Life at the Center

November 24, 2009

It is autumn in Atlanta. I am here, away from my home campus in Massachusetts, on a yearlong research leave. During 2008-9, I applied for grants and fellowships to help pay for this leave, a process that I wrote about in The Chronicle. I was lucky enough to win the Fellowship in Poetics at the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry at Emory University.

After the excitement of winning faded this past summer, I was faced with the task of actually preparing for my sabbatical. I had been anticipating the leave for a long time and had already laid the groundwork by doing research in Britain and composing drafts of my chapters. My goal now is to use this year to finish writing my book manuscript.

The Fox Center offers residential fellowships that draws three or four junior scholars from across the country and mixes them with faculty members and graduate students from Emory. When I first started applying for grant money last year, I wondered whether I should even consider residential programs. Would moving away from home be a waste of time? Would being someplace new interrupt my work habits and make me less efficient? Or would it help me complete my project?

Most of my colleagues encouraged me to go away for my leave, arguing that being somewhere else would allow me to focus even more on my work. So far they've been right. But at first, I admit, it didn't feel that way. Moving meant figuring out quotidian details like where I should live (midtown Atlanta, close to Piedmont Park, it turns out), whether to rent a truck (no, too expensive), whether to sublet my apartment (ultimately necessary).

I also had to determine what to bring. I am a pack-rat scholar. Every book feels essential, every folder contains a crucial idea. Initially I had trouble being realistic about what I might need. Even after a previous Fox Center fellow advised me not to bring too many much, I still wanted to load my car full of texts that I hadn't opened in years. It was a soothing mechanism. I had formed a psychic link to every book. If I brought them all, I thought, I would be prepared.

In the end, I brought less than I had planned to. And I did forget some important things, but nothing that couldn't be replaced. The move has made me realize what's most crucial to my project. Hundreds of books had to be whittled to a stack of titles that I truly needed. Packing was an extremely effective way to reaffirm exactly what I was studying. Having an unforgiving sense of what actually contributes to a project is important for any scholar taking up a residential fellowship.

Getting settled in Atlanta took up time as well. The drive took two full days and unpacking took longer, and included many more trips to Ikea than I expected. When I showed up, the air conditioning—a necessity for the Georgia summer—didn't work. A crew was renovating the building, sawing two-by-fours on my front porch. The sawdust covered every inch of my apartment; by the end of August I was scrubbing my walls with a mop. At that point, I felt like I hadn't invested my time wisely.

Things improved when I showed up at the Fox Center. It didn't take long to start a rhythm different from that of my typical department life. This year, I have realized, is about me and my research. It is my chance to be selfish with my time.

What makes the center so conducive to that feeling? Some of it is practical. The center pays me, and that salary makes up for the pay reduction I have had to take while on leave. Not worrying about my finances has been an enormous relief. And as a fellow, I have access to all of Emory's resources, which, for a faculty member used to a liberal-arts college, can seem staggering.

I have an office in the Fox Center. It is already cluttered with shelves, lamps, corkboard, and stacks of books—like my office back home. But just being in a different place has increased my productivity enormously.

I use space to set priorities for my work. I aim to spend as much time in my office as I can, working each day until I can't anymore. That isn't necessarily the most efficient or healthy system. One of my senior colleagues at the center mentioned that he tries to write three full pages every day. A friend from graduate school writes five hours a day. I have not adopted such quantitative strategies, though they seem more humane. Instead I am like the enthusiastic runner who jogs until he falls down.

One of the virtues of a residential fellowship is that it takes scholars out of their normal routines. Atlanta is unfamiliar to me. Since my daily life was completely unformed when I arrived, I can determine any schedule I want.

The difference that makes is striking. On my home campus, one of the most difficult tasks for junior faculty members is to find time to write. I have made a point of writing as regularly as I can, but all faculty members have to attend meetings, advise students, teach classes, grade papers. That is the job, especially at liberal-arts colleges, where the demands on faculty members' attention can be so pressing.

Being away from my normal routine, however, has had an immediate effect. In this new place I write more, and more quickly. I am less distracted and more immersed in my ideas. Sections that had seemed difficult to conceive just months ago have been drafted. Elements of the project that I had been waiting years to articulate fully are now being dealt with head-on.

I suspect that the senior scholars and graduate students at the Fox Center who are drawn from Emory share the same feeling, although probably to a less startling degree. One of them joked that she simply closed her departmental office door and has not gone back. This year, she seemed to suggest, is about something different and new.

So residential fellowships offer the practical advantages of a lot of time, a little money, and a place to work. Other advantages, however, are more attitudinal. At the center, I'm a member of a whole new clan and take part in its intellectual life.

I have participated in "center life" before. As a graduate student at Rutgers University, I was in a yearlong seminar at the Center for Cultural Analysis. That year was an education in the subtle etiquette of intellectual dialogue. Interacting regularly with scholars from outside my institution was an important part of forming my professional posture. Professionalization involves difficult, arduous, on-the-job training. Those skills can only be learned over time, and a research center, I found, is a great place to practice them, because your mistakes have little consequence. Such places are about trying to figure things out.

That's because research centers are designed to be social. One of my friends directed me to a quotation from the writer Stephen Leacock about how he would construct a university from scratch. He said: "I would found first a smoking room," before books, professors, before dorms. His point is that the first thing he would do is create a single place where everyone can meet and talk.

The Fox Center operates in that spirit. There are conversations in the hallways, drinks at bars, dinners at restaurants. One of the arguments for having center as a physical place is that it brings people together, face-to-face, who otherwise would not have met.

The social function is as important as the time, money, and relief from teaching. And while the solitary nature of scholarship is unavoidable in academic life, the social aspect of a research center makes the narrow lifestyle of intense research possible. At the same time, a center collects, debates, and passes on knowledge from experienced to less-experienced scholars. It is a complex organism: an intellectual octopus, a testing ground, a support mechanism, an alternative home.

That's important for young scholars, especially those from liberal-arts colleges. While most such colleges do a valiant job of integrating research into faculty life, the nature of graduate training and hiring makes large research universities a likelier place for professionalization.

A research center, then, can reacquaint junior faculty members with their profession. That has many facets, from the shop talk about who's been hired where and who's sleeping with whom, to the more serious intellectual matters that come with trying to finish long projects. I am in Atlanta to complete my book manuscript. Being at a place with other colleagues who are trying to do the same thing, and with senior colleagues who have already done it, gives me a perspective on the process that I wouldn't have if I was working just as hard alone in my apartment back in Providence.

The difference has made me think that liberal-arts colleges should encourage and train junior faculty members to seek out residential fellowships. I recognize that the demands of teaching and the constraints of tight budgets might mean that many colleges cannot give their assistant professors a year off to go somewhere else. But I also think that some people at liberal-arts colleges are frightened by the intense professionalization of the research center, thinking that it is somehow antithetical to the "liberal" mission of the college. It may be time to see a research center—and the practical advantages and changed attitudes that it brings—as an important part of what it means to be a liberal-arts faculty member. Even if for only one year.

James Mulholland is an assistant professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. His first, second, and third columns about the challenges of balancing research and teaching at a liberal-arts college are available online.