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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.

  1. September 17, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    I think this is a natural progression in research maturity. I see travel as sharpening your saw, and writing as cutting with the saw. After enough sharpening, it’s not worth it to sharpen it much more. You need to get into the business of cutting.

    When you are a young researcher, you need to meet people, make contacts, and be exposed to ideas through conversation and face-to-face contact. As you mature as a scholar, the benefit of travel lessens. People already know your name, and might follow your research, and they don’t need to see you at a conference to hear about it. Just your writing creates buzz. Others benefit from meeting you more than you benefit from meeting them!

    Research on telecommuting shows that people are more *creative* at work and more *productive* at home. So I think a bit of travel (which you do) is good until near the very end of your life, at which point you should just write down everything you can think of before you die. In your twilight years there’s no profit in sharpening the saw.

    Cut until it’s blunt.

  2. September 17, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Great blog post! I agree that being selective about travel can not only keep one productive and sane, but also make one more engaged during travel experiences that you do choose. Actually, some of the things you said kind of reminded me of a vlog post by John Green: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxbxPIRAQts

    (BTW, if you’re not familiar with John Green, he’s pretty awesome. I totally recommend Crash Course World History.)

    • September 17, 2013 at 9:37 pm

      Heh–neat! Henry Jenkins has written a bit about those guys. Thanks for the link!

  3. September 17, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Hi Amy. You might be interested to know that recently, in an open-source virtual world project known as OpenSimulator [1], we held a purely online 3D community conference [2] with 6 tracks, keynotes and an expo region, with about 250 attendees over the weekend from around the world

    In many ways it felt just like a ‘real’ conference, with some differences in pros (no travel!) and cons (technical barriers). Crista Lopes (a professor at UCI who is part of the OpenSimulator dev team) did a great writeup at [3].

    [1] http://opensimulator.org
    [2] http://conference.opensimulator.org
    [3] http://tagide.com/blog/2013/09/the-future-of-conferences/

  4. September 17, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    You know, I’m going to take the position of the loyal opposition on this one.

    Yes, some academics travel a lot. (I’m one.) And you know what? It’s a choice. We work in different ways. I love time at home to write (I’ve been doing that a lot this summer.) I love going away to write too (I’ve done some of that this summer too.) I love getting to be in other places, and spend time with different groups of people, who think in different ways and teach me to do so, too. I try to travel in a way that doesn’t negatively impact my students or colleagues back home (that’s a choice, too). Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s my topics, but I find that it works best when I’m engaged with people, places, ideas, cultures, sights, sites, and smells that arise in more places than just my home, my office, or my library. I respect your choice not to travel; I’d really like it if you’d respect mine, and not decry “academic travel” as “evil.”

    Which leaves me wondering about a different aspect of academic life, which is why we seem to feel the need to declaim that we’ve found the right way to do things and suggest that the others just haven’t clued in?


    • September 18, 2013 at 8:31 am

      Paul, I agree with almost all your points. I think a fairer title would be “Some people would
      benefit from being more reflective about how much and why they travel.”

      But I do think there’s a disfunction here. A couple years ago a message went out to our faculty
      that there was a professional association meeting the dean was supposed to go to but couldn’t make–
      would anyone be willing to go in his place? A colleague volunteered. There was nothing time sensitive
      about the meeting–just a big picture discussion by important people. And then the colleague spent
      the next couple days posting Facebook updates about how he was frantic because he had a big grant
      due and had to complete it while at that meeting. Does this seem like a sensible set of choices
      to you? There’s a problem, and it’s cultural.

  5. sgoggins
    September 18, 2013 at 9:51 am

    I am split between Paul and Amy on this topic. I tend to get a lot of writing done when I travel, particularly in transit when I make a point to travel by train wearing my noise canceling headphones. So, I cut on the journey. And eight of the most productive weeks I have had as a writer (2 journal papers and finishing a book) were spent away in Sweden, actually. That said, I am a little “traveled out” right now, and plan to follow Amy’s advice to a greater extent – in the post-tenure years. 🙂

  6. allenderl
    September 19, 2013 at 11:50 am

    Amy I really appreciate this posting. I think your points about family balance are very well taken. Travel has a big impact on mom’s with young children, some of the issues that come up are very different than the issues for fathers. Not every nursing mom can pump or even be away from their infant — even if they want to travel. Work and work travel changed my relationship with my daughter, I went from being primary caregiver to secondary at one point. I’m happy that you’ve been able to find this balance.

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