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The Joy of Being an Intellectual Kid Again
June 27, 2011 - 12:45am

I’m rejuvenated, revived and relaxed. I feel smart again. Why? I’ve spent the week being an intellectual kid again.

Denise exploring the politics of the Western Wall Tunnels, on her recent trip to Israel.

I recently returned from a trip to Israel, my first visit to the country. I had the good fortune to be invited on an academic study tour, joining nine other political science and law professors from several Boston universities and academic centers. We spent each day meeting Israeli and Palestinian officials, NGO leaders and human rights activists, former and present members of the Israeli army, supreme court judges, political scientists, economists, hydrologists, environmental activists and social entrepreneurs. We were taken to historical sites as well as security sites—the wall that separates the West Bank from Israel, the borders with Lebanon and Syria, and East Jerusalem. We had no other agenda than to learn as much as we could about complicated and contentious Israeli politics and society. In a week we consumed more eggplant with tahini sauce and information on Israeli politics than I thought humanly possible.

Politics are experienced in a very real and visceral way in Israel. I expected this, and I expected to learn about politics through a specific narrative. Indeed, one theme that emerged throughout the week-long trip was this use of “narrative” in Israeli/Palestinian relations. What we learned, however, was that the narratives were rich and varied, some undeniably biased, while others were nuanced and more inclusive. Those you expected to be the most strident were often the most thoughtful and sensitive to the other side, while others were surprisingly single-minded.

But I don’t want to write a blog post about Israeli politics—that’s a discussion for another forum. What made this trip so exhilarating for me was the level of intellectual discussion that occurred among my fellow academics. We were of varying backgrounds, rank, age and experience. Most of us were experienced in working on human rights issues, international law, civil society and security, but none of us were Middle East specialists or dealt directly with Israeli politics. I admit that my own knowledge was rather cursory and I would never claim to speak authoritatively on the topic of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

So, what we were learning was interesting and important in the sense that it grew our knowledge. Just that. We were engaged in actively learning something new; having the space and time to devote to learning it proved to be the most satisfying part of the trip. I had almost forgotten that feeling of encountering something for the first time with a group of people and relishing the opportunity to just talk about it. We all do our own research, of course, and hopefully we all spend time learning new things. Individual research, however, is not quite the same thing as having a prolonged, intense conversation with other academics that isn’t mediated by university politics, every day life and classroom duties. To be a student simply for the sake of being a student—I realize that is what I’ve been missing.

When I daydreamed of being a full-time faculty member, I imagined faculty meetings in wood-paneled rooms where we shared our research, ideas, and had good-natured debates and thoughtful conversations. I thought I would experience being a faculty member as an extension of graduate school, where I would share my intellectual journey with others doing the same. Occasionally, I might have a brief discussion about my work with a colleague in the hallway or a long dinner with a friend talking about ideas, but the kind of daily intellectual exploration I had grown accustomed to in grad school just isn’t there. I miss it.

So, this trip was enormously refreshing: I was a student again, released from my professorial duties. It reminded me of why I’m in this business in the first place, and how much I actually enjoy being around other academics. We all need these reminders, and I’m calling for more of them. (Not a conference—conferences, as we all know, are more often about politicking.) What I want, and I think should be more common, is the opportunity to participate in week-long seminars for professors. Give us a topic we know nothing about, expose us to new ideas, let us battle it out in discussions, give us nothing else to do or worry about. Let us be intellectual kids again, learning simply for the supreme joy of it.

We will be better teachers and researchers for it, when we come back to our day jobs as academic grown ups.

 

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