Academia selects against community ties


Academics tend to harbor a conceit that our job is really different from other jobs.

This might not be as true as folks like to believe, though we have flexibility and freedom to do almost whatever we want. Another thing that makes us really different from most people is that we move around a lot. Most of us are close to or well past 30 before we move to the city where we’ll set down some serious roots. And, there’s a decent chance that we’ll move again.

I think one consequence of academics being so mobile is selection against involvement in the local community.

The professoriate is often seen through a bucolic stereotype. Think of the young PhD arriving in a college town with freshly-inked diploma, settling down to the spend the rest of their days doing the academic work and deeply rooted in the community. Some of us have that experience, but a lot of us don’t. Regardless, when we do arrive, we’ve been so mobile that we might not even have had the experience of living deeply in a community.

There are so many calls for scientists to be involved in outreach and work with their communities. Effective outreach happens when you’re connected to your community. How many of us can say we have deep connections to our community? Almost none of us are living in the communities where we grew up, where we had deep ties as children.

My own experience is an outlier. I live 20 minutes from the house where I grew up. When I go mini-golfing, it’s the same place I went 30 years ago. I go to the same beach when I was a kid, and go hiking and sledding in the same spots (though there is less snow nowadays). My spouse’s work is about a minute away from my high school. I have four siblings, and well all live within an hour of one another. A few minutes from our home is a cemetery that bears the grave marker of my son’s great great great grandparent. Like no place else, this is home, and it’s always been that way.

Though this is home, I’ve strayed from my upbringing. I’m not involved in the same communities where I was raised. My parents sent me to a few private schools, and now I’m committed to public education. I became an Eagle Scout, and now I won’t support the anti-gay and anti-atheist values of the BSA. My family was a fixture in our local church, but the last time I returned was a some years ago, for my mom’s funeral. Nonetheless, the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains is home, and my sense of place in Los Angeles and California is firm. So when I’m volunteering in our public school, talk to a community organization, or participate in an outreach event — it’s partly because I’m giving back to the same community that raised me. As I do research in the Natural History Museum, it’s the same place that I roamed as a kid, yet even more spectacular, though with the same gorgeous dioramas. When I go down to work in the South Bay, I’m working with students to help build a Los Angeles for the next generation. This is my place.

But, as wonderful as it is, am I here for good? I can’t say for sure. After all, I’m an academic. I love my job in so many ways, and I have the option of staying there for good, but I get new Provosts and Deans all the time, and conditions might turn south promptly. Unlike many other careers, if I need to change employers, that probably means moving to a new city. After all, it’s not like another university in LA is going to be hiring a full professor of ecology and entomology when I’ll need a new job. Compared to academics, my local roots are still really deep, but nowadays, academia is a mobile profession.

The funny thing is, even though I think of myself as a local, to my friends here, I’m almost like an interloper. They either grew up here, or showed up after college and never left. Of my 45 years, I’ve spent all but 12 elsewhere. People think I moved here in 2007, when really, that was my homecoming. I was away for a grad school (Colorado), postdoc (Texas), visiting faculty position (DC-ish), and then a few hours away as a professor (San Diego) before I came back to LA. And of course, even when I’m here, I might not be here, because of fieldwork, seminar, a workshop, panel, conference, or something else. So even though I have a huge sense of place, there are people who moved here from afar who feel that this place is more theirs than mine. And maybe they’re right.

When we’re calling for university scientists to do more outreach and get involved in communities, let’s keep in mind that for a lot of us, it’s hard to identify what our own community is. There’s such an emphasis on publishing our work and getting money that the short-term rewards of community involvement are hard to see. And looking past the short-term is hard to do when you don’t know where you might be living five years in the future.