The Evils of Academic Travel
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.