The Invisible College

I’ve been reading The Age of Wonder, a book about Romanticism in the scientific explorations of the 18th century. Though part of my enjoyment of this book comes from the in-depth look at the history of science, particularly astronomy (and Caroline Herschel!), what has particularly struck me is the prominence of personal relationships in the furthering of scientific discovery. Beyond what we now term “networking,” friendships and even familial relationships among talented and enthusiastic observers of the natural world helped fuel the age’s engine of science.

This social model of intellectual support is a form of invisible college, a term Diana Crane used to describe the networks of scientists that contribute directly or, more often, indirectly to their research paths. You may or may not ever co-publish with a fellow of your invisible college, but his or her intellectual influence on your life enriches your own work. (I’m paraphrasing and extrapolating the idea pretty heavily here, as I don’t have a copy of Crane’s original study on hand. A good overview, with editorial by Crane, is available here: I was introduced to the concept during coursework on scholarly communication with Debbie Rabina at Pratt.)

These kinds of relationships, paired with modern ease of information sharing, are helping to fuel not only formal interdisciplinary study but also the general tide of awareness of current ideas. Yesterday I posted a congratulatory note here in support of the bedrock of my personal invisible college. She and my friends in disciplines ranging from architecture to international policy to law help enrich my intellectual life through the sharing of articles and news items from their areas of expertise and through challenging me to act as a nascent expert in information science and cultural studies. My close colleagues from library school help keep me up-to-date on the aspects of the field that I don’t interact with directly but benefit from familiarity with. We use social media not only to share personal information or the latest comedic video, but to expand the horizons of our understanding.

I’m grateful for the tools at my disposal and the ability to use them with ease. I’m also enormously lucky to have been part of a vibrant intellectual community at Pratt and to have stumbled into friendships with brilliant people.

We are living in an age of shifting social options, a deluge of information, and enormous challenges to the academy. I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that we may some day return to the personal model of scholarly pursuit illustrated in The Age of Reason.

Then again, maybe I’m just a romantic.