Academics fly a lot: to research sites and archives, to conferences and workshops. Traveling long distances to present papers and interact with colleagues are significant events in academic calendars, as well as important opportunities for networking, professional development, and socializing. As a work-culture, academia values, rewards, and has required far-flung travel, which has shaped its dominant values and perspectives.
These work expectations have several downsides. Flying has terrible repercussions for the environment: air travel represents most of the typical researcher’s work-related carbon emissions and contributes to environmental injustices in the communities that live near airports and on the frontiers of climate change. Conference travel is also expensive. Reimbursements are often insufficient, late, or unavailable, pushing stress and debt onto graduate and precariously employed scholars. Care work needs to be arranged when trips pull researchers away from family members or when circumstances require that family travels as well. Mobility itself can be a fraught proposition for disabled academics, while increasingly securitized airports and borders present further challenges for minority populations.
Travel, in short, is not something academic workers or other knowledge professionals should take for granted. The requirement to travel frequently shapes who shows up at conferences and thus, who participates in the conversations that define a community of study. It also shapes environments, warming the world and expanding the sacrifice zones of global hypermobility.
Presently, efforts to control the spread of Covid-19 have grounded many of us. If there is an equalizing effect to the pandemic, it’s in the end of easy, international travel that has undergirded research norms in the academy for decades. Conferences have been canceled, lectures delayed, and events calendars thrown into disarray. Individual academics and large scholarly societies have been forced to think about how to meet without airplanes and hotels, and what sorts of social and intellectual exchanges might be salvaged or created in the process.
Travel, in short, is not something academic workers or other knowledge professionals should take for granted.
As with any crisis, the loss of convention creates the opportunity for reform and redress. As many university instructors have learned in the shift to teaching online, simply importing previous formats and expectations to a newly digital context fails to satisfy multiple needs and expectations built up over centuries of face-to-face interaction. We think that the same holds true for exchanges between scholars. What’s more, we think this presents an opportunity to think about what conferences can or should be, to address the inequities and exclusions baked into current research norms, and to foster a more sustainable and accessible academe.
This task will require a great deal of inquiry and experiment.
As scholars of media and energy, and as e-conference organizers and participants ourselves, we have some early observations, advice, and provocations to offer. We have written this white paper to highlight what’s worked in the past, what hazards lie ahead for the future, and what potential gains could be won in the present.
We hope our words will be useful to small conference organizers and professional associations alike. Our aim is not to end in-person meetings but rather to foster effective low-carbon alternatives that can help reduce the amount of travel necessary to participate in global knowledge communities. Meeting together in person is invaluable, but we can augment it with effective alternatives through critical reflection and smart design choices. We understand the move to digital gathering entails fraught entanglements with surveillance capitalism and the attention economy. Our hope in writing this white paper is to spark further reflections and innovations in collaborative experiments in digital research exchange - or even other forms of scholarly community. We hope such experimentation continues long after the pandemic is over, and that its effects will shape the university for the better.