Academic travel checklist

*Note this post is from 2019, so pre-dates Covid, but if nothing else, the famous online ‘pivot’ would have made it only more obvious many things can be done online. See also here.

I’ve developed this handy academic travel checklist for a few questions or thoughts I think we should all be asking ourselves when engaging in forms of academic mobility. It’s very much a work-in-progress so will be expanded in the process – there are whole pages waiting to be written on every aspect:

  • Is this trip really necessary?

Am I really learning/developing/contributing to something, or do I just want/need a change of scenery? The latter can usually be accomplished through a 10km hike or 20-minute bus journey in any direction from where you live or work. If the former, how is it actually contributing, and to whom?

  • Can I achieve the same thing somewhere closer, or online?

For instance, many forms of learning can be done online or through a blended learning mode*. I am the last person to advocate for MOOCs – I believe physical co-presence has value in and of itself – but, for instance, your local community organisation will often offer the same courses you would drive half an hour to attend.

Same goes for meetings: often a conference call (yes, I know Skype malfunctions) can sort out something that 10 people from all over the world would fly in to discuss.

  • Is someone else (and local) better positioned to speak/present on this?

No elaboration necessary, but bear in mind that just because you’re invited/accepted to talk about something does not mean you’re the best or only person to do it. Obviously, in the aggressive competitive culture of the academia this often gets forgotten, but odds are there is someone else – often less senior, more precarious, and less privileged – who can do the same (or better).

Oh, and please repeat this seventy times over every single time if you are a white, male, English-speaking academic.

  • How can I ensure my trip is as sustainable as possible?

This doesn’t only pertain to whether you fly or take the train or bus to get to places, though this is obviously a great part of it. Are you taking the most logical route? If you’re driving, is there anyone you could share a ride with? Once there, are you walking/cycling/using public transport, or are you hopping into taxis or Ubers simply because it’s easier or someone else is covering your expenses? (yes, I’m fully aware there are places that are difficult/dangerous/impossible to navigate other than in cars). Are you staying in a hotel that’s 10km away from the venue and taking taxis there because it’s ‘cheaper’?

  • Drinks/food

Though some academic events have (slowly) begun moving to more sustainable practices, the majority is still wedded to plastic bottles and disposable cups. Ask the organisers about this; insist that they provide drinking water that’s not bottled (most are happy to do so, even if they had not thought about it). At the very least, bring your own water bottle and reusable coffee cup, and use them throughout the trip, including when travelling.

‘Catering’ at academic events tends to be hugely unsustainable – this particularly goes for conference dinners. Inquire about these practices: for instance, what is done with food/drinks leftovers? Is there a way to organise academic socialisation that does not revolve around the consumption of huge amounts of food and (usually) alcoholic drinks (both of which are, obviously, exclusionary in many other ways)?

  • Once there

There is much to be said about activities outside of the narrow scope of ‘academic’ that happen during academic travel – from the way ‘excursions’ reproduce the tourist gaze, to assumptions about the way people relate to time, space, and their bodies (for instance, scheduling back-to-back sessions provides very little time for walking or inhabiting the place in any mode other than ‘professional). I hope to engage with these questions more as this section of the blog develops, particularly as it offers productive ways of re-thinking the idea of ‘knowledge’ as something that involves sitting down and acquiring towards, perhaps, something that includes engaging with.