I turn 50 this week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means. After all, a half-century doing stuff feels like it should mean something, right? So I decided to do some little blog essays mostly to reflect on my professional (and occasional personal) life at 50. Yesterday I blogged about being “Slow at 50” and on Monday, “Not Full at 50”. Today I turn my attention to my always developing thoughts on slow.
This year has been an odd year. I’ve worked on five projects and all but one of them have been solo affairs including the revisions on my book and chapters on the archaeology of oil, on the teaching the archaeology of the contemporary world, on archaeology and climate change, and on the archaeology of Polis in the long late antiquity (nominally co-authored with Scott Moore, but essentially a single author article).
This is not normal for me.
First, I increasingly dislike writing on my own. I find it a lonely business and it certainly doesn’t bring out the best in my thinking or writing. Of course, I understand that peer reviewers are, de facto, collaborators on most academic work, but their collaboration is fairly passive (with a few exceptions) and at worst, they represent a critical audience as much as a colleagues invested in helping to realize the potential of an article or argument.
Second, I feel like the COVID pandemic has disrupted collaborative projects in ways that I had not anticipated. It really has reminded me that most of my collaborations have emerged from face-to-face interactions either during field work, at academic conference, or on campus. As the pandemic made these kinds of interactions difficult or impossible, I found myself drawn back into my own work and more prone to set priorities that privileged my own work over those that I am doing with others.
To exacerbate my tendency to focus what limited free time I have on my own project, I got the distinct sense that other people have started to do the same thing. Maybe it has to do with the sudden instability of our daily schedules, the challenges individuals and communities faced when negotiating pandemic related trauma, or even the greater sense of responsibility felt by individuals untouched by the pandemic to shoulder more of the load. The end result was that I became more selfish in my focus on my own work at the same time that my colleagues pulled back from collaborations themselves.
My experiences over the course of the pandemic and especially over the last year have helped me recognize how much I value and prefer collaborative work. It has also made me consider whether the pandemic exaggerated some of the latent tendencies in academia, or at least in the humanities, toward privileging individual work at the expense of more collaborative undertakings. Perhaps academia, with its traditional focus on individual accomplishments, was primed for the pressures exerted by the pandemic which pitted individual desires to be safe, to operate with a minimum of constraints, and to maintain control over their own bodies against the safety, economic prosperity, and integrity of larger communities.
It feels like my academic work has more or less paralleled these trends with my rather insistent focus on my own projects over the past year or 18 months reflecting an almost epidemiological desire to isolate and insulate.
It feels intensely unsatisfying.
So as I look ahead to my next 20 years in academia, I have come to recognize that I prefer collaborative projects. And I anxiously hope that I can rekindle some of the collaborative relationships that I found so productive prior to the pandemic. I know that they bring out the best in me and I want to believe that they also bring out the best in other people.