Intellectual Communities in the Time of Pandemic: A Case for Meetup.com

It is not news to anyone that this pandemic has fostered a broader sense of isolation. I personally have felt this acutely in my own intellectual life. Usually, I would go to work at my university and talk about random ideas with some of my colleagues – for example Brother Yao (aka Hoke Glover), whose blog Free Black Space is always interesting – and our transition to “social distanced” and online modalities has meant I can no longer do that. I miss this part of my job the most; as a Bangladeshi, I need my adda.

While I do talk to my colleagues, most of these conversations have by necessity become extended shop-talk. One can only talk on Zoom so long, and so regularly, without feeling extremely tired and so we mostly try to keep our digital meet-ups on things related to our work or things in the department. This obviates any chance for fulfilling conversations we had in the department, impromptu, in the hallway, and rarely had anything directly to do with the job directly. They were more about a random idea or notion that was running around in our heads for whatever reason.

Meetups in the Time of a Pandemic

Enter meetups.com. I have not been given any remuneration from this site as I write this. The only reason I’m writing this is because I have found it provides some interesting communities to engage with and become a part of. I first became a member when I moved to Maryland two years ago and attended several meetings of the Professors and Pints Group of DC, which regularly hosted lectures (for a fee) by experts for general audiences, in a bar. It provided a great evening of learning something new and interesting from someone who understood the topic, as well as an excuse to hang out at a bar with other intellectually inclined .

From there I soon started attending other, smaller meetup groups. Initially, these were in person and the DMV area meant a group such as Socrates Cafe Meetup brought people who were both experts and intellectually inclined. Engaging in these conversations have been extremely fulfilling, especially during this time of social isolation. The new modalities have meant that these meet-ups now take place through Zoom. This has also meant that these meet-ups can be done from anywhere and it has led to more people showing up for discussions than ever before. I can sit down on a Sunday and take a break from my research and teaching activities, and engage in addas on abstractions for the sake of addas.

Furthermore, I’ve also been able to talk with people I would never have in any detail because of (if I’m to keep it 100!) differences of age and race. These groups have provided me long interactions with a type of “older, genteel Conservatives,” persons whose views on tradition, social status quo, and economic liberalism mean I would have never mixed with them in any other context. We would be so different because of our lived experiences that they would only be an Other for me, and I an other for them. Sometimes, in these meetings, and this is not meant as snippy as it sounds, it feels like I’m talking to David Brooks.

For example, I just had a discussion on the Meaning of Education today. The discussion I had ranged from ideas of education in terms of training for the economy, citizenship for society. We also ended up talking a lot about politics and there was the mandatory “literacy crises” discourse or the social justice agenda of schools today. There were strawmen all over the place, but it was also informative to actually talk to people about this in person rather than social media soundbites. Conversations are frustrating, but that is what is also interesting about them.

Conclusion

It is good to get out of the bubbles we live in and virtual activities such as meetups.com really do provide interesting ways to meet actual people. Unlike social media spaces, these groups are smaller and have not yet devolved into political signaling and winning debates. I think they are great because so few people use them. They are also great because you can genuinely meet some people you would never ever come across and interact with in your real life.

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