Saturday, October 30, 2010

Membership has its privileges

I've always enjoyed being on the inside.  Being one of the people who is in the know.  In another setting, that appetite might have made me a gossip-monger.  In academia, it's made me an administrator and an officer of associations.

As an officer of the association whose meeting I am currently attending, I feel emboldened to introduce myself and shake hands with famous scholars whose work I admire.  Just this evening I made the acquaintance of Margaret Miles, whose book Seeing and Believing is one of the seminal texts in religion and film.  I tapped Diana Eck on the shoulder at a session earlier today and shared pleasantries.  For a person who still thinks of herself as a young scholar sitting at the feet of various masters, this is huge.  I am starstruck, yet the ribbon on my name badge identifying me as an officer of the organization provides the entree.  I make the overture and convey my appreciation for their work.  We communicate as colleagues.  I feel for the moment at least that I inhabit the same space as scholars whose work I admire, emulate, and have made use of.

I find myself in a bit of a different position than many of the meeting attendees I pass in the hallways.  There are undoubtedly hundreds or thousands who attend the conferences year after year, sitting in the room with folks whose work they have read and taught, and never feeling they attain the stature to cross that gap between the unsung toiler and the celebrated author.

From the moment I joined the organization and began to approach people whose writings I'd studied and analyzed, at the urging of my teachers, to ask questions and get advice, I was struck by the extraordinary collegiality of this branch of the academy.  My students probably wouldn't think of e-mailing a scholar whose article they might have read in class to get more insight; I urge them to make the move.  Nine times out of ten, the response is positive, generous, and helpful.  No matter how famous or anonymous, we are all part of the same academy.  The fact that we live that out so explicitly in this meeting is one of the wonders and miracles that give me hope for my discipline, my profession, my community, my country.

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