Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Science as Hustle and Bustle (On Travelling)

The decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity [Betrieb, hustle] also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine along with him which books must be written.

Martin Heidegger
"The Age of the World Picture"

Research has come to involve a great deal of "hustle and bustle"—Heideggerian Betrieb. This morning, I want to reflect on how we can incorporate at least our travels into the writing process.

I have always had a hard time travelling. I find that it interrupts my routine, that it takes me out the stable framework within which I can work. But travelling is an unavoidable part of scholarship today. And after becoming an editor I've been learning how to do it much more painlessly.

Most researchers will have to attend at least one conference every year. Others will also be invited to hold talks at other universities. And at some point in your career you are likely to spend a semester or year as the guest of another institution. For my part, I have been getting used to travelling in order to hold workshops.

The most important thing is to make sure that the trip is "worth it". You must compare what you will get out of it with the investment of time and money that it necessarily implies. But once you have decided that it is, essentially, worth the effort, don't go on the cheap. Make sure you spend the money you need to give you a reasonable amount of comfort. Minimize the amount of practical problems you might have by choosing a good airline (including a handy airport) and a good hotel (located close to wherever you are spending the day).

Also, my advice is to avoid trying to do too much. Some people think that if they are going somewhere on business they should take in some of the local sights. My view is that you will be happier just showing up, getting the job done, and going home. Come back on a real vacation if you really want to see something.

I have noticed that there are many places in Europe I can go rather easily. If my destination is three hours flying time away, I can leave my home after 7:00 am hold a half-day of workshops after lunch, followed by a full day of activities the next day, another half-day of workshops, and then I can fly home in time for dinner on the third.

Such a trip allows me to stick to my blogging and jogging schedule. This may seem over-zealous but it is one way of keeping things in proportion. If I were going to Singapore, for example, I would not be able to work the trip seamlessly into my daily routine. So it would be a different kind of trip, demanding a different kind of decision.

The most important thing, however, is to be very clear about why you are going. How will you incorporate the experience you gain from your trip into your research? You will hopefully learn something new and you will almost certainly make new professional contacts. You need to make sure you have the "absorptive capacity" to take this information in.

We are "thrown" into the world. But we can enter the fray resolutely or frantically. I, of course, suggest the former.

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