A Dynamic Intellectual Community

What I understood as a graduate student that continues to serve me well is that I must always operate from a space of both autonomy and dependency. Those modes must constantly work together, and this truth becomes clearest when one considers intellectual community. I have always understood that I cannot succeed alone, and facing that reality means that I cannot wait for a circle of support to form around me. I must build a scholarly community for myself. Dependency, meet self-determination.

When one understands the complementary nature of community and autonomy, practical strategies abound. Do what acknowledges both. For example, when working on large projects, feedback from professors is important, but not always readily available. This is no time to wait idly. Instead, consider all resources, including other students. Of course, there is no substitute for an adviser’s expertise and the power of their endorsement, but it is important to avoid losing momentum. Having consistent conversations about your ideas will keep you connected to them. You will therefore be better positioned to sharpen them and become confident as you refine your ideas and witness your own growth.

Still, though no one finishes a graduate degree without a support system, everyone needs an internal source of motivation. Mine is a philosophy of personal accountability that took root when I was 12 years old. I had not done my schoolwork but explained that it was my teacher’s fault. My mother’s response was simple: “That teacher has hers. You’d better get yours.”

Today, I realize that my mother’s reaction was not about an antagonistic relationship between teacher and pupil. To the contrary, what the teacher did—or did not do—was of less importance than I initially understood. When I take responsibility for my own success, no one’s actions matter more than mine.

However, even this self-reliance is rooted in a sense of community. I am driven to succeed because I believe my work can have an impact. From the very beginning of this journey, I understood that I had a long way to go—and remembering that kept me eager to learn from every possible resource—but I never underestimated my insights. Therefore, I did not stop working simply because my professors had given certain levels of approval. If I knew the material more intimately, then surely, I was best positioned to see where further progress could be made, if I was willing to keep looking. Then and now, I take responsibility for the quality of my work because it is my contribution to students, peers, my field, the profession, our society.

I will end by emphasizing that building intellectual community is a never-ending process. At different points in your development, you will need different things. Assuming that the exact same constellation of mentors and colleagues will work as well tomorrow as it did today is not realistic. Besides the fact that people will have different pressures in their lives that can make them more or less available at different points, your own interests will likely be dynamic so that you need to be in conversation with a range of people that sometimes changes. This is not a bad thing. You can choose to see it as natural and not some kind of loss. Just keep pulling into your orbit the many resources you need.

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