Flying fox

Coimbra

Aesop’s Fox, suffering from an acute attack of ‘flying shame’, asks the thorny question: “What is the future of conference travel in academia? Can we really afford it, financially, environmentally and personally?” Then she turns to Aristotle for help… 

1. It’s (a) flying shame

In a world that is now defined by high levels of internet connectivity, and a university sector that is often characterised by little or no travel funding, I can’t help wondering about the long-term viability of conference travel in academia. Does it make sense for an academic to travel to the other side of the world to deliver a forty minute paper to an audience of fifty, or a twenty minute paper to an audience of fifteen, in a conference that might last only three, four or five days?

Let’s consider the financial cost involved in a fourteen day trip to attend two conferences on two separate continents. If you are flying out from Australia, as I must, the airfare alone is very likely to exceed allocated travel funds (if your University bestows them), which leaves a gaping great hole as far as accommodation costs and conference registration fees are concerned. I am fortunate to have a supportive university and the opportunity to apply for extra funding if needed but, if that were not the case, I would be looking at some pretty hefty outlays before the trip and a relatively small refund come tax time. Despite reduced travel distances, it is much worse for my European colleagues who advise me that they get no conference travel funding from their institutions at all and have to scrounge together the costs of attending just one conference a year from meagre (often sessional) salaries.

The environmental costs are real too. I was recently told about a site called ‘ShamePlane’ which helpfully informs me that every time I fly from Canberra to the United States, I am responsible for the loss of 7.8 square metres of Arctic Ice, and every time I fly from Canberra to London, 0.6 square metres of Arctic Ice (clearly, I should be prioritising Europe!). Not to mention all the plastic waste I accumulated as a passenger on those flights, all the aeroplane food I wasted (because it was mostly inedible), all the water bottles I emptied, all the transport services I used at my final destination, all the water I wasted having longer than usual showers at the hotel: the list goes on…

Then there is the personal cost. Like so many other early career academics around the globe, I finished a hectic semester of teaching, immediately started exam marking and then succumbed to illness (in this case a very bad bout of Influenza A). I had a week to nurse my family back to reasonable health, finish writing two conference papers and get myself travel ready. It wasn’t ideal. I seriously considered cancelling my travel plans. My husband looked at with me concern and trepidation as I wheeled my bags to the door. When I flew out, I was not contagious but still heavily congested. If I took a bad turn or contracted another illness, I would be on the other side of the world, alone and very ill indeed. It was a risk. As for the home front, the costs there should not be overlooked either: two young children left missing mummy, a husband left with all the household responsibilities whilst trying to manage his own tight work deadlines, and then there is just the simple and awful reality of being apart.

Some academics have said to me that it is simply absurd to travel so far to attend a short conference. Others have told me to go on as many trips as possible!

So what are the alternatives? Option 1. I have seen conference papers delivered by Skype but there is something terribly off-putting about them. Rather than listening to a flesh and blood speaker, we end up ‘watching’ a grainy image of a speaker (usually the speaker’s forehead, or a very tired looking speaker because of the time difference), reading a paper to a screen for forty minutes. Nothing could be less ‘real’ or captivating.

Option 2. I could have emailed my conference paper to a trusted colleague and asked them to read it aloud to the conference delegates on my behalf. I have heard this done once and, to be honest, it too was awful. Even a trusted colleague cannot be expected to have practised the paper, or to know the topic intimately, or to do full justice to the paper in delivering it. At best, it will be a fairly bland recital of someone else’s words (and let’s be honest, it is a pretty big ask of a trusted colleague).

Option 3. Another option is simply to preference local conferences. This is difficult to do if you happen to work in a specialised field (as most of us do) and most of your colleagues work on other continents. The chances of developing international networks are reduced and opportunities to ‘tap into’ current developments in global scholarship are lost.

Option 4. No travel at all. Not really an option – conference attendance is still a major part of the peer feedback process as well as evaluation of academic performance.

Given the expectations of my line of work, I’m left suffering from an acute sense of ‘flying shame’. Consciousness of my enormous carbon footprint is gnawing away at me and there are too many competing professional obligations to warrant giving up conference travel altogether. What to do? Aristotle to the rescue…

2. Aristotle on shame

Anyone needing an antidote to ‘flying shame’ simply needs to read a good dose of Book 4 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In that book, Aristotle expresses the (rather surprising) view that shame is NOT a virtue:

The feeling of shame is not suitable to every age, but only to the young. We think it proper for the young to feel shame, because as they live by feeling they often err, and shame may keep them in check; and we praise young people when they are ashamed, though no one would praise an older man for being shamefaced, since we think he ought not to do anything of which he need be ashamed.

For indeed the virtuous man does not feel shame, if shame is the feeling caused by base actions; since one ought not to do base actions (the distinction between acts really shameful and those reputed to be so is immaterial, since one ought not to do either), and so one never ought to feel shame.

Shame is a mark of a base man, and springs from a character capable of doing a shameful act. And it is absurd that, because a man is of such a nature that he is ashamed if he does a shameful act, he should therefore think himself virtuous, since actions to cause shame must be voluntary, but a virtuous man will never voluntarily do a base action.

It’s a rather messy and puzzling passage in some respects and probably not Aristotle at his most lucid. He seems to be saying that 1) shame is a good and proper feeling in a young person, 2) shame is not a virtue because it is more of a fleeting feeling than a state of being, 3) that the virtuous need not feel ashamed about anything because they never do anything wrong anyway and 4) that it is rather absurd for the base man to feel ashamed because that would suggest that he imagines himself to be virtuous, which is clearly not the case.

If Aristotle is right and shame is just a fleeting feeling, rather than a virtue as such, I’m sure I’ll get over it pretty quickly. Given my age (by ancient world standards) it is remarkable that I can still feel shame and, to put it bluntly, Aristotle seems to be saying that shame doesn’t really do anyone much good if they are not good to begin with. So am I off the hook? Not quite. Reading Aristotle’s words in context, it may be more accurate to say (as Raymond suggests) that shame, even as a feeling, still holds an important place for Aristotle but (like everything else for Aristotle in the realm of ethics) it must be felt in the right way, at the right times, about the right things, and to the right extent.

3. Restoring the balance

To restore balance to my intense feelings of ‘flight shame’, it remains to consider the positives and benefits of academic travel.

On the up side, I can honestly say that the conference travel I have done has been a) as economical and efficient as possible and b) enormously beneficial for me professionally. The feedback from peers has often been incredibly insightful and helpful to the development of my ideas and approaches. Many of the most interesting and important discussions have taken place outside of the seminar rooms: in the corridors, at morning teas and lunches, and at conference events. Connections with other scholars have led to joint projects and joint publications. The personal and professional connections I have made with colleagues overseas will, I hope, last a lifetime and continue to be highly productive, collaborative and positive. In my experience, there really is no replacement for face-to-face contact and this is something the digital age has, I think, proven rather than disproven.

There is a lot of talk these days about ‘connection’. But what does it really mean? To me, it’s about getting a feel for other people’s warmth and openness, their willingness to discuss different ideas and approaches, their playfulness and creativity, their professional courtesy and consideration of others. If I find people with these qualities and attributes, I know immediately that I can work with them, through the rigorous process of collaborating, publishing, even co-authoring, across countries and continents. Happily, I have found such people – but I would never have been sure of these connections if we hadn’t met eye to eye (or as the Europeans say, ‘shared food together’).

That being said, I am very conscious about the costs of my travel. If I can do it more efficiently I will. I fly economy. If I can recycle or minimise waste, I try to do so. When overseas, I try to use public transport as much as possible and prefer to walk or ride a bicycle rather than use taxis or buses. I will never use all fifteen towels (!) provided by the hotel, I eat local food (often vegetarian) and try to buy locally made products as gifts.

I know in my heart that these small measures are not going to restore that block of Arctic ice but every little bit helps, right? My family life has benefited from me returning with renewed health, vigour, inspiration and stimulation. And I haven’t stopped trying to be environmentally aware just because I have returned home. As part of my efforts to offset the costs, I am obliged to do a lot more walking, riding, recycling, double-sided printing, eating local and eating vegetarian if I am going to ‘pay’ for my academic travel. As for the flying shame, I may not shake it off entirely, and in a way, it is reassuring to know that I am still capable of feeling shame (maybe I’m not that old after all!). I can only hope that I fulfil Aristotle’s expectations of feeling shame in the right way, at the right time, about the right things, and to the right extent.

Image:

The University of Coimbra

Links:

https://shameplane.com/

Text extracted and adapted from Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (transl. H. Rackham) available online at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

Article by C. Raymond, ‘Shame and Virtue in Aristotle’: http://www.pgrim.org/philosophersannual/37articles/raymond-shame.pdf

 

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