I’ve been based at the University of Exeter this week, a place I worked for 12 years and where I’ve maintained good relationships with several people ever since. In the 12 years I worked here, it was a good, bad, and indifferent experience for me, at various points. But there was one thing it always was, and that was a physical community of scholars. I came in every day. We went to lunch in the staff club. We dropped into each others’ offices for a chat. We ran experiments in testing cubicles. We bumped into each other in the corridor, in the printer room, in the kitchen. We were physically present, and findable, most days of the week, most days of the year.

If I’d spent a week here a decade ago, there would have been other people in the 6-seat shared office I was kindly given a desk, all the time. There would have been people in other offices, and people walking down the corridor. I would have seen and talked to people that I had not pre-arranged to meet a day or more in advance. We’d have gone to the pub, and had deep conversations. In short, it would have been an Academy.

This time, I had pre-arranged meetings. I sat in empty campus coffee bars and staff areas. The conversations I overheard were full of buzz words about finance and the student experience. I don’t think the Academy has died, but I also doubt it exists in physical space any more. It increasingly feels like it doesn’t matter where I live or where I work. I probably will need to live within convenient distance of a large body of undergraduate students because there is still some physicality to undergraduate education. But, beyond that, I could be anywhere and be as isolated or connected as I wished, just as a function of the number of meetings (virtual or physical) I organized.

Is this good, bad, or just different? I don’t know. What I do know is that I need physical interaction, and I need a common sense of purpose with smart people. Maybe, this is now within the project group, within the “agile team”? As we stumble along the second quintile of the 21st century, it feels like a time of massive change.