About a year and a half ago I engaged on what would become a professionally frustrating though often personally rewarding new endeavor: a research project that moved away from my study of German foreign policy and took on the meaning and impact of the current information revolution on politics.
This has been a meandering journey in many ways, and I’m still barely out of the starting gate. It took me into reading about consumerism, media history, a biography of Johannes Gutenberg, Walter Lippmann, Erich Fromm, Horkheimer and Adorno, numerous books on the financial crisis, and even some obscure thinkers like Rudolf Steiner, histories of the Roman Catholic church, the reformation, and psychologists like Freud and Jung. Each step of the way I was inspired by a different aspect of the issues at hand, or often by suggestions from fellow bloggers (Steiner and Jung came that way, for example).
I have started numerous drafts, and even described my project in various blog entries, all of those starts later rendered obsolete as my thinking and reading progressed — or at times drifted — into new territory. Now I feel I’m finally under way.
I’m not disappointed with how long this is taking me. I am a full professor with tenure. I do service and get good teaching evaluations. I am not in a publish or perish environment, so the pressure to get something into a journal is minimal. Ever since my book on German foreign policy was published in 2003 I’ve written a few chapters for books, did work on the scholarship of teaching, but have not been very prolific in terms of published research. Part of that is because on the same day I finished my final revisions on my first book my first son was born — followed two years later by another. The demands of teaching and parenthood made 2003 to 2006 a time frame with little time to do anything but get ready for classes and deal with the kids!
But as the kids started to get old enough not to require constant attention, I realize I had to make a choice. Do I start trying to churn out articles on German politics or German foreign policy? I thought of some book ideas to investigate post-unification German foreign policy more fully, perhaps comparing German and Canadian policy, or looking at the dynamics of efforts to create a common European foreign policy. But I couldn’t get my heart into it. Others were spending a lot more time on those issues, and I didn’t want to bury myself in German language documents to try to come up with another manuscript that spoke only to a specialized audience.
Instead I looked around at the housing bubble, consumerism, and then the economic crash. I thought about how profound the current information revolution is, rivaling the advent of the printing press in its scope. I co-taught classes with people from disciplines like Early Childhood Education, Art History, Music History, and Literature, adding to and complementing my Political Science background. I realized we are living in an era of crisis and transformation, perhaps marking the end of politics as we’ve known it. I also came to see that very few scholars are crossing disciplinary boundaries to try to come up with a multi-dimensional account of what is happening and what it means. There are a lot of creative ideas out there, but I decided I wanted to try to do something big. Rather than find safe publishable research topics, I’d go for something ambitious — an effort to come up with a multi-disciplinary understanding of what is happening in the world and what it means for the future.
If I fail, it is no big loss. I’m learning and expanding my understanding of the world as much now as I was doing thirty years ago, and I’m doing so in areas outside of my specialty. That in and of itself makes this worthwhile, I feel I’m becoming a better teacher with a broader understanding of the world than if I’d focused on Germany (though my German skills have deteriorated a bit!) Unless the economic crisis closes down the University of Maine system, my job is pretty secure. There is no down side for trying something ambitious, I risk little. Perhaps colleagues will see I’m not publishing much and figure that since getting full Professor I’d decided to coast, but those who know me realize I’ve been possessed by an idea.
The upside is maybe I’ll publish something that will be meaningful and relevant to a broader audience. Maybe this research will yield something important, maybe I can contribute through my work to trying to handle this period of change without the instability transformational eras usually entail. And if not, again, I’m learning a lot and thinking through issues that take me in directions I never thought I’d go.
In the last month my thinking has coalesced around a specific project, with the thesis defined, the chapters laid out, and draft outlines being written. My goal is to have a draft at the end of the summer that I can shop around to publishers (or perhaps get some colleagues to react and then work on a second draft by the end of the calendar year). I see where this project is going, and I’m inspired. I feel like I’m at the start of a project I was meant to undertake, that my experiences set me up for this particular kind of work at this point in time.
My blog postings may become more infrequent, or they may be motivated by what I’m writing about at a given point in time. This blog, in fact, corresponds to when I started moving to this kind of project. I had been keeping my own blog on the university server, brilliantly labeled “Scott’s blog” with no comments and minimal effort. In May 2008 I started this blog, wanting to record my thoughts as this era unfolds, in part for my children to know what their dad was thinking as the world changed. The title: “World in Motion: Reflections on culture, politics, philosophy and world events during an era of crisis and transformation,” reflect that attitude.
So now, inspired, I jump into trying to bring this project together and work on a draft. And even if I fall flat on my face and end up with a project no publisher wants, I’m going to enjoy the journey!