Recently, I sat in a small meeting and the statement was made that the only way now to conduct serious research was in collaborative mode. This is a statement being made all over the academy, scholarly conferences, and scholarly and professional journals, reflecting growing interest in interdisciplinary work and the recognition of the large scale of issues we face in any research study. On the one hand it seems to make perfect sense, especially in our networked world where collaboration and communication is so much easier. The more people gathered together and the more disciplinary and methodological perspectives focused on a particular problem or research question, it stands to reason that there is a higher likelihood for success. This is the crowd theory of scholarship, and while it may be popular at the moment I am not sure it will stand the test of time, nor am I sure it should. Moreover, such collaborative projects are supported, in most cases, by large grants, funding graduate and other research assistants. How can such projects not be successful? Besides, the individual who made this statement, who was involved in a collaborative project, when approached by others expressing an interest in being included in the project, seemed uninterested in including others. And I am not sure what this means about the nature of such research methodology or it’s validity.
On the other hand, there are many fields, such as history and literary studies, where solitary research not only continues but also is the preferred approach (or for some at least the most interesting). Indeed, there have been some well-documented instances where collaborative projects in those fields have made contributions, but not necessarily to any degree greater than what any single person sitting in an archives or research library might have accomplished. Is creativity more possible when an individual labors on, than the group-think that might occur with large collaborative projects? Arguments will rage on about this, of course, but the main point is that creative insights will still emanate from individual scholars and other thinkers even as the university and industry embraces large-scale projects now made possible by the Internet. There will always be both opportunities and needs for individuals to look at the world’s problems and develop creative solutions. Creativity is not the sole domain of collaborative, interdisciplinary work. Never has been, never will be. Besides, more brains do not necessarily mean better or clearer thinking (anyone ever visiting a faculty meeting over a span of a couple of hours can attest to this, especially as they wonder what hit them).
Solitude, or another way of stating it, quiet, is becoming harder to find and to justify in our era. Connectivity is the norm, and you can see evidence of this everywhere. People are constantly checking their e-mail, making calls on their cell phones, reading Facebook, or tweeting wherever they are – airports, libraries, malls, on the beach, and in church. Most talks, classroom presentations, and sermons now start off with the reminder to turn off your cell phones; that this advice is not heeded is amply demonstrated by the random and varied ring tones periodically demanding the attention of their owners. Focused attention on any one task seems impossible now, and our younger generation has grown up functioning in this fashion. The question is, of course, just what we may be losing in this climate.
One particular loss might be a degree of civility. It is difficult these days to have a conversation with someone for very long before their cell phone rings or they pull it out to check their messages and e-mail. I have heard of stories of individuals interviewing for jobs who pause in the middle of an interview to answer their phone. Phones ring in the classroom on a regular basis, and, along with other sounds emanating from our portable electronic devices, we are constantly reminded that there is no escape from the outside world. Sales clerks, in the middle of dealing with a customer, stop to answer their phone. In the middle of conversations, people stop to check their email. Everyone has their favorite stories of such breaches of polite conduct they have witnessed, and the point is clear – we are afraid of falling behind or of being alone. In the interest of communication, we have become desensitized to what communication really means or how it works.
Some might argue that this connectivity enhances solitude. Perhaps. In a volume on writing creative non-fiction, we find one possibility: ‘When you look at our tendency these days to interface with technology rather than one another, perhaps the surprise is not that memories are flourishing but that anyone questions the trend. Neuropsychologists are discovering that the impulse for story is likely hard-wired into our brains. The less we talk to one another, the more our personal narratives – our confessions, our dark sides, our recitations of the things we do in secret – will seek other ways to emerge, finding voice in the genre of memory” (Lee Gutkind and Hattie Fletcher, eds., Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction [New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2008], pp. 98-99). In other words, we will spend our days and nights facing a computer screen, alone, in new forms of virtual communities. We decrease the amount of healthy personal interaction, and we do not substitute time for reflection; our attention is on browsing or surfing the web or losing ourselves in social media.
What kind of solitude, then, should we seek? We need to have time when it is quiet, where we can read, relax, and reflect. We generally associate such solitude as a quiet place where we can withdraw. Rebecca Solnit, for example, notes that “libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers into it. . . “ (Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby [New York: Viking, 2013], p. 63). Museums, parks, cemeteries, woodland trails, and so forth, can serve the same purpose. Take a chance. Leave all your portable electronic devices, and go for a walk. You might be surprised what you think about.