For so long we have been in a state of quotidian existential anxiety, the kind that does not encourage reminiscing or introspection because that would mean facing much of what we have or have not been accomplishing—from applying for grants to going on research trips in order to write that article, that chapter, or that book. What we have had to do is put much of our “before” ways of working, and by extension the “before” ways of living, on hold.
My anxiety about looking too closely at the year that has passed is less about facing the things I missed and more about facing things I actually did not really miss about my before life. That field meeting I was supposed to go to. That workshop I would have felt compelled to attend. That archival research I was certain had to happen before I started writing. How much of an impact would these things have really had on my work?
Looking back on the past year forced me to examine my life as a scholar and how my scholarship has been consumed so far. The pandemic has been many tragic things: sickness, depression, death, unemployment. For many of us this past year was also a chance to stop long enough to reconsider what we were doing with our scholarship and the next ten or twenty years that we have left in our productive careers to make an impact on the world as humanists.
For some, this has meant a creative push towards extending their reach beyond the conference circuits and the echo chamber of academia and into “the public.” How do I reach, not just my students at the university, but also their communities? How do I reach communities abroad, those we have for so long ignored, even though our research depends on their knowledge?
How did my inability to go to a conference or an archive feel? The frustration I felt must be how so many of my colleagues in many of the countries in the Global South have experienced all their careers for having the wrong color passport or because they were born in a country with the wrong official language. How do I reach them? More importantly perhaps, how do I ensure they can reach me?
Why are most conferences held exclusively in English with no simultaneous translation available? We spend thousands of euros flying big names to the conference for keynote addresses but we are not willing to spend one thousand to make the conference accessible to colleagues that are more comfortable conversing in other languages. We have always had the money and the technology; this past year has shown us that. Our institutions have just not made reaching across the world a priority. Now we have no excuses. I have no excuses.
In a year when we all had to examine the relevance of our work, we sometimes had to return to the drawing board and rethink what we always thought the humanities were about. For scholars who were lucky enough to stay healthy and continue to have an income, this year has meant an opportunity to rethink their purpose. Though many will go back to the way things used to be in the before times, many will realize that they do not want to or cannot afford to ignore the questions they asked of themselves during the year when they had to do research and writing from the solitary confinement of their bedrooms.