I’ve been thinking about the social ties that connect us to our scholarship.
Last week I was at the annual Shakespeare Association of America meeting (or #shakeass13, as it was lovingly hashtagged), a conference that I’ve been going to every single year since (have mercy on me) 1994. It’s a great conference, in part because it is organized around seminars: the bulk of the work of the meeting happens in seminars in which participants circulate papers in advance; there are also paper panels, with only two or three happening concurrently. The result is a conference with a lot of room for active participation and common conversations. It’s invigorating, and that’s one of the reasons I keep returning.
Another reason is that I have a huge number of friends and colleagues that I only ever see at SAA. I’ve been going for a long time, I keep meeting more and more people, and while I’m lucky to work at a place that has a lot of Shakespeareans passing through, most of my friends I only see at conferences. This isn’t surprising news for anyone who goes to things like this: the social element of conferences is much of what makes them wonderful (or exhausting, if you’re an introvert). And the format for SAA is really great for socializing—not only is conversation built into the seminars, the conference even ends with a dance. (Thank you, Malone Society, even if I never actually go.)
But this time, I’ve been aware of how much social ties are built not only into my favorite conference, but into my life as a scholar.
I trained as scholar focused on modern productions of Shakespeare. I wrote a book on the subject, edited a collection, presented at conferences, published articles, all on aspects of Shakespeare and performance. I did that solidly from the mid-1990s until the mid-2000s. And in the process, I met great people in the field, people I enjoyed collaborating with and being friends with. But then, around 2006, I started retraining myself as a book historian, thanks to the program I started on the subject at the Folger. And with that came blogging, and tweeting, and going to conferences, and even publishing. And in that process, I met a new crew of collaborators and friends.
What this means is that when I go to SAA, I find myself pulled in two directions: do I want to be at sessions focused on book history or at ones about performance? That experience of being pulled in different directions will be familiar to any scholar who is interested in more than one thing. But what I had not fully appreciated before this most recent experience at SAA was how much of the intellectual tugging went hand-in-hand with a social tugging. Sure, we all find ourselves socializing with the people with whom we share intellectual interests. That is the pattern I just described above. But what I recognized this time is that it works in the opposite direction, too: my choices in who I was socializing with generated who I wanted to share my intellectual energies with.
Here’s what I mean: the socializing I did at this conference tended, primarily, to be with my performance studies friends, and it jump-started my brain so that I’ve now got new questions and possible projects bubbling away. Talking with R and A and S, among others, made me want to continue those conversations by thinking about fragments and travel and how we experience, share, and archive theatrical performance. I was interested in those things before, but my drive to sort them out is connected to my drive to continue to hang out with these people I like. I don’t want to hang out with them so that I can better work out these questions that are bugging me; I want to work out these questions so that I can continue hanging out with them.
Obviously, my entire intellectual life is not driven by who shares my love for food and drink. I’ve got another project bubbling that doesn’t come out of any socializing impulses, and it’s a great one, and I chose my collaborator not because he’s someone I like to hang out with, but because he’s the right person for this project. And obviously what I get out of conferences isn’t only seeing my friends; I heard some really exciting papers in Toronto and that’s what really made it a great conference. (Let me tell you, I’ve been to other conferences that have been good social scenes but when it’s built around lousy papers, the whole experience brings you down.) But the connections between who I like to be friends with and who I like to talk shop with are not accidental. One of the delightful things about moving into a new field of scholarship has been that it introduced me to not only to exciting new ways of thinking about texts and books, but that it connected me to some really interesting and fabulous people. I love that.
But I’m now realizing how much I miss my old field, too. Yes, I know I can do both and that I could even combine book history with performance studies so that one foot is planted firmly in each realm, and I do try that. But let’s face it, that’s also exhausting and since my work explicitly pulls me towards book history and material text, that’s where I’ve gone. I’m not going to stop thinking about those things. I’m too embedded both intellectually and emotionally in the book history world (see some of you at SHARP in Philadelphia?) to walk away from it. But I’m going to let my love for performance stay in my life, too, and I’m excited about that.
So consider this my paean to the value of friendships and the ways they inspire us to be better scholars. And a big, hearty THANK YOU to all my #shakeass13 peeps: the ones who created the silly hashtag and wore our silly t-shirts, the ones who ate and drank with me, the ones I didn’t have a chance to do more with than wave across a crowded room and the ones who let me chill with them when the rest of the conference was too much. You’re what makes being a Shakespearean fun and smart.