11.0622 RE: Older Wiser

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Thu, 5 Mar 1998 21:01:21 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 622.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Willard's comments on the plight which those of us who are getting a bit
long in the tooth fine, or soon will find ourselves started the following
chain of thoughts.

A month ago I received an email from a student seeking some information
for a research paper. He had found out that I had written a book on the
subject of interest. I responded saying that I might be more help if I
knew whether this was an undergraduate or graduate paper on which he was
working. Neither, he assured me. He was in the seventh grade and was
working on a project for History Day. I made some suggestions that I hope
were useful and corresponded a bit with the scholar's mom, something that
doesn't happen every day.

Although I was initially surprised by this contact, I quickly recognized
that this is the nature of this new word of electronic communications. All
anonymous fingers on keyboards are equal, at least upon their initial
presentation, and the world of potential contacts for intellectual inquiry,
exchange or fun is far wider than I at least had suspected.

How may this help the elders, whom we will all become? First, the
potential isolation that may come from retirement can be broached via email
and the WEB. Second, if we allow ourselves to expand our definition of
colleagues, we may discover all kinds of exhilarating (and irritating)
communications we may never have allowed ourselves. Third, ah, but here I
must backtrack or perhaps I should say, forward track a bit, and indulge in
a bit of guesswork about the future.

Now that the WEB is emerging as a vast course delivery medium at the same
time that universities and colleges are under great pressure to reduce
costs, I think that we can no longer assume that the past is prologue as
far as the professorate is concerned. There was a time when most scholars
were "independent"-- unattached, living on whatever means they had. The
institutionalization of scholars and intellectuals in secular universities
is about as new as the secular universities themselves. The process begins
in the Anglo-American world in the late nineteenth century. I am not sure
that this situation will survive in tact in the post-modern century that is
close upon us, at least as far as the humanities disciplines are concerned.
At some point in the next century, sooner rather than later, many people
pursuing interests in humanities fields may find that they, like their
nineteenth-century predecessors, are "independent" -- without full-time
salary. Indeed, such vestiges of the past/harbingers of the future are
already among us. We call them adjuncts.

The time is ripe to establish the new "institutions" that will support
independent scholars (perhaps economically but certainly intellectually)
and the electronic media seem to offer us the most likely means to do this.
While some of the ground is already being laid, there is still much to be
done. It is here that elders, retired and with time heavy on their hands,
and no longer locked into the incessant schedules of publications,
committees and teaching, could help pioneer the new intellectual
environment, and have a hell of a good time in the process.

William H. A. Williams
The Union Institute
440 E. McMillan St.,
Cincinnati, Ohio 45206-1925
(513) 861-6400

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