A few years ago my mentor and I were chatting over coffee. I was nearly finished my dissertation and was in what I can only describe as a state of heightened anxiety. In addition to worrying about finding a job I was feeling adrift. While I had made good friends in my PhD programme I did not have people who were working in similar areas to mine. When I looked to my peers at my own institution and elsewhere it seemed as though there were many people who were falling into natural intellectual communities. There were reading and writing groups being formed, conferences being organized or attended. I was talking with my mentor about this and she said something simple that has stuck with me. She was talking about her favourite annual conference--an international one--and said that practically all of her intellectual community was there. When I asked her what she meant she told me that she found her intellectual community--those people with whom she did her best and most generative thinking, writing, and imagining--by going to interdisciplinary conferences.
It had only occurred obliquely to me that I would have to search out an intellectual community beyond the borders of my own institution. Sure, I had friends and acquaintances elsewhere, but how is one to forge a functioning intellectual community with colleagues who are far-flung? Here are a few ideas based on my own trial and --often--error. (You can find additional suggestions at the University of Venus's Networking Challenge):
1) Talk to your peers about their work. Tell them about your own!
After that first semester of the MA or PhD, or the orientation session for the new job how often do we really sit down and talk about our work with our most geographically close communities? There's something to be said for proximity. Proximity affords the luxury of hanging out, of chatting, of slow thinking together. Is it possible there are people on your own hallway whose work might chime with yours? Besides, talking about your work puts your own trademark on it, in addition to the benefits you get from the input of others.
2) Proximity isn't enough, you need structure.
Sure, there is something quite wonderful about serendipity, but we'll get there in a moment. If you want to forge an intellectual community that is sustainable you need a plan and you need to delegate. First, the plan: do you want to read together? Talk? Write? Identify the aims of your group and set some parameters. How often will you meet? Who will facilitate? What is everyone responsible for when you do meet? What will people get out of it? This last question is kind of a doozy. I've spoken to several friends who have attempted to start writing groups at their own institutions with varying degrees of success. While it would be wonderful to believe that people want to get together for the love of the work that isn't always the case. Start with a clear structure and aim and the cult following will come.
3) DIY is great, but don't reinvent the wheel. Find a conference and commit.
I have a tendency to take things into my own hands, and that has its benefits for sure, but it is also tiring, often lonely, and it can be a real waste of energy. For those who are affiliated with major research projects the forging of an intellectual community is a bit more organic: network both within and outside your group! But if, like me, your work isn't affiliated with a clear-cut community then try committing to an annual conference. I started attending Congress when I was an Masters student. I was overwhelmed and excited. I was also pretty lonely, but I kept going. It seemed as though there were so many exciting people doing incredible work. I just wanted to be around them. Stick with it and you'll start to meet people.
4) Look beyond your horizons. Cold call someone whose work you admire.
This is tricky, I'll admit. However, we all know the handful of people whose work we turn to again and again. Consider introducing yourself. Who knows, you might strike up a correspondence, or you might not. The only thing that is certain is the you wont know until you try.
Do you feel you have an intellectual community? How did you find or forge it? Do you have any advice for other readers?