What are good ways to find out what's going on in a particular field?
September 3, 2004 9:38 AM   Subscribe

The damn liberal arts corruptors have tricked me into thinking that the "life of the mind" is where it's at, and that minds live best when reading books, and then arguing (or talking) about what was read. I've read too much Invisible Adjunct to think that graduate school is really a good idea overall—noble penury isn't my idea of a good time—but everything about it other than the hyperprofessionalization and lack of decent job prospects is immensely appealing. My question to you, academically-minded metafiltrates: what are good ways to find out what's going on in a field, what are the excellent essays/books, and (this is the main question) how do you find people who share that interest who aren't themselves academics to, you know, talk about it? I guess what I want is an approximation of grad school, probably impossible, but I'd be interested in what others have to say.
posted by kenko to Education (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You and I are in a similar boat, kenko. I live a life of the mind. I'm a true intellectual, which doesn't mean I'm smarter-than-the-average-bear. It just means I love to think, read and discuss ideas.

Many people here will disagree with me, but I found (to my surprise and chagrin) college to be an extremely ANTI-intellectual environment masquerading as the opposite. I went to three universities -- two undergrad schools and one grad school – and they all turned out to be pretty lousy experiences.

I found college to be about busy-work and ritual. TRUE intellectual exploration can involve straying from a curriculum, and that was frowned upon. TRUE intellectual exploration has nothing to do with making money or networking your way to a future career, but that was smiled upon. TRUE intellectual exploration does NOT involve subservience to professors, who are often jaded and no longer (if they ever were) deeply passionate about their fields. TRUE intellectual exploration has nothing to do with academic politics, but academia -- strangely enough -- is riddled with academic politics.

I thought that, maybe, if I couldn't find serious mind-play in my classes, I could find it from the student body. I had heard romantic tales of late-night bull-sessions in the dorm-rooms. They turned out to be true to their name: BULL-sessions. I found that my classmates were more interested in being PERCEIVED as smart than actually discussing ideas. Once they had dropped their nightly load of supposedly intellectual trivia, they moved very quickly onto drinking and sex. And those few who really wanted to talk ideas were usually not very deep thinkers. They were generally "Star Trek" philosophers, who would stare into space and say things like, "hey man, did you ever consider that, like, reality might not be ... you know ... like … real?!?"

(I also found that criticizing school -- while in school -- was like dissing Jesus in a Church. It didn't make me very popular. People spend a lot of money to go to college, and it's important to most of them that it seem worthwhile.)

Which is all a way of saying, "I feel your pain."

I haven't been able to solve this problem completely for myself. In some ways, I got lucky. I married a woman who is very smart and loves to discuss. I have a couple of friends who are similar.

One thing I tried recently was to post very specific, very long personal ads on craigslist (in the "platonic" section). I got some bites, and now I have a few smart email pen-pals.

I always LONG to find an online community of like-minded people, but so far most of the ones I've found -- even the ones that advertise themselves as havens for the smart-set -- are mostly comprised of signal-to-noise ratios that are heavily weighted towards noise.

We live somewhat far apart, but you're always welcome to email me. I'd love a bull-session without the bull.
posted by grumblebee at 10:24 AM on September 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

well, i did the graduate student-at-large thing for a while. it gave me access to the library with the journals, the students and the professors. like grumblebee grumbles about, there's a lot of pseudo-intellectual ego stroking in unversities (as in life), but universities give you the tools for the topics and the space for the discussion; you just have to find the people worth talking to.

you can, of course, always go to the graduate libraries and look at the academic publications in fields you're interested in. then you'll see what the new thoughts are and what sources people are using to develop them. and there's always SSRN.

i don't know if the schools here in chicago do the graduate student-at-large thing (i was living in austin when i did it). one thing that is available around here are opportunities to get into conversations about the metaphysics of art. AIC, the MCA and a couple local groups (mondo, for instance) have regular events (and AIC's student shows are good for this)--the events themselves are not necessarily going to provide you what you're looking for, but you can meet people who are looking for that sort of discussion, who have access to the new ideas in the discipline. at a recent first friday, i thought i was expounding on something to my sister, but she had walked away and i was talking to a total stranger. we had a brief, well-informed conversation about media and modern art. alas, i failed to get his name.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:44 AM on September 3, 2004

My wife's a big believer in book groups - maybe you could start (or join) one, that has a bent toward the sorts of books that deal with ideas you'd like to discuss.
posted by jasper411 at 10:59 AM on September 3, 2004

Well, I had this problem, and so -- I went to grad school! Right now I love it. There are plenty of horror stories a la Invisible Adjunct, but don't let that discourage you. Plenty of the older students in my program are going on to real jobs and living the dream. Don't give up hope because of a bunch of blogs that portray academia as a lose-lose career choice; and, yes, there are office politics in academic life, but there's office politics in every profession. I don't really see what that has to do with anything.

Short of that, to keep abreast, there are libraries. I don't find reading academic journals particularly enlightening (yet), but I'm happy with the New York Review and the Atlantic, both of which have enough pointers towards good books to keep you going forever. And you could always start more threads about books on Metafilter -- I've often thought it would be great if there were a BookFilter, where you could go for purely bookish discussion in a community way. I'm sure lots of folks here would love to have reasoned discussion with you about most anything you'd like to talk about.

My only other advice is, move to a big city if you're not already in one. Go to a lot of readings, cultural events, and lectures. In New York the life of the mind has outposts at a zillion bookstores, coffee shops, and even at the Y. Tons of people are aspiring journalists, novelists, professors, actors. In a lot of ways -- at a university or in a big city -- it's basically all about population density.
posted by josh at 10:59 AM on September 3, 2004

I've often thought it would be great if there were a BookFilter...

posted by grumblebee at 11:09 AM on September 3, 2004

Response by poster: one thing that is available around here are opportunities to get into conversations about the metaphysics of art.

Oh awesome. I wrote my BA essay on the ontology of art (sorta). That's cool. As for grad-student-at-large, I hadn't considered it, but I'm not sure how it would work out with job scheduling.

My only other advice is, move to a big city if you're not already in one.

Yeah, I realized not long after posting that this is basically a more elitist/specialized form of the popular "I want to meet people but was never properly socialized, help!" question.
posted by kenko at 11:16 AM on September 3, 2004

A lot of this depends on what kind of intellectual life you want. Like josh, I'm in New York, but I haven't been able to find what I crave. If I wanted discussions with a lot of intellectual name-dropping, I'd be in heaven. I'm not just talking about snobbish smart-talk. I'm talking about a legitimate pastime: trading book/movie/music/etc suggestions, asking friends if they've seen the latest Arthur Miller play, wandering around museums... all that stuff is great, and I love it, and it's in NYC (and Chicago) is spades. But for me, it's not enough. It's skimming the surface.

Where are the people who like to have deep, probing discussions? Where are the people who ENJOY having their intellectual foundations blown apart and reformed? Where are the people who like to ask why? why? why? with a burning need to get to the bottom of everything (and when they reach that bottom, they ask "why is it the bottom?")

I've found that most people have their limits. They enjoy witty discussions about the latest art-trend, but if you really delve, they eventually get a head-ache and move on.
posted by grumblebee at 11:18 AM on September 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Ah, but that's not really the BookFilter I want: I just finished reading John Donne's "Songs and Sonnets," and I want to post a link to it and have a big ol' book discussion: what do you think when you think about this book? Book news, or links to book news on the web, doesn't really do it for me.

I *was* in New York (I dearly miss it) -- now I'm in Boston for grad school. I think that, as grumblebee points out, this isn't really about socialization, kenko. You can have a very active social life, full of intellectual discussion, and never have the sort of thing going on that you're looking for. What you're looking for is what all those literary greats had: a "club," where everyone reads big books and sits around til the wee hours arguing about them. I honestly think that grad school is the modern-day equivalent, at least if what you're interested in is literature or philosophy or something without a non-academic analogue: if you're interested in history or politics, there are careers in journalism too.

Maybe you should get into a funded grad program, hang out for a couple of years, and see what develops. At the very least you'll meet people whom you can talk to; you could also turn an M.A. or Ph.D. into a career in journalism or whatnot.

(And I know that your question ruled out grad school -- I'm a little bit trapped in my own bubble, since it was the only solution I found to your conundrum.)
posted by josh at 11:31 AM on September 3, 2004

Well, the only description I see of Bookfilter's mission is "BookFilter: We discuss books, magazines, authors, publishers and the like." Which would include what you're after. The problem with BF, as I see it, is that it's like a ghost town. We could try to liven it up.

To be honest, I haven't thought much about online book-discussion forums. Have you researched this, josh? Maybe there's a good one.

I would be very into your "Songs and Sonnets" discussion. Of course, I'd have to read "Songs and Sonnets" first.
posted by grumblebee at 11:41 AM on September 3, 2004

Grumblebee, I haven't thought much about them either. Maybe I will check some out over the next day or two!
posted by josh at 11:55 AM on September 3, 2004

see, i think on some level it is a social interaction skill. you have to talk to a lot of people to find out which ones will be interested in talking about the distinction among unsinn and sinnlos and widersinn for three day straight and which ones only want to reach a quick consensus that meaning is, essentially, personal metaphor and impossible to share.

even the ones who are interested in it reach their limits. philosophy bakes no bread after all.

it's all about kissing toads.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:01 PM on September 3, 2004

Response by poster: That, and even the activity that G. Bee describes as "skimming the surface" wouldn't exactly be unwelcome... all my friends are vanishing in a post-graduation diaspora.

/me tries really hard not to make a crude comment re: kissing toads.
posted by kenko at 12:06 PM on September 3, 2004

Well, I think that if you want DO want to "skim the surface," (which I don't this is a bad thing -- just not what I personally want), you shouldn't find it too hard.

The book club idea is a good one.

Also, try joining brainstorms. It's an online community for "skimming" intellectuals. You have to email the host and ask for membership, but they'll let you in if you ask. That tiny hurdle keeps some of the noise-factor out. Once there, you can (if you wish) go to one of the many meet-ups and get to know people offline.
posted by grumblebee at 12:16 PM on September 3, 2004

(josh, my memory is that there were some pretty intense book discussions on Brainstorms. I haven't been a member for a couple of years, but I'm sure it's still the same.)
posted by grumblebee at 12:18 PM on September 3, 2004

Not exactly related to your question, but for info on what Grad School is like, this is highly suggested reading.
posted by jmd82 at 12:30 PM on September 3, 2004

you have to be pretty damn special if you want to discuss science based subjects at a graduate level without going to grad school. at least, if you expect those conversations to be at all relevant to current research. my more limited experience of the "borderline" subjects of computer science and philosophy suggest that they again require the sort of knowledge that you're going to have difficulties with (i, at least, can do no more than follow along in other people's wakes, trying to make sense of what they do, while making no useful contributions of my own).

i'd always assumed that it was the same in the liberal arts, at least at the higher levels. i can imagine that, given the less well defined subject areas, there's a lot more scope for bullshit and waffle, but the best people, at the cutting edge, must be good. and i don't see how you could keep up with that - whatever it is - without putting in a similar amount of effort.

so my suspicion has always been that while the arts make it easier to bluff your way - fooling yourself as well as others - if you really want to make it, you need to put in the effort. which means doing it as your full time job. which pretty much requires either a private income or academia.

maybe we're talking about different things. maybe you're just interested in chatting about what is already known, and exploring that with others, rather than trying to expand human knowledge itself. that's fine - it's what i do myself - but it's not what universities are ultimately there for (even if it's all that the vast majority that go through them ever do). but in that case why raise going to university at all?

(apologies if this sounds arrogant. it's not meant to be. i too am an also-ran. i have a phd from a good university, got close enough to the good people to know that i'm not, and now watch from the sidelines. i just sense a confusion in your post - you don't seem to make a clear distinction between watching and playing. that distinction is what grad school is all about.)
posted by andrew cooke at 1:04 PM on September 3, 2004 [1 favorite]

Well, I don't think kenko was talking about trying to do this in the sciences.
posted by crunchburger at 2:20 PM on September 3, 2004

andrew cooke, I think you're right about the sciences, though I -- without any formal science training -- can (and have) conversed with many math/science professionals. It's true, I can't add too much of my own, but I CAN ask meaningful questions. I have an exhaustive supply of them. I've been able to get to this level by doing a lot of reading. Sometimes, I've even been able to spark a new idea in a scientist's mind because, wheras he will always have much more specific knowledge than me, I am usually more of a generalist than him -- so I can cut across fields.

I think you're wrong about the arts (though I bet many here would disagree with me). To me, the special thing about art is that it's open to everyone. Not everyone can MAKE good art (though those that can are often NOT schooled), but everyone can enjoy it, talk about it and analize it.

In general, school does bad things for art appreciation & understanding. There's a silly history of humanities people feeling like they have to be as scientific as their cousins in the sciences, and they do this by making up all sorts of jargon.

But -- after YEARS of being in the arts -- I've yet to come across an idea that can't be simply and clearly explained to lay people.

I'm not saying art can't be profound. I would never say that, as I fancy myself an artist. But its profundity is available to anyone who wants to grab it and take a look at it.

Of course, some art goes down the gullet better with an understanding of its historical or linquistic context. But even then, you don't need to spend years getting a PHD. You can read a history book. You can read the footnotes at the bottom of the pages of "King Lear."

Another way of saying this is that when Einstein came up with E=MC^2, he was making a profound statement that was not open to the general public. But when a literature prof says "textual analysis of Hamet reveals the dialectical nature of symbolic/historical normative modes," he is saying something much less profound and interesting (and important) than the audience member who says, "that Hamlet reminds me of my brother, Eddy."
posted by grumblebee at 2:21 PM on September 3, 2004

I'm in grad school and running off to some kind of pseudo-intellectual thing, I suppose, but in the meantime I know that Crooked Timber has both community and a fantastic assortment of links along the right hand side. Something there might grab you. There was also another site I used to frequent (before grad school) -- I can't remember the name off the top of my head. It had a kind of rainbow effect -- different colours arranged horizontally. Anyone know of what I speak? Art/Culture/Film/Philosophy were some of the topics there...c'mon, someone?
posted by fionab at 2:53 PM on September 3, 2004

that rainbow place - can't remember the name either - was closed to new visitors. if you ask, the guy says he will let you in, but doesn't. at least, that's my experience (after several emails gently reminding him, getting friendly replies and no action).

crooked timber is pretty bad at the moment with politics (worse than here, even). is it normally better? i've only been reading for a few weeks.

grumblebee - sure, anyone can say "oooh that's pretty". i presumed there was more to liberal arts than that, though. i don't think most people could have written "culture and imperialism" (maybe that shows my age) for example. alternatively: i can explain special relativity to you (give me time, and your effort, and you'd understand - it's not that hard), but it doesn't make me einstein; nor would it let you make useful contributions to physics.

i think i was being too harsh/elitist anyway. i guess many people do go to grad school thinking just that they'll learn some fun things and have nice conversation.

all i can offer as an alternative forum is ephilosopher (for, you guessed, philosophy). i just found rhizome.org a few minutes ago, which looks interesting, but is a bit geeky, perhaps, and i'm not sure how much of a community there is, yet. also, check out mailing lists as well as sites (mine's no good for arts, but design-l at psu is perhaps ok if you're a lefty architect, for example).
posted by andrew cooke at 3:32 PM on September 3, 2004

Response by poster: I've been reading Crooked Timber off and on since not long after it was launched (someone linked to it from here, actually, in the context of a political thread) and my impression is that it's pretty much always been mostly politics. The lefty answer to the Volokh Conspiracy.
posted by kenko at 4:49 PM on September 3, 2004

andrew cooke / grumblebee: I think you're both right. In both the humanities and the sciences, you just have to *know a lot of stuff*, and the more you know the more you appreciate and understand. English professor jargon doesn't usually add much to the conversation -- but, generally speaking, an English prof worth his or her salt will have read more or less every "important" book ever, and that's a big part of what makes academia a job rather than a hobby. I'm studying (or should be studying) for my comprehensive exams right now, and the breadth of knowledge required is crazy. I think it's probably safe to say that Lionel Trilling or Northrop Frye or Helen Vendler (who has, basically, *memorized* most of English lyric poetry) have their appreciative and explanatory abilities sharpened by all that broad reading and knowledge.

That's not to say, obviously that art appreciation isn't open to everyone! Rather, I guess I'm trying to say that you do get better at it over time, the more you're exposed to, the more you think about it, and the more you're challenged to defend your opinion. Which, I think, brings us back around to the original point of the post: sitting around and jawing idly about how Hamlet reminds you of your cousin Eddie is not as rewarding or fun as following it up in a hard-core fashion.

On my first day of graduate school, the director of graduate studies told us two things. First, he said, grad school was not about "erudite coffee conversation"--it was about knowledge, knowledge, knowledge. Second, by the time you finish, you need to know more about some subject--large or small--than more or less anyone else if you're going to be successful. I suppose that's more or less held true *so far* -- which is not particularly far -- into grad school. So, that's my take on the whole thing, anyway.
posted by josh at 6:02 PM on September 3, 2004

Those are the horns of the dilemma: you have a compelling, if unclear, attraction to the academy; however, the grad departments are providing academic professional training, not super-college. A Mefi member talked in some threads about cutting people who want "erudite conversations over coffee" out of his Poli Sci program applicants vs. those who will really slog through the data stables until they qualify for the guild.
posted by crunchburger at 6:27 PM on September 3, 2004

I believe the rainbow place is Barbelith. I've never attempted to join up, but I scan their threads occasionally, as the signal-to-noise ratio tends to be good.
posted by brookedel at 2:48 AM on September 5, 2004

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