Last week I went to a lecture by David Montgomery, author of “Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations”. I didn’t expect the lecture to effect me quite as much as it did (I mean, what do you expect from a talk about dirt?). But I have now added a new problem to my list of serious (and interrelated) environmental worries:
-- Climate disruption
--Fisheries collapse/ocean destruction
--Habitat and species loss
--Dirt – we are running out, fast (running out of dirt??! Check out what Montgomery says – it’s got major implications for feeding our ever increasing world population)
These are huge problems. A theme running through them is that many of the problems are exacerbated because of very real, but disastrously disorganized immediate needs. An example that sticks in my mind from Montgomery’s talk is a picture of a farmer plowing a hillside “field” perched on a 45 degree angle – a field that you couldn’t imagine plowing at all, but the farmer had a family of mouths to feed which forced him to take unsustainable, desperate options. Once plowed, the dirt on this hill eroded away extremely rapidly and that small resource is gone.
It is clear that these problems cannot be solved by individuals, especially in a short time frame. Rather, they will take massive collaborative efforts. And this requires frameworks to map out the problems on all sorts of levels: political, scientific, historic, individual.
Like our world’s environment, academia is also in a changing phase, evolving from the historic monk-like dedication of academics in their ivory towers to incorporating a broader spectrum of participants balancing various aspects of life with their careers. In the complex crisis that accompanies this change it seems to me that here too there is great power in collaboration. Collaboration provides the benefit of sharing ideas and working together to solve big problems and generate novel insights. But in addition, collaboration may have the potential to allow more diversity and flexibility of roles into an academic institution. With many individuals carrying out research together, especially in some fields, collaboration may play an important sociological role in pooling resources, creatively bending conventions, including individuals with less “traditional” backgrounds and in less “traditional” positions, and bridging difficult times and personal life stressors that might otherwise require shorter-term, less forward-thinking solutions.
Overall, what I’m trying to say is that, like Aeron Haynie, who blogged last week on the importance of collaboration in academia,  I’m in favor of more thought and encouragement being put into academic collaborations, not just for the benefit of the research, but for the larger benefits of stretching ideas and expectations of how academia works, and accommodating different roles into academic institutions.