Reflecting on this past school year, it is clear to me that the social aspect of being a graduate student is nearly as important as academic production. While research is often a monastic endeavor, the occasions in which we do get a chance to socialize with other academics allows us the opportunity to form new connections with key players in our disciplines, as well as to further solidify existing relationships. Leaving the cloister of solitary scholarship also has the benefit of opening you up to unexpected adventures, such as hurricanes and other natural disasters. Last October, during Super Storm Sandy, I realized how sociability and disaster can work together to form valuable, multi-faceted life experiences.
Academic conferences are typically social events that provide a venue to have a few cocktails and banquet meals, show off your research, and perhaps, most importantly, make the necessary connections that will one day (hopefully!) land you that nice tenure-track job at a top-tier research university. My experience at the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIST) conference Baltimore last October is perhaps an outlier in this regard, particularly because much of the conference was overshadowed by the most significant natural disaster to befall New Jersey in recent memory. This conference just happened to take place precisely as Super Storm Sandy was hitting the East Coast. I had decided to stay in Baltimore for the duration of the conference, figuring that a large conference hall likely had generators and would be safer than returning to my home in Jersey City. In fact, the storm barely disturbed Baltimore, with a broken umbrella the extent of my personal loss of property. And, after the storm’s passing, the local brew pub was up and running again and things were just fine. The New Jersey and New York coastline was not so lucky, of course, and finding transportation back to the New York metropolitan area with train service suspended became a challenge for me. My solution was to rent one of the last cars at the nearby Hertz rental agency, and accompanied with another stranded Rutgers friend, make our way north, as quickly as possible, on I-95. The landscape seemed virtually untouched, but when night began to fall and we crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge into NJ, all lights remained dark. We did not see a single street lamp glowing on our entire journey up the Jersey Turnpike.
Driving across the arched span of the Newark Bay Bridge into Bayonne, which normally provides an unobstructed view of the New York Bay area, revealed only a ghostly archipelago of darkened landmasses, with the opulent glow of midtown Manhattan and its radiant Empire State as the sole beacons of visible illumination on the horizon. Driving through the darkened streets of Jersey City, we encountered dazed and lumbering storm-survivors, seeking out food, water, and perhaps most importantly, electricity with which to charge their digital devices. This surreal environment resembled a scene from the zombie-serial, The Walking Dead, with city streets abnormally darkened, and slow-moving pedestrians lurching into oncoming traffic. Fortunately, everyone maintained peace and civility, and surprisingly little crime occurred during this ordeal. And when I finally returned to my apartment, my girlfriend was fine, cooking up some excellent stir-fry and sipping wine with friends. So, thankfully, my fears of a zombie apocalypse turned out to be unfounded, but it would be about six days before we saw our electricity fully restored.
The experience of my trip down to the ASIST conference was clearly instructive as life experience on multiple accounts. I was able to show off and discuss my academic research, and socialize with new professors, established luminaries, and friends just entering the job market. Okay, so maybe a calamitous weather event that precipitated loss of life and billions of dollars in damage was not the ideal background for such an experience, but it did prove that traveling away from home and expanding one’s horizons does make the return home an entirely new experience.
Post Script: Having just returned from a weekend at the Jersey Shore, I can report that there has been considerable work done on moving towards recovery from the damage wrought by Sandy. There is still much work to be done, especially for private residences, but it is heartening to see how much has already been accomplished. Even the Pinball Museum in Asbury Park, which is precipitously positioned right on the boardwalk is back in business!