conference was held in Germany mainly among German scholars. Although I did study German in the past, it was a long time ago, and my German is not good enough to follow academic presentations during conferences.  I knew that most of the conference would be in German before I went there, but I wanted to be there since the English presentations were on topics I really wanted to hear.

So what did I do over a 3 day conference during all these presentations in German?

I read.

I had printed some papers I needed to read for research at the time, I put them in a folder, took them with me and started to read them during the talks in German. It was not exactly a polite behaviour towards the speakers, but since the conference was small and the participants had learnt already that I did not speak much German, I did not worry about coming off as impolite. I could not have spent all the time feeling bored or trying to catch the little bits of German words I would recognize and then try to reconstruct the presentations through guesswork. The papers I read were very, very interesting and added a lot to my knowledge, and contained ideas and perspectives that lifted me up as well.

At the end of the first day, I felt in the company of great academics, great intellectuals.  Well, not exactly in that room at the conference where I was, since I did not understand much of what they were saying (although I am sure they were great academics as well), but in the pages I had in front of me. I did not feel alienated in an atmosphere where I did not understand the language. Instead, I had made connections and I was enjoying my crowd.

I felt indebted to them for the new things they taught me that day, for the ideas they shared, for the perspectives and visions they have opened up for me. I felt them talking to me, I felt them debating with me, I even imagined them smiling at me as they saw  the bulbs lighting up in my mind when I came across those words of theirs that my mind embraced. I was thankful that day to be an academic, for I realized that I was never alone whenever I had things to read or things to think over from those whom I had read previously.

Once, a senior professor told me that one part of the nature of the beast of being an academic was to bear loneliness, for an academic often had to work and produce alone. While I know that she was right in what she was getting at, that day, I realized that it was only part of the story: yes we academics were often alone, but we were never truly alone, since we were always in contact with great minds.

It was then that I had decided that once day I would write a blog post about this, about how other academics keep us company from a distance through things they have written and how once a person is in academia s(he) is never truly alone.  However, then other topics got in the way and I never got to write about this, until my husband reminded me of this topic last week. Today is that day when I did write this blog post to remind all of us that we are all in one another’s company, across time and space, across disciplines, and across methodologies.

The next time you feel lonely, bored, depressed or unmotivated, open a book, an article, or view a program where you can connect with fellow academics and listen to what they have to tell about what they do.  

We sure have a lot to tell, and we even have more to learn from one another.


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