Participation through comment

By | December 23, 2012

making-decisionIt’s kind of a truism of professional life that we want to feel ourselves involved and participating in the work of our organizations and societies. The behavioral sciences have an implicit norm of action associated with their practice. Unlike, say, the humanities, where scholarship essentially provides its own reward, scholarship in the behavioral and social sciences analyzes human action with an eye toward both prediction and control. The dichotomy is not absolute by any means; humanists and artists and writers often play strong social roles, while psychologists, economists, and sociologists can easily get entranced with the inner beauty of their analytical frameworks and research protocols to the point of social isolation. But in general, if you take a behavioral scientist of his/her professional environment, they’re likely to feel frustrated.

Case in point: me. Since my layoff in June 2012 from the all-online university which I’d devoted the last 12 years (for reasons of “financial exigency”), I’ve found myself largely without the kind of immersion in a professional environment to which I’d become accustomed over the last 25 or so years. It’s only when the water is taken away that the fish understands how important it is to its survival; likewise, it’s only when you don’t have that day-to-day interaction with professional colleagues that you miss it, and understand that not having it is potentially hazardous to your health. Even if that day-to-day interaction is pretty mundane, or even if it’s focused on mindnumbing bureaucracy, it’s still something professional. It takes a strong and determined character to persist in maintaining professional ties and a professional attitude, let alone professional competence, in isolation.

I make no pretenses to such strong character; I’ve always tended to “go with the flow” and rely on my professional environment to keep that water flowing over my gills. Finding myself suddenly flopping on the dock rather than smoothly slipping through the waves was an abrupt shock to my system. I soon became aware that unless I suddenly became a great deal more proactive in search of professional stimulation than I’ve ever been in my life, I was fairly quickly going to lose whatever credibility and skill I retained. But where was I going to find that stimulation without the organizational context I’d always relied on to provide it?

My solution, such as it has been, has been something available only to us in the last three or four years – that is, participation in the pseudo-professional pseudo-organizations created in the blogosphere by various journals and other idea aggregators. The profusion of opportunities for comment on various professional articles, idea papers, and other analyses has been in many ways my professional salvation. I don’t comment on everything I read, but I would say probably well over half of what I come across in my daily Internet perusal has brought about a comment of one sort or another. Some of these are short and sometimes snarky observations; some have turned into fairly extensive colloquies with one or more respondents around a consistent theme. But they’ve all shared the common aspect of stimulating me to think about what I was reading and imagine myself engaged in a conversation with colleagues about it. From participation in LinkedIn fora to BigThink blogs to the Chronicle of Higher Education, I’ve had a chance to read about and think about and talk about a great many topics of professional interest.

Well, you’re probably thinking, that’s a pretty sick and sad excuse for professional community – and you’d be right to some degree; except that it is a great deal better than no community at all. I have been able to exercise my compositional gifts and, I hope, some reasonable analytical skill in the interests of articulating what I believe to be thoughts worth sharing. I’ve been rewarded with a fairly substantial number of “likes” and relatively little disapproval. So now here I am extending this one step further and putting my own thoughts out on the line for others to comment upon. For me, it’s a logical step back into the professional world – from simply reacting to ideas put forth by others to putting forth ideas of my own and, hopefully, stimulating reaction to them. I have no idea how successful is going to be or what sort of dialogue I’m going to be able to stimulate – we’ll see. As I indicated in my first post, I hope enough of you will be with me as we proceed that I can build my own pseudo-organization, pending my return to whatever form of professional life in the year holds for me.