When I leave campus and head into the field, I will bring a trunk with me, the baggage of the academically trained, the baggage of all that I am.
This baggage contains useful tools and useless tools. Perhaps we’ve started to figure out which might be which, and that education will continue—and useful/useless will certainly change over time. But it is clear that the bags have, to a certain extent, been packed and sent ahead. As nice as it might be to clear out all the baggage we’d rather leave behind, it’s impossible.
Part of that baggage is institutional; part of it is personal. We are clothed in our own experiences, identities, and relationships to forms of knowledge, to the academy, to individuals and organizations within and without the academy. The way we speak, carry our selves, and interact; our gender, racial, sexual, and class identities: these all announce us and their traces follow in our wake.
The Public Scholars Seminar has provided us with the opportunity for reflection and discussion about the baggage we bring from academia. For some of us the academic in the field is the terrifying vision of the Hollywood archaeologist—white man, large trunks of scientific equipment, a gun, linen shirts, gin, vermouth, and a copy of some obscure book of romantic poetry, all of this carried by brown laborers who actually find the finds and do the work. But the work of the seminar has helped us to break up this vision and—perhaps this is a contradiction—take ownership of ourselves, our work, and our position in academia rather than simply making an escape.
But one thing that I think we might have done a better job of in the seminar is to more fully consider the baggage that each of us brought with us into academia—and that now accompanies us into the field. Those identities, experiences, and social locations that shape our place and work in the university will now take on new meaning and value. We’ve written and thought a bit about “why we are here”, but those reflections and conversations might have been even more personal and critical. “Why are we here?” is not simply an abstract ethical stance that arises from nowhere. And our place in the university–in the position to entertain such a question–is consequence of various personal pathways, challenges, and privileges.
The answers to the question “why are you really HERE?” are neither simple nor coincidental.
And all of those factors will shape the work that we do as public scholars in the field, though it is difficult to know beforehand exactly how they will shape that work. It is hard to know which personal and structural privileges, disadvantages, strengths, and weaknesses will prove useful tool or useless baggage, an advantage or a liability. It will be hard to know when advantages become liabilities, liabilities become advantages.
The bags are packed, and maybe our greatest strength is a critical self-awareness and flexibility, an ability to repack the bags as necessary. Share the gin; save the gin; use the gin to set things on fire.