Archive for September, 2013

More on Academic Travel

September 19, 2013 2 comments

Well, I honestly didn’t expect my last post to cause a stir—I think I hit a nerve.  So I want to summarize some excellent points people made in response.

First, I think a better title for the post would be, “People should be more reflective about why and how much they travel.”  Forgive my rhetorical flourish of calling academic travel “evil.”  But the story at the start of the post is true, and I was genuinely annoyed. Some other important points:

Stage of Career

You definitely need to travel more earlier in your career—you’re building a social network.  How much more is the tricky part.  For grad students and pre-tenured faculty, it helps to have a mentor whose advice you can trust.  Someone you can ask, “Should I go to this?”

Kids & Tenure

My reluctance to travel is very much based on my parenting style and priorities.  (Please play “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Cat Stevens while reading this paragraph.)  But my kids were born after I had tenure, and my pulling back from travel happened as a tenured faculty member.  Could I have traveled less pre-tenure?  I think so–somewhat. Junior faculty parents are in a tough spot. But there’s nothing wrong with putting family first, if that’s your choice.

When my kids are older I’ll definitely start traveling more.

The Other “Kids”—Your Lab Group

Do you know someone who is always on the road, and spends very little time with his/her graduate students?  Who is strongly invested in running a big lab group and having big grants, but not particularly invested in the success of those students?

For some graduate students (the kind who just want to be left alone), that works out fine.  Others might want a bit more time with their mentor.  So prospective graduate students need to be sensitive to the mentoring style of  advisors and their own personal style, and try to find someone who’s a good fit.

Local Colleagues

I have an embarrassment of riches in terms of cool local colleagues to interact with. I imagine folks who are not so lucky might want to travel more.

Sub-Fields—Especially Policy

How much it makes sense to travel depends on your (sub) field. If your work is for example about influencing national policy, then traveling constantly is central to how you get your work done.


So with all that said, I could say something super accommodating like “everyone has to make decisions that are right for them.”  And I am saying that—mostly.  But I do think we have a bit of cultural dysfunction. Travel is equated with prestige, and some people are not reflective about how much they travel or why.

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard not to raise an eyebrow at how much money is being spent on travel. If it’s true that research funds are getting tighter, it will be interesting going forward to see whether our norms about academic travel change.

The Evils of Academic Travel

September 17, 2013 9 comments

A colleague recently proudly told me, “I’m not teaching this semester. So I’m going everywhere–traveling pretty much every week.”

“Really?” I replied.  “I try never to leave my house. If I can help it.”

He looked puzzled. There was a pause.  Then he asked, “You mean you turn down invitations?”

Yes, I turn down invitations.  I like to go to my favorite conference (CSCW) every year (if it’s not somewhere remote). And I’ll go to one more conference. One corporate faculty summit is nice. One or two trips to give an invited talk at the school of someone I like.  One trip to NSF.  And that’s it.  That’s my year’s work travel, if I’m lucky.

I was “on the circuit” for a bit when I was a graduate student. But after a while I found out that invited talks in Sweden mainly led to… well, to more invited talks in Sweden. Don’t get me wrong—I loved Sweden.  I met great folks there.  Does travel broaden your point of view?  Sure.  But staying home lets me get actual work done. 

I first stopped traveling a couple months before my oldest son was born.  And for a few years, I was either expecting or had a newborn or was nursing. I took two trips leaving my husband with the baby(s) and getting on the airplane with my trusty breast pump.  But each time I wondered—my goodness, why am I doing this? One meeting was at a winery, and I couldn’t go back to my hotel during the day—so I ended up pumping in a coat closet. I was miserable.  On the second trip, I paid a fortune for an earlier ticket home.

I do believe that family comes first. Sherry Turkle says she never traveled at all from the time her daughter was Rebecca was born until she was a teenager.  It feels good to have a role model.  It’s OK for me to put my kids first, because that’s what Sherry did.

But honestly, after a while the “stay home with the kids thing” became an excuse.  My husband is an amazing dad, and the boys have a different kind of time together when I’m out of town. It’s probably a good thing I still travel now and then.  But having had a taste of a travel-free life, I didn’t want to go back on the road.

When I was younger, travel had a really important role in my professional development. I was building a social network, and also learning the basics of how my field work.  That need lessens somewhat as you get older.

I remember as a grad student seeing senior people at  conferences sneaking out of sessions to go work in their hotel rooms.  It was an entirely mysterious process to me back then—how could you be missing this, I wondered?  And it’s still mysterious to me now, but from a different view—why are you here?  If  you came all this way, why aren’t you paying attention?  Are you really so undisciplined that you need to leave town to get work done? 

Sometimes I think people travel because it seems prestigious. If you’re going places, you must be important.  Raise your hand if you have seen a friend post online about their free airline upgrade to first class.  The whole thing is so absurd that they made a movie about it, “Up in the Air,” where George Clooney plays a traveler obsessed with his frequent flyer miles.  I hope my anthropologist friends will do a study of human behavior regarding frequent flyer miles. If we don’t document the current cultural logic, those practices will be inscrutable to future generations.

I was general co-chair of CSCW last year, and I got a hands-on view of where your registration money goes.  It goes to the hotel.  Each conference break costs us about $16 per person.  Those cans of soda?  $4.50 each.  (And that’s a relatively cheap/fair price—other hotels are much more.) Sometimes I wonder if academia is secretly conceived as a federal subsidy for the hotel industry.

I don’t have a whole lot free time in my week during the semester.  I’ve got teaching prep, teaching, grading, meetings, reviewing, reference letters….  On top of all that, if I take a trip then I get precisely zero actual research done.  The week before the trip, I’m preparing. The week of the trip, I’m away. The week after the trip, I’m catching up.  Three weeks shot.

I do still benefit from academic travel.  And it’s nice to go meet the up and coming grad students.  I try to adopt nice and promising ones, the way I was adopted by mentors way back when. And every once in a while there’s actually a paper I enjoy hearing presented out loud instead of just reading it.  But it’s only valuable in moderation.

Rather than being so important that I am summoned everywhere, I aspire to be so important that I mustn’t be disturbed from doing the research that I care about.  Actually, I don’t want to be important at all. I want to do work that matters.  And to get that work done, I like to (mostly) stay home.

A Collision Between Changes in Higher Education and Changes in Publishing

September 14, 2013 7 comments

How do you assign readings to a large number of people in a free online course?

I’ve been puzzling over this question this week. I voted against the creation of our online master’s of computer science, and I still have serious reservations about it–particularly about the hastiness of the development plan. But since we’re going ahead with the program, I was thinking maybe I’d offer a class.  (We’re doing it–I might as well help.)  Our model is that classes have a for-credit section for which students pay a low tuition, and a free not-for-credit one (MOOC).  The for-credit students will have access to our library. The free students of course can’t.  So this week I asked what I thought was a simple question: how do we get readings to the MOOC students?

I asked colleagues teaching online classes, administrators, and our library. No one really had an answer.  One colleague suggested the students “will just have to find the reading on their own.”  (That seems like a lawsuit in the making–encouraging copyright infringement.) Another said “I might not assign any reading, since the MOOC students can’t get access to it.”  (Really?  Does the future of higher education involve watching videos and not reading?)

At first I thought, “This is an administrative detail. They’ll figure out a solution.”  But I woke up this morning with another view: there is a collision between potential changes in higher education and changes in publishing.

Open access publishing would solve our problem.  There are more and more demands for publishing to be open access. It seems wrong for federal research dollars to fund work and have the results end up behind a commercial pay wall. Georgia Tech now has a policy requiring faculty to publish in open access venues, though there is as yet no enforcement, there is an easy exception mechanism, and most faculty don’t even know the policy exists. But moving to open access publishing in the future doesn’t solve the problem of how we access materials already published under a for-pay model. (You know–most of the world’s knowledge except a few recent things published open access and a few really old ones in the public domain?  That stuff?) And it doesn’t solve the problem of how publishers stay in business.  I would not want to be a book or music publisher at the moment.

OK, maybe this really is an administrative detail.  Maybe we can ask MOOC students to pay a small fee to get access to licensed readings. (Though as I’ve written before, free is radically different from cheap in a psychological sense.)  We’ll figure something out. But this detail is a symptom of fascinating broader issues. There is a collision between changes in higher education and changes in publishing, and a collision between some changes that are happening at lightning speed and others that will take a decade or more to sort out.

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