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Glory and passion of scholarly pursuit: how to make it more than an academic bubble

June 28, 2012

Being a street intellectual, but not a pedestrian intellectual, is a mark of one’s success in the life of the mind

In moving through the academic sphere: going for conferences, taking up residencies, being a visiting scholar and writing (sometimes and mostly in isolation, except when you get to talk about your work), I realized, increasingly, that it is important for someone like me, to make my work meaningful to a larger society and audience, even if a lot of the things I do seemed rather abstract, and removed, at this time.

While much of what one learns through deep reflection and experience in scholarly pursuits can help to elevate and bring about new perspectives to the way in which we see the world, and hopefully, refresh tired and repetitious discourse (though academics too can be guilty of that) and even to question the things that we do, which would include all forms of activism and ‘altruistic’ missions. There is a danger of scholarly work becoming so obtuse that one could not convince the 99% of the people who occupy our society to think beyond their immediate personal interest and experience, about what else that life has to offer. Limited individuals as we are, there is no way in which we can experience everything without living for hundreds of years (even if we do, weariness will eventually catch up).

The other thing is to try to experience life through the lives of other people who lived before and with us. The important question will be: how do we do that? Seeing how everyone is connected to each other, in a global sense, will go a long way towards that effort. Always being aware that what you do is not merely a set of intellectual masturbation or life within a bubble will definitely lend meaning to what one does when pursuing an academic or scholarly career. This means trying to cultivate one’s work within the presence of the daily is as important, if not more so, than growing it within the glass-case of lofty ambitions.  If one came from middling class of the Third World like myself (rather than from among the elites, though a number of my younger relatives probably can fall into the category of an ‘elite’ class), where our experience is grounded by the everyday toughness of survival and making it to the next day unscathed by violence both material and psychical, the urgency of having an applicability value to one’s work is ever more present. When I said applicable, i do not mean that we have to go the way of utility in that our work will immediately transform into practical application (if one is in the humanities, or even in the pure sciences, this is unlikely to happen). But it means that our work should address the problems of society in one way or another, even if the nature of what we do, such as medieval Spanish art, or the pre-modern pre-Islamic Malay archipelagos (where the very nature of such labels can be contested), have much to offer in terms of lessons of societies unknown to us, while also probably providing insight into some other more global connections that may had been hidden from our view due to ignorance.

What does this board for myself? It lends a bigger-picture focus as to why I am doing exactly what I am doing, while pulling myself out of continuous isolation, and thus regenerating the ability to relate to the everyday person.

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