The life of the mind
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A talk I gave at the January 2008 American Historical Association conference in Washington, DC.

A talk I gave at the January 2008 American Historical Association conference in Washington, DC.

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  • These comments are the transcript of the talk.

    In order to synch up the slides with the notes, I recommend that you click on the 'Comments on Slide 1' tab when you're ready to start the presentation. This will highlight only those comments that are associated with the slide you're viewing.<br /><br/>
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  • Running through all these disparate projects are three big interests.

    The first is an enduring interest in how knowledge is made-- or, as we used to say when I was in graduate school, in the social construction of knowledge-- whether it's knowledge about the chemical composition of the solar corona, or knowledge about the future.

    The second is the materiality of knowledge: the ways media or materials help shape the way we think, collaborate, and reason.

    Finally, I like to understand what people really do, whether they're doing scientific fieldwork in the 19th century, building geodesic domes, or peering into cyberspace. In all kinds of contexts, studying practices and the fine details of people's work can tell us an awful lot.<br /><br/>
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  • So what does my experience teach?

    1) Self-fashioning.

    First, you can do serious, rewarding intellectual work outside the academy. It's possible to continue working on research projects, or to find the intellectually interesting element of what you do.

    You need to carve out some time for yourself. This does require discipline-- just like it does when you're an academic. I exercise a lot less, and sleep a little less, than I would like.

    You also need some tactical shrewdness. Working a 40-hour job doesn't necessarily leave you a huge amount of free time, so you have to think about projects that are more doable: that can be done using local archival resources, that you can do archival research on during vacations, that revisit things you worked on in grad school but never finished.

    It also really helps to have access to JSTOR or other online resources. I get this through a Stanford affiliation, but plenty of universities offer alumni ongoing library access. The digitization of these collections, and of academic resources more generally, has made a difference for people on-campus, but it makes a HUGE difference when you're off-campus.

    2) Fewer (different) boundaries.

    You can do different work-- and that's a good thing. You have opportunities to write for different kinds of places, and to develop ideas and arguments outside the format of the monograph, article, and conference talk. I've got a couple blogs that I use to develop ideas.

    Of course, you don't have to stop doing more familiar kinds of writing. Of 17 articles I've published in scholar journals or volumes, 12 appeared after I left Davis (and I've got another ten magazine pieces or op-eds, and a couple dozen book reviews). Right now I've got an article making its way through the pipeline of a peer-reviewed journal, and two in edited collections. My first book came out in 2002, and I'm halfway through a second book, on the history and future of cyberspace.

    You can create new ways to be useful and interesting to your field.

    I bring a value to science studies very different from that that I'd bring if I were a professor. When I was at Britannica, I was able to play on my expertise in electronic publishing to do some work for scholarly journals; that also led to an editorial board seat. Now, I do work that brings me into contact with a lot of the kinds of people I used to study, and this has let me see new ways of leveraging STS in the business world.

    3) The university isn’t the only place to pursue the life of the mind.

    One of the downsides of learning to be a scholar-- and it's a tough thing to learn how to do-- is that you come to believe that the only place you can pursue the life of the mind is in the academy-- or more precisely, the kinds of research universities that have trained you. My father is a professor, so I was especially willing to believe this.

    But particularly in a knowledge economy, this assumption is rubbish. For young scholars, it does two bad things: it makes them less willing to think seriously about the opportunities they could pursue in the non-academic world; and it helps foster a willingness to take poorly-paying, temporary jobs within the academy.

    What's special about academia is that it gives you the right to act like a professor-- it's access to a certain kind of culture, and one super-concentrated version of intellectual work. But it isn't the only place that takes ideas seriously, or provides a venue in which you can create opportunities to think and write seriously. Today, academia is just one place to pursue ideas, and not always the best one-- just as it's one place to be entrepreneurial, but not always the best one.

    You need to lose the tacit assumption that academia is the only place where people are serious about ideas, and pursue ideas seriously.

    4) Finally, the sacrifices necessary to live the life of the mind are really choices.

    For all kinds of reasons, we think that in order to pursue the life of the mind, we have to move to places where we don't know anyone, to take jobs we may not be enthusiastic about, put off family and children-- all in order to pursue big ideas and write what we want. Lots of us do it. Lots of our friends to it. It's such a commonplace it's hard to imagine that the assumption is wrong.

    But it IS wrong. The sacrifices we think we have to make aren't necessary. There certainly can be nobility in making them; but if you want to pursue the life of the mind, you don't need to stay in the academy, and you certainly don't need to sacrifice everything else that makes a life worth living to be a scholar.<br /><br/>
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  • Looks like a pretty weird intellectual space, when you put it all together. But I think there are some common overarching themes.<br /><br/>
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  • Finally, the green tag cloud shows the scholarly work I've done since leaving academia. I've published articles on the computer mouse; on the history of Silicon Valley; the uses of STS (science and technology studies) in the business world; and the uses of spaces and media in business meetings. Most recently, I've been working on a book on the end of cyberspace, which is part history of cyberspace, part examination of the future of computing and human-computer relations. (It has a blog at http://www.endofcyberspace.)<br /><br/>
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The life of the mind Presentation Transcript

  • 1. life of the mind alex soojung-kim pang http://www.askpang.com [email_address]
  • 2.  
  • 3. What I’ll talk about
    • working: putting historical training and thinking to use
    • thinking: living the life of the mind anywhere
  • 4. IFTF work future of science pervasive computing corporate strategy user-driven innovation science cities innovation spaces future of manufacturing future of R&D future of publishing
  • 5. Academic work victorian science history of astronomy geodesic dome science and empire representational practices in science oral history and science laboratory design artists and printers in science future of science pervasive computing corporate strategy user-driven innovation science cities innovation spaces future of manufacturing future of R&D future of publishing
  • 6. My own work end of cyberspace facilitation and meetings computer mouse history of silicon valley STS in business victorian science history of astronomy geodesic dome science and empire representational practices in science oral history and science laboratory design artists and printers in science future of science pervasive computing corporate strategy user-driven innovation science cities innovation spaces future of manufacturing future of R&D future of publishing
  • 7. What they share 1 end of cyberspace facilitation and meetings computer mouse history of silicon valley STS in business victorian science history of astronomy geodesic dome science and empire representational practices in science oral history and science laboratory design artists and printers in science future of science pervasive computing corporate strategy user-driven innovation science cities innovation spaces future of manufacturing future of R&D future of publishing
  • 8. What they all share 2
      • making knowledge
    what people really do materiality of knowledge future of science pervasive computing corporate strategy user-driven innovation science cities innovation spaces future of manufacturing future of R&D future of publishing victorian science history of astronomy geodesic dome science and empire representational practices in science oral history and science laboratory design artists and printers in science end of cyberspace facilitation and meetings computer mouse history of silicon valley STS in business
  • 9. Sacrifices sacrifices necessary to live the life of the mind are really choices the university isn’t the only place to pursue the life of the mind self-fashioning fewer (different) boundaries
  • 10. life of the mind alex soojung-kim pang http://www.askpang.com [email_address]