Fostering a vibrant intellectual community on a campus builds a sense of camaraderie among faculty and enriches their scholarship and teaching. When faculty members have a space and forum for talking with colleagues who are outside their discipline, they are able to test and revise their ideas, take risks, sharpen their arguments, and create fruitful synergies. Yet even before the arrival of COVID-19 forced academics into physical isolation and remote teaching, there were unmistakable signs of a breakdown in intellectual community.
In recent years, faculty members have been engaging in intellectual dialogue with each other less and less. Instead of eating together at that erstwhile ubiquitous institution -- the faculty club -- they increasingly eat at their office desks or at home. College and university libraries, meanwhile, have become devoid of professors, as more research is done online. Some libraries even deliver books directly to departmental offices, with the result that faculty no longer run into each other in the stacks or a library reading room.
Technology had the effect of social distancing on college and university campuses long before the current public health crisis. Even that time-honored tradition of holding office hours had begun to give way to online meetings or “hangouts” with students. While technology was already contributing to some of these shifts, there are other reasons for the gradual erosion of intellectual community.
Faculty members are living farther away from their campuses and spending less time there. A growing percentage of teaching faculty is composed of adjuncts, who in some cases do not even have their own offices and are less likely to feel included in a campus community. The increasing pressure to publish has made many academics seek to maximize the time they invest in their own research, and so they spend less time on campus, where they seem to get pulled into the vortex of student requests and administrative responsibilities. And the expanding administrative responsibilities being placed on faculty means that when they are in fact on campus, they are spending time in committee meetings rather than talking with colleagues about books, ideas or their teaching or research. In addition, the trend toward hyperspecialization, even within a subfield, has meant the loss of a “common conversation” about shared texts, methodologies and lines of inquiry.
It is impossible to know what long-term effects the current public health crisis will have on college and university culture, let alone our broader office culture. Will future years see a significant increase in telecommuting? What would this mean for teaching, research and intellectual community on campuses? As the pandemic continues, how can we design programs that encourage faculty members to engage with each other while adhering to physical distancing requirements?
From the perspective of research, the pandemic has, of course, led to the cancellation of countless academic conferences, research trips and opportunities for in-person research collaboration. At the same time, it has dramatized technology’s capacity to connect scholars around the world. It has suddenly become more common, for example, to invite an outside scholar to Zoom into a course to speak about their area of expertise. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to Zoom into a conference in Warsaw on medieval liturgy that I had not planned to attend in person. A few days earlier, I (along with more than 600 attendees) joined a webinar sponsored by the Medieval Academy of America on the Black Death that featured experts studying the plague from a global perspective. The shift to videoconferences made these professional development experiences possible.
The more intractable challenge, however, which predated COVID-19 and will now probably be exacerbated by its presence, is how we rebuild a sense of intellectual community. Engaging in regular, meaningful discussions with campus colleagues from other disciplines can be both energizing and enjoyable and can improve one’s own scholarship and teaching by revealing new perspectives. Often the most innovative scholarship grows out of unexpected cross-pollination, which allows one to view one’s work from new angles, draw crucial connections and even borrow methodologies from other disciplines.
When I was a visiting fellow a few years ago at Cambridge University, lunches in the college dining hall were designed to bring faculty fellows, postdocs and graduate students from diverse fields together at long communal tables. A coffee machine in the common room, just outside the dining hall, dispensed rather expensive coffee and cappuccino most of the day, but during the lunch and dinner hour, the drinks were suddenly free as a way of encouraging conversations to continue in that quintessentially European way of elongating mealtime. Over lunches and coffees, I talked with an Iranian philosophy Ph.D. student writing about the medieval Persian polymath Avicenna; a pioneer in mental health research who had been awarded damehood by Queen Elizabeth; and a Japanese professor of medieval Anglo-Norman history. I was surprised by the ways those conversations deepened my own research and writing about the rise of the medieval hospital. Not only did they help me frame my research to a broader audience and get outside my bubble, but in the process, I also acquired valuable insights that enriched my own work.
At my own institution, Denison University, where I am director of the Lisska Center for Scholarly Engagement, which serves as the campus hub for intellectual life, we’ve found that food and drink are key first steps to building a sense of community. A few years ago, we began holding weekly “Faculty Friday” lunches. We invite faculty members to meet each other for a free lunch each week in a room connected to a dining hall, where they can engage in open-ended conversation. Our president, meanwhile, hosts several research dinners each year, a chance for a faculty member to present their current research to about 30 colleagues from different departments.
We also seek to design programs that engage faculty across all disciplines on some of the big issues that matter. Having pivoted to the virtual world necessitated by the pandemic, we recently held a symposium via Zoom, rescheduled from last spring, on technology and the future of democracy with The New Yorker’s Sue Halpern. We explored social media’s impact on our political culture and the question of whether technology is advancing or threatening democratic ideals. From the standpoint of building intellectual community, Zoom made it possible for a large number of faculty members, students, staff members and even alumni to engage collectively with this important and timely topic.
As William Cronon points out in his oft-quoted essay “Only Connect,” the embodiment of the liberal arts ideal involves actively conversing, listening and engaging with others. How do we model the liberal arts ideal for our students, whether at a large research university or a small liberal arts college, if the faculty from different disciplines aren’t talking to each other and learning from one other?
Months of social distancing, remote teaching and physically isolated research and writing may well have the salutary effect of reminding us of the power and pleasure of intellectual dialogue. The regular exchange of ideas across disciplinary boundaries is a vital foundation of our profession and one we cannot afford to lose. Let us now begin the process of reimagining how we rebuild intellectual community on our campuses in a post-pandemic world.