Fostering Intellectual Community at Your Academic Workplace

by | Aug 19, 2019

Academic workplaces naturally provide strong intellectual communities, right? Not so much.

Many of us find that the intellectual (not to mention the community) gets lost in the sea of departmental politics, service obligations, and the steady beat of teaching days.

Most of us got into this business for the ideas and collective conversations and discussions are how we produce and hone them. It is a real loss when we lose that part of why we’re here in the first place.

How can we foster this kind of community at our academic workplaces to enhance our teaching, research, and everyday life at work?

In this webinar, Dr. Kate Drabinski discusses how to foster intellectual community using reading and writing groups, engaging mentorship, and other strategies.

Video transcript

Kate Drabinski [00:05]: Hello everyone. I am Kate Drabinski with Ideas on Fire, here today for our monthly webinar series. Today we’re talking about fostering intellectual community at your academic workplace.

The reason we thought this was a good webinar topic is because a lot of us, when we started a new job or even if we’d been there for a long time, the thing that got us hooked on being in the academy and doing research in the first place—an academic community of people who share similar interests and ask similar questions—isn’t there. A lot of our department meetings turn out to be about who’s teaching what and when, or what the administration is doing about this or that, or who’s going to be on what committee. It’s much less about the research that we do. But having an academic community is really important to how we do our work. So we want to talk about how you can foster that kind of that kind of community at your workplace.

[00:56] So the way this webinar will work is in a second I will disappear from this screen and bring up our PowerPoint presentation for today. I’ll walk through it, which should take between 30 and 40 minutes or so. Then I’ll come back and if you have questions or ideas, especially ideas because all of us are probably working on this in our workplaces, please type them in this column on the side of your screen and we’ll chat about those when I come back. All right, so now I’m going to disappear and pull up our webinar for today.

How to foster intellectual community in your academic workplace

[01:45] We’re going to start by talking about why intellectual community matters. You probably know why it matters to you, but I want to take a minute to reflect on that and then we’ll talk about some strategies for finding that academic community and building it where you are.

We’ll discuss working across disciplines and why that’s important, as well as some strategies for finding your community. Then we’ll talk about three specific strategies: writing groups, reading groups, and social events. I think writing groups are the best known strategy, but reading groups and social events can be really important for building this community as well. And then we’ll end with some links to further resources from Ideas on Fire.

Why does intellectual community matter?

[02:37] It matters because it’s vital to our individual work and the work of our fields. It helps make this life an actual life. What I mean by this is that it’s why we do this work in the first place. It’s what keeps us excited about our research, what helps us think of interventions into social issues that we care about, what helps us teach and train new generations of scholars and activists, thinkers, artists, creatives and people who are going to share the world with us.

So intellectual community matters for the quality of our work. But I think more importantly it matters for the quality of our life—our ability to have meaningful and important conversations with people whose ideas we really value.

Building intellectual community across disciplines

[03:32] One of the most important things about this work is working across disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is really important when you’re building your academic community. One of the most important reasons for that is because when we’re in graduate school, we’re often there with a cohort of students with whom we share a lot of things: ideas, teaching philosophies, or research philosophies. And we build that community there.

In graduate school, there’s a close group of fellow students who are engaged in the same projects and have the same stressors and the same anxiety. There’s something about working through comps [comprehensive exams] and oral exams and things like that with a cohort that really builds closeness. That’s really important and it’s part of how we grow as intellectuals.

[04:29] But when we then go on the job market and are scattered across institutions all over the country, we often find that we are the only one of our kind, especially if our degree is from an interdisciplinary graduate program. Finding people who have that kind of training and commitment has been a struggle at some of the schools I’ve worked at. So working across disciplines is really important to build the best community and one that’s most like what we probably had in graduate school.

[05:23] This requires thinking broadly about who might share some of your commitments. So how do you do this? Especially when everybody is so busy. I put that in scare quotes that you can’t see because we’re busy but we also have time and I’m going to push us today to think about how to take some time to build this community.

Go to campus wvents

The easiest way to do it honestly is to go to the welcome reception, the meeting, the campus event. Especially right now, at the beginning of our semesters, your college probably has a welcome party or something for a new faculty. The first events of the fall semester are happening. Showing up at those things and showing your face is a really important way to signal to others that you’re interested in the academic community. It also helps you find people during the Q & A period or that glass of seltzer at the end of the party.

[06:14] So what happens if you can’t go? If you can’t go to those receptions because you really are too busy or they’re always at night and you have to take care of your children or for whatever other reason you can’t make it. One reason I sometimes can’t make it is I don’t have a car, so getting to campus events at night can be a bit challenging.

If you can’t make it to those events, use your detective skills to find potential members of your intellectual community and then reach out to them. We’ll talk more about that in a second.

Cast a wide net and be patient

When finding those community members, don’t just look in your college. In my university, I’m in a humanities department. But over in another school, they have the geography and environmental systems department. It turns out a lot of people with similar interests to mine are over there. I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t go to things and learn about new faculty members. So those are some ways to work across disciplines to find people who might help build that community with you.

[07:06] So to find that community, you’ve got to cast a wide net and be patient. I know that especially at the beginning of the semester everybody’s got a thousand little meetings and it can be hard to get people to commit to another one. So if you haven’t been doing this work over the summer, you have to be patient for the semester or two. (Sorry if you just heard my cat cry!) It can be hard, but you have to be a little patient to build that community.

It’s just like when you move into a new city; it can take a while to figure out where things are. The same is true when you’re finding your intellectual community at the university. Sometimes you build it out with one or two people at the beginning. It’s about being persistent in meeting with people and talking about your research and making something that’s alive on your campus.

Writing groups

[07:58  So what are some actual strategies for making that happen? I want to first talk about writing groups. Writing groups, I think, are pretty well established techniques for building community because they require people to show up with a piece of writing that they share with others and that you have a conversation about. So this is a really a useful way to build community.

It’s a way to make that community building also productive. It helps you stay on track with your own writing. It gives you imposed deadlines. If you’re not in graduate school anymore, you often don’t have those except for a sort of a vague three to six years from now you have promotion issues. So writing groups can be really good for that.

[09:04] But they’re more than that. I want to emphasize how great writing groups can be for building community. Writing groups don’t have to be about producing large quantities of writing that you share with others and read, especially if you’re busy. A writing group can also be something that you set once a week or once a month or a couple times a semester where people meet in a place and just write together. This is an often less popular form of writing group, but I would argue it is a really, really useful one because organizing the writing group meeting like that, just to write, takes the pressure off of you to produce something for readers right away.

It also takes care of the problem of do you have time to read what somebody else has written. You might not have time for that. It also forces people to sit down and write. And in that sitting together, you’re building a community of writers, which is part of the intellectual community you want to build. Inevitably you will talk about what you’re writing about, your struggles, and what’s frustrating you about the writing—the kinds of things that build genuine human connections and help you make friends and allies who will help you as you move forward in your career, whatever that moving forward might look like for you.

[10:13] Writing groups were really a important tool for this. At the end of this webinar, I’ll link to a webinar we did last year about getting the most out of writing groups.

Reading groups

Another technique that I think is less common than the writing group is the reading group. If you think back to what got you involved in the academy in the first place, it likely has something to do with liking to read and liking to learn. It’s also one of the things that falls off for a lot of people when they start a new career. When you start at a new university, you’re so overwhelmed with learning how to teach new students and where to park on campus and the like that that it can be hard to find time to read, especially when there’s such a push towards writing as productivity.

[11:11] The reading group is a very low-stakes way to build intellectual community. My advice for building a reading group is to find members who share a general interest in a similar topic area. The topic area can be broad or focused, depending on what you’re interested in doing.

For example, I’m involved in a couple of reading groups this semester. One is about disability studies and it came out of an event a bunch of us went to. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson spoke on campus and a number of us went to dinner with her. We were talking about how we don’t know who all is working on this issue across campus so maybe we should have a reading group where we can all push our thinking forward about these issues. Out of that came a reading group. We have our first meeting at the end of September and it’s just a one once-a-month reading meeting.

We will select the reading as a group. They won’t be overly long but they will help us all move forward in our thinking.

The reading group produces new focuses within your college or university that build the kind of academic and intellectual community that you really want. When you’re building these, I would suggest looking to different pockets of your institution to see if there’s funding or support for these groups. So talk to your chair and ask your chair to talk to the dean about funding. Or, if you have a humanities center or interested departments, ask them to kick in a $100 or $200 so that you have a budget for your reading group. The way you use this budget is honestly to buy snacks. It makes every reading group better and it helps people feel motivated and calm, especially if you have it during a lunch hour. So finding that academic or that monetary support can make for a better group.

[13:00] Also if the reading group has some institutional support, it can sometimes help pull in a wider net of people who learn about it through official channels. So the support can help build that community in multiple ways. It can also, if you’re doing the organizing work, signal to your dean, to your chair, and to others that you’re really interested in building the intellectual life of the campus. I think we do that because it’s what keeps us alive. But politically that can also be helpful for demonstrating the kind of colleague you are when you’ve got your reading group together.

[13:57] I made this last on the side, but it is maybe the most important: keep reading short. People are busy. I was invited to reading group last year where the request was a book a month. That was just too much when the reading group is outside of my field. And a lot of people will feel that way. So keeping the pieces short gives people enough time to actually complete the reading. We’re not like our students. We always do all the reading. It helps focus the conversation, which is part of how you build genuine intellectual community through this development of shared languages. Reading groups are an important part of building this academic community. They can be formal, with university support, but they can also be informal. They can also be just you and a few new faculty members, for example, who are all interested in learning about the town y’all just moved to. Reading groups are really flexible but really important for bringing people together and building intellectual community.

Social events

[15:08] The last main strategy I want to talk about is social events. These get short shrift, I think, because it’s not formal academic intellectual work. But social events are a great way to build academic intellectual community even if it’s not focused on, say, your writing or a shared piece of reading.

Intellectual community doesn’t have to mean everything’s intellectual. If you think back to graduate school experiences, a lot of it was we all read Capital Volume 1 together at the same time, but a lot of it was also and then we all went to the White Horse and had beer on Ladies’ Night together. That builds friendships, the kind of deep friendships, that I think make intellectual community so much more meaningful. They help solidify connections and help us all form genuine friendships by taking things off campus.

[16:10] So, for example, I teach at mid-sized public university that’s not the flagship institution. It’s out in Baltimore County and a bunch of us live in Baltimore city. People live all over and commute to teach here and also to be students at the school. But those of us who live in Baltimore have a regular Baltimore social. We all meet at one place: we’ve met at people’s homes, sometimes we meet out at a food market or a place where people can get a variety of drinks and food and just connect over something that’s not necessarily academic. It helps us find other ways that we relate.

[17:10] I’m thinking right now of a new hire in that geography and environmental systems department. I’m in a gender and women’s studies department and we met at one of these things and it turns out we both really liked bicycling. We really connected over that and we both think about the way that we move through the streets in intellectual ways. It’s been a really rich friendship.

So taking things off campus can be really helpful for building real relationships that are not necessarily enmeshed in the politics of who’s getting what at the university. It also helps broaden what counts as intellectual life. Intellectual life isn’t just a report of our research. It’s also sharing our worldviews and shaping each other’s worldviews and thinking about different ways of living a life. That’s what’s most important about using social events to build intellectual community. It really is the stuff of life. It’s about taking that intellectual community and helping it broaden and shape how we live in the world.

Intellectual community resources

[18:17] Ideas on Fire has a bunch of resources that can help us all figure out how to build this academic community on our campuses. We’ve got a blog post on building your professional network. It’s about finding mentors and being a mentee and also thinking broadly about who’s on your team at your job. That can be really important for building intellectual community, but also the kind of community you need to be successful in your career.

We have a webinar that we did recently about writing groups that I mentioned that earlier. We’ve got a lot of different ideas for ways to build writing groups, either as we’re all going to come out with a book proposal at the end or we’re just writing together in the same space. The different models of writing groups all build academic community in different ways.

[19:16] I also included a link to a webinar we recently did on how to move to a new city and settle in for those of us who are, say, contingent faculty who move around a lot. I’ve taught at six universities in the last 12 years. Being new in a place, you had to start all over every time and build a new community every time. This webinar is about how to do that, how to make new friends in a new place, and how to build community both off and on and off campus.

Finally, one thing that gets in the way, I think, of intellectual community building is the time that it takes to maintain friendships. They’re often the first things to go when we’re busy. So we’ve got a post here on how to maintain friendships even when you’re too busy to have friends. This post has some really good tips and strategies for doing that.

Concluding thoughts

So that’s our webinar for today. I’m now going to come back to see you. Hello and thank you Cathy for posting the webinar slides. That’s our webinar for today. Does anyone have any questions or ideas or strategies for how you built intellectual community at your workplace?

[20:43] One thing I didn’t mention in the slides, but I think can be really helpful is using social media. Our department, for example, has a Facebook page and we have lots of faculty members share ideas there. We also have a humanities center and a lot of us meet there regularly. It’s a good place to gather and to run into people you might not otherwise see on your daily travels around campus.

Well, thank you so much for joining us today. The slides that Cathy posted are available for your use at any time. And we hope to see you next month at our next Ideas on Fire webinar.

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Author: Kate Drabinski

Kate Drabinski is the education director at Ideas on Fire, an avid bicyclist, and a senior lecturer in gender and women's studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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