Now 50, I can see that my scholarly or intellectual life has turned out differently from what I had imagined at age 25. Then I had a 9-5 job in politics–for the “citizens’ lobby,” Common Cause. I had written a dissertation that became an obscure book, and I was working on a novel that was later published, albeit without much notice. My job left me time to work on other research. I had no idea what I’d achieve, but I thought I knew what the goal looked like. I’d produce writing. It would be helpful (I hoped), but also distinctive, original, and influential. Most of my intellectual work would be done alone. I would stand somewhat aside from society and its institutions, offering critical perspectives. I would find new things to say to readers about perennial authors and issues.
Today, my actual work consists of meeting with people, reading and writing, preparing talks, reading others’ draft papers, grant proposals, budgets, and planning documents, proposing projects, sending emails to groups of colleagues on timely matters, starting and editing Google docs, and facilitating discussions, whether in classrooms or elsewhere. When I ask myself why I do any of these particular tasks, the answer is almost always that someone has asked me to. (My blog posts are exceptions, and misleading ones if they’re all you know about me.) I care about the person who has asked me for each task–usually at a personal level, but often also because of our respective roles in organizations. When things go well, I feel that my work contributes to a network. Even when I’m the sole author of a document, it is usually destined for a publication that has been jointly planned by a group.
My work is much less original than I might have hoped or planned for it to be. Not only are my thoughts typically in the same vein as what others have already said, but often I have said the same things before. For example, I have already argued for civic education in k-12 schools many times. But perhaps I have not made yet that case to school superintendents, or historians, or people in Ukraine. If the cause seems valuable, I’ll find a new way to make the same points.
I’ve focused much more intensively and narrowly than my natural inclinations would predict. Starting all the way back in grade school, I had a tendency to grasp concepts superficially: just well enough to be able to say something that worked for the situation. Then I would get bored and want to learn something new. This is mostly a vice. But as things have turned out, I’ve worked on certain topics (civic education in US schools, youth voting, public deliberative forums, measuring civic life, aspects of political reform) for decades. My views may be wrong–they are certainly fallible–but they are not superficial. I’ve heard cogent critiques from all sorts of angles and have made appropriate changes. I’ve pursued some questions like a bloodhound with his nose to the ground.
My work is much more empirical than I’d expected: I deal more with statistics than with classic texts. It’s more collaborative. It’s less glamorous. Of course, glamour is in the eye of the beholder, but writing about famous authors has a certain cachet that seems missing in a grant proposal or a budget report.
I’m motivated much more by demand than supply, to use economists’ language; or by relationships rather than self-expression. Sometimes I chafe at that, wanting to say something more ambitiously distinctive. But working for and with other people increases the odds of making a difference. So does focus, and especially focus on relatively narrow and overlooked topics.
I also work much harder than I did at 25. I think that’s driven by demand. When you’re a young scholar, you do what you must to be employed. Beyond that, you’re motivated mostly by factors internal to you: curiosity, ambition or sheer love of the material. Once you’re securely embedded in a network, the importance of all those motivations diminishes. Often I find myself hard at work late at night because someone who’s doing something valuable needs my contribution (no matter how modest it may be) by the next morning. The net result is a lot more work per week than I thought I could do half a lifetime ago.
I think that if I could beam a message back to myself at age 25 that described my current life, the youthful me would probably be disappointed. But that’s just because this 50-year-old wouldn’t be able to convey the satisfactions of a life focused on participation in organizations and networks.