Let’s Connect!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 | Jeff Olick

Department of Sociology

The new age is upon us—has been for years, but we are catching up. 24-7, always connected, never off-line.  I am, I admit, quite ambivalent about this, as any sane person must be.  In reviewing old department files, I’ve discovered how it used to be.  Before email, the business of the college was conducted on 8.5 x 5.5 inch half-page memo forms, hand-written, and apparently messengered all over grounds by a series of runners. More distant communication required, wait for it… letters: typed, folded, licked, stamped, and mailed.

How wearisome.  Answers could take weeks.  We can now accomplish more, communicate more, in the course of a day than we used to in a month.  At the same time, it’s exhausting. On a normal day, one can easily receive more than a hundred emails, from every corner of the world.  And many of them seem to require an immediate response.  Woe to the department chair, colleague, teacher, committee member who doesn’t respond within hours.  And actually, the woe is fully upon oneself, since shutting off the stream or taking a break means increased pain later.

But here we are, virtually anyway.  With the launch of our new website, with a Facebook page, a departmental Twitter account, an (as yet unpopulated) YouTube channel (stay tuned), and now this blog, the UVA sociology department has fully entered the postmodern age.  Better late than never! And we seem to be ahead of many others, at least in the hidebound world of academia.

My hope with this blog, as with all the other social media presence, is to generate a greater sense of intellectual community—connectivity literally and figuratively. I’ve often yearned for more debate with students and colleagues: in the department, about the department, and for the department; about UVA and about sociology; and about how all these topics are intertwined.  I hope this will allow it, though, again, I am not unwary.  There is the irony that this form of writing (and hopefully commenting) is more casual than publication, yet in some ways just as— perhaps even more—permanent.  Nothing one has ever put on the internet is completely anonymous, completely forgotten, much as it might be entirely forgettable. Does one want an archive of ancient disagreements?  Probably not.  One should also not forget Walter Benjamin’s argument in “The Storyteller”— my favorite critical essay of all time—about the distinction between wisdom and information, and about the lost value of boredom (Langweile—perhaps better translated as slowness or duration): “Boredom is the dream-bird that hatches the egg of experience…”  Thinking takes time, wisdom requires thought, hence, by extrapolation, social media cannot be good for culture.

140 characters cannot substitute even for a brief conversation (or is it now a “convo”?) in the hallway.  And no blog should supplant carefully reasoned, well-written, tested, and revised presentation and argumentation.  But while Twitter leaves me personally cold when people try to use it for more than announcements, I have in fact been impressed by the quality of debate and intellectual ferment on sociology blogs like Orgtheory or Scatterplot, to say nothing of our own grad-student run Fifth Floor.  So I hope you will join me in optimism for this experiment.

How will it work?  For the time being, I will get things going.  I will write about issues of concern to me, to the department, to sociology, to the college… whatever motivates me to write. I hope people will comment and respond (politely!).  Down the not-too-long road, I may ask others to post (or feel free to volunteer).  And we’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch privately or publicly with suggestions (though fair warning: good suggestions may be met with the counter-suggestion that the suggester take responsibility for implementing them!). For now, welcome, and thanks for reading.