Grounded: A Half-Baked Jeremiad, with a Side of Sour Grapes

For much of my past five years, travel has been a risky affair. When I first got sick, I had to cancel out on several commitments, unable to trust my body away from the support of my family and my bed. Since most of my traveling over the past 30 years has involved professional commitments of some kind, I found myself largely grounded for an extended period. Of all the changes the onset of illness brought with it, the inability to travel was the one most likely to trigger ongoing bouts of self-pity. As soon as my health began to improve I started making travel plans again, including an overseas conference I was to attend this week before unstable weather on the east coast derailed my ability to make my flight. Going over limited options with the airlines representative, it became clear that any available option would result in my missing my first panel and would also leave me roughly on the ground before I had to make the long return flight home. Reluctantly but inevitably, I canceled the flight and the trip.

I mention all of this to make it clear that sour grapes are definitely in my cup as I write this. But forced (for a few years, for a week) to step aside from the “norms” of a certain (highly privileged) academic career, I only now fully see how absurd those norms truly are. I love travel. I personally have benefitted in many ways—professional and personal—from conferences and symposia over the course of my career since I started grad school some 30 years ago. But I have come to believe that for many reasons—some that were already well in place decades ago and some which have come into stark relief in recent years—it is time to severely curtail the culture and practice of the academic conference.

Accessibility.

I first started thinking about issues of accessibility at conferences when I was a grad student and my best friend (now my wife) had a job helping to run the National Women’s Studies Association conference. It is not surprising, of course, that the NWSA was talking about accessibility long before other conferences I was attending at that same time. No doubt these conversations had been going on for some time in other spaces, but for me this was a revelation. Despite my own lifetime of asthma, I recall snorting at the idea that perfumes might trigger severe responses in some of the conference’s guests. But even with such defensive childishness, the basic message stuck: unless all participants can participate equally, without fear of marginalization and injury, the whole thing is a farce.

What I did not think about then was a still-broader question of access: what if the participant could not make it to the conference at all. One might imagine it would have occurred to me, as I had to cancel my first two conferences due to anxiety attacks so overwhelming they left me prostrate for days. But it would be almost two decades before I was formally diagnosed with anxiety disorder and found the twinned miracle that is Effexor and Klonopin. I did not at the time think of mental health as a barrier to access; I thought anxiety was part of being Jewish, like Woody Allen movies.

By the time mobility issues grounded me over two decades later, I know a lot about what it meant to live with severe mental health challenges and about the cost my body had paid for going so long without finding effective management and treatment. Just as I had canceled my first two conferences in the late 80s due to undiagnosed severe anxiety, so did I now find myself canceling conferences while waiting for a diagnosis for my new physical challenges. Travel itself was simply impossible.

Most of us academic types have had to cancel out on a conference due to illness at some point. Even a bad sinus infection can make getting on a transcontinental flight intolerable. While we may feel short-term relief after canceling, it is almost always accompanied by a sense of regret, of missing-out and being left behind. We know in our hearts that little of any significance will be accomplished at this conference (more on this below) but the very ideal of the conference—as a place for intellectual exchange, for plugging into the cutting edge of your field, and for networking with the colleagues who will support your next project—makes regret both natural and inevitable. Of course, for many “calling in sick” to conferences is not a one-time misfortune, but a chronic condition that leaves them permanently outside these conversations and opportunities.

Economic and Institutional Barriers.

Academia was never a radical democracy, nor has it ever pretended to be one. Hierarchy is built into every facet of its structures and rituals. Nor, to be clear, has it ever been a meritocracy (although it certainly does like to pretend to be one). We have all known folks who have been overrewarded and others who have never received the accolades and recognition they deserve. Until relatively recently in the modern American academy, however, a slim majority of those who wanted it bad enough, who hustled hard enough, and who were, well, good enough at this strange thing we do would eventually find a job they were happy with—ideally with tenure, some travel support, and some kind of productive balance between teaching, research, and service.

I am not telling any secrets out of school when I say that those days are over. Yes, some will find those positions, and they will all be worthy of them. But myriad other incredibly hard-working, talented, and passionate teacher-researchers will never find a position that provides security or meaningful support. Our profession—especially in the Arts and Humanities—is shifting dramatically to insecure and contingent labor, and younger scholars find themselves increasingly shut out of many of the benefits that used to be taken for granted.

It goes without saying that like most things we once “took for granted,” professional travel for professors was never equally distributed. Travel budgets and salaries were always unequally distributed; for example, those teaching at small rural institutions, far from a major airport, always found getting to conferences much harder than those situated on the coasts or at major hubs. But today, as in all things, those inequities have widened to the point that keeping up the pretense strains credulity. The majority of those teaching at our universities today have little or no travel budgets, and many are in precarious teaching position in which research is not part of their job description even as it remains vital to any hope of finding a more secure position. To continue to dangle the traditional conference as a vital means of professional validation and advancement under such conditions serves only to make the rich richer, the secure more secure.

Environment.

I was not alone in missing my flight to Portugal due to stacks of churning storms on the east coast this week. Thanks to climate change, the severe weather incidents continue to grow in both frequency and intensity. Travel—and especially air travel—is among the greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. I ultimately made the decision that 24 hours in Portugal was not worth 20 hours of travel, but honestly, had I been paying for the trip entirely myself, even 3 1/2 days in Lisbon would have been patently absurd from the start. But with the trip on “someone else’s dime” (coupled with my own eagerness to travel as much as I can while my illness is in remission) what was absurd seemed entirely reasonable. After all, the panel was on a topic I find extremely interesting, and writing the paper made me only more excited about the prospect of the session and the accompanying conversations. But the paper could have been written and the conversations could have been had without transatlantic air travel. And when I first received the invitation to participate it was not the topic or the participants that weighed most heavily in my deliberations: it was the destination and the travel logistics.

Indeed, for those of us of a certain generation privileged to be in positions of academic security, destination often looms largest when considering travel. It is something of a truism among my generation that at a certain point in the career one can choose not to go to conferences in cities like X and hold out for a conferences in Y or Z (fill in your own desirable or undesirable destinations). The sights and convenient direct flights are often more important than any potential intellectual or professional rewards. And of course many start attending fewer and fewer conferences as aging makes the challenges of travel begin to outweigh any imagined benefits. For those who have been on the conference circuit a long time, that often comes sooner rather than later. Because no one knows better than a veteran how relatively little is gained intellectually from such travel. There are many conferences we attend annually primarily for the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, friends we have made over years in those conference rooms, to be sure, but friendships that have, once we sit down for dinner and drinks, little to say about the ostensible topic that brought us together.

Perhaps it is that I have been reading far too much about the decline and fall of the Roman republic that such visions dance in my mind, but I can’t help but picture academia increasingly as portly senators traveling to country villas to check in on their fishponds while the meaningful work of the city is carried out by an growing and only nominally-compensated citizenry. Purple and predictable though such analogies might be they call to mind still more predictable analogies to Nero fiddling while the same city burned a century later. Because our city, our planet is well and truly burning, and every time we call scores of academics together from the four corners to do in person what could increasingly be done welly online we are fiddling just as surely (and less anachronistically, for where did Nero find a fiddle in ancient Rome?).

I began this half-baked jeremiad by calling attention to the fact that I write this as I am missing out on a conference I would have very much like to attend—and another held at the same time which the inability to be in two places at the same time made impossible. In other words, I am drinking deep from my cup of sour grapes. Let me go further in highlighting the instability of the soapbox from which I preach. In the next three months I have academic travel planned for cities, including two overseas. I am also hosting visitors from various corners at my own institution. I love travel—especially exploring new cities. I love meeting new people and learning about their areas of expertise, and I adore catching up with the various freaks and geeks who share my obsessions. I have benefited greatly over the course of three decades from conferences, symposia, and invited talks. When the academic conference goes the way of the dodo, as in the end it must and will (for all but the most privileged scholars in the most privileged fields), I will shed a tear, even as I wish I had the power to hasten its demise. I am no Cato.

But I will also be happy with what emerges in the wake of the academic conference, as we work to create new spaces for intellectual exchange that do not depend on travel budgets, mobility, and vast amounts of fossil fuels. When non-tenure track faculty (the vast majority of our profession today) and disabled and chronically-ill faculty can participate equally with their institutionally-privileged and able-bodied colleagues, we will have at last a proper conversation. Yes, something will be lost when we meet on screens instead of in hotel meeting rooms (and will we always have Paris?). But much will be gained when more voices can be heard, not delimited from the start by various rolls of the dice. And while we alone will not stop Rome from burning, at least we can do our part to stop throwing gasoline on the flames.

Meanwhile, see you in {checks itinerary} Leipzig.