One of the reasons I go to conferences -- probably the most important reason, actually -- is that I get a huge energy charge from being around people who are actively engaged in their work. It's different at a smaller conference in my subfield, of course, where the debates or topics would be more directly relevant to my own research, but I also get that boost from a huge convention like MLA, where the variety of panels and kinds of scholars attending is equally exciting. It's nothing as clear cut as networking, or citations to useful sources, or copies of new interesting books -- though I often come home from a conference with some or all of those things. It's something more ineffable, something about being around a bunch of smart people who think more or less the way I do --and none of us are being required to think or speak about all the other things that our day to day positions in academia call to our attention. When I was a graduate student, I frequently told my friends that if I ever idealized our time in graduate school, someone should remind me of the misery -- and certainly, there was plenty of that: we were neurotic pawns in much larger games played by our faculty in a highly dysfunctional department. But we also knew that what we were supposed to be doing was reading and writing and talking with each other about ideas. Pretty much the ideal life for nerdy bookworms. And it's not exactly the life that one discovers out in the tenure track.
I really like my colleagues and my job is a good fit for me. But I think most of us in my department would agree that we don't have much of an intellectual culture there. There are lots of reasons for this: high teaching loads for many years (slowly dropping, at least for junior folks) that prevented people from pursuing scholarship -- which now prevents them from getting promoted; high service loads; and a lack of funds to bring in outside speakers, etc. The best published people in my department are explicitly, even agressively solitary, refusing to do any service and also refusing any collaborative or intellectual gestures from colleagues (reading circles, colloquia, etc). Yes, they get their work done -- but it doesn't contribute to a larger community of inquiry. Our current Chair has done a few things to improve the atmosphere in the department, but change is slow, and hampered by inter-generational feuding and resentment.
So I'm pondering a few questions as I plan my schedule for the spring: Is it possible to be a good departmental citizen and colleague and also be a good scholar? I'd like to think that some of my mentor figures were all of those things, but since I was never their peer, I probably wouldn't know. What kinds of institutional structures encourage an intellectually productive atmosphere? Does it all depend upon personality? Or is there something we/I could do to change things for the better? Because bottling the air at MLA isn't going to get me very far, no matter how high and excited I feel when I first return home.