Farewell, Jan Blommaert
Jan's qualities as an academic have been eulogized at length (and he beat everyone to it in an instant classic and widely translated blog post about what made him tick academically). And rightly so. Jan was a role model in more ways than one. A theoretical omnivore with a peerless analytical eye for precision and clarity. An original thinker, avid reader, and hyperproductive author. A demanding but generous colleague with a great sense of humor, and even better conversational skills. As much as I admired Jan as a scholar, what stands out for me is how, later on in his career, he normalized vulnerability and fallow time in the interest of science.
I first met Jan at a dinner party held to celebrate Jef Verschueren's 50th birthday nearly 20 years ago. Both scholars had been widely applauded as well as criticized - no, lambasted - for their groundbreaking publication Het Belgische Migrantendebat (1992), later published in English as Debating Diversity (1998). Jan was in fine form that night: he spoke with aplomb, worked the room to perfection and made us sing along to a song he had composed about Jef's scholarship and leadership. He was brimming with energy and enthusiasm. A powerhouse.
Like many other people I suppose, I found keeping up with Jan's output to be a daunting task. Books, articles, commentaries, blog posts, interviews, tutorials, columns, tweets, keynotes. He was immensely productive. And none of his stuff was boring. He had a way of making things sound crisp. Debatable. And transferable. Moreover, as many others have remarked, Jan was very generous with his time. When my teenage son asked if he could ask him a few questions for a school project, Jan agreed to do so on the spot. Jan also went to great lengths to make you feel like you belonged in academia. He sent congratulatory messages when I had a new paper out, invited me to join numerous academic events and networks, offered advice when I needed it, and pushed me to be a better version of myself. He spoke highly of his colleagues and PhD students. And drove them to excel.
All that creative energy, generosity and output came at a cost: chronic work-related stress. In his typical style, Jan spoke freely and openly about his burnout issues in a series of uncomfortable, painful Facebook posts and YouTube clips. Mental struggles, depression, and burnouts are endemic in academia but hearing Jan talk about how it blindsided him and made him feel utterly incompetent and vulnerable was an eye-opener. It's so easy to get wrapped in academic work-about-work. Jan talked about lying fallow, taking back control, slowing down science, and saying no to reproductive, gap-filling research. He reminded us that science is about the production of ideas, and that without such ideas, scholarly work is, "at best, a reasonably interesting pastime but not science." Amen, Jan.