Scholars need social skills too

Academics aren’t renowned for their social skills. A colleague and friend of mine once quipped that nearly everyone in our department – grad students and faculty alike – probably suffered from varying degrees of one sort of social interaction disorder or another. Unfair though this comment may be, it does seem that the scholarly community contains a great many socially awkward people. I don’t mean socially awkward merely in the sense of introversion or inflated ego (although these are undoubtedly root problems for some). I mean socially awkward in the sense that many scholars have great difficulty working with others and with expressing their ideas orally to a variety of audiences. Why should this be – particularly given our intensive training and our often heavy involvement in teaching? Much of it has to do with the skills that are currently valued – and not valued – by the established cultures of certain disciplines within the academy.

I once heard it said that the life of a scholar was a lonely one. This is a notion I find especially troubling in our digital age. We are all familiar with the popular stereotype of an academic: someone with nerdy glasses and a rather disheveled appearance, immersed in his or her books and thoughts, oblivious to the happenings of the outside world, and generally more interested in ideas than action. I admit to possessing one or two pairs of glasses some might describe as nerdy and I am often carried away with books and thoughts to the detriment of my personal aims for civic engagement and social action (not to mention housework). But my education as a history graduate student has impressed upon me how imperative the interaction between academia and the general public has become in the age of the internet. If scholars do not wish to see the internet become the realm of amateurs and information peddlers, we must begin to assert a role for ourselves in the digital medium and place greater institutional value on the importance of collaboration and the communication of scholarly ideas to non-scholars. And all of this will require greater academic emphasis on the development of scholars’ social skills. Writing alone cannot carry scholars through the transformations of the digital age.

Scholars must ask themselves what we are missing out on when we retreat into our own thoughts, our books, the archives, our work. What opportunities are we missing when we confine ourselves to the academy, waiting to see what becomes of scholarship and knowledge in an increasingly digital world? There is a place for scholarship on the Web – a very important place – and the sooner everyone in academia recognizes this, the sooner the work of imagining and experimenting with best methods can begin in earnest. The humanities has lagged behind other disciplines in its openness to the utilization of computing technologies and to collaborative scholarship, but humanists are beginning to enter and engage with the digital realm in meaningful ways.

Digital works such as The Valley of the Shadow and Virtual Jamestown are just two examples that indicate that some humanists have been thinking about and experimenting with scholarship in the digital medium for more than a decade. But progress remains slow. Digital scholarship not only requires acceptance of the need for greater academic involvement in the digital world and in the development of digital tools; it also takes a great deal of collaboration and an awareness of the different tactics required to communicate scholarly argument to non-scholars. The training of scholars must therefore be expanded to include and emphasize the individual’s ability to work, think, and operate within a collaborative framework. It should no longer be acceptable to train scholars for a “lonely life” of research, writing, and lecture-style teaching. We need to develop and enhance our abilities to communicate our ideas and arguments orally – not just so that we can pass our oral exams and deliver conference presentations to fellow scholars – but so that we can actively engage with a wider community and audience to recognize perspectives and patterns we might otherwise miss and devise ways to more effectively encourage learning and knowledge in this age of the internet.

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