Carbon-neutral academic work

gold card vlak

Academics are travelers, and I have traveled a lot. There were, and are, good reasons for that: there is a host of crucial academic activities that involve traveling, and the most prominent of such events are conferences big and small, academic exchanges and visiting fellowships enabling close research collaboration with colleagues elsewhere. Since I considered this both a duty and a joy in my professional life, I had no hesitations booking flights to other continents where I would talk for about 45 minutes in front of a group of about 30 graduate students, and to do this at least five or six times per year.

The absurdity of such efforts took a while to sink in. Accumulated jetlags resulted in serious health issues, and a stern-faced cardiologist took time to explain to me in detail the disastrous effects of intensive and continuous air traveling on my body over an extended span of time. That set me thinking. Environmental issues added to that: when carbon footprint information became mandatory on plane reservations, I discovered that one particular trip of mine had a CO2 impact of about 1100 kilos – jeopardizing not just my own health but that of immense communities across the world as well. Since that time, I scaled back my traveling to the barest possible minimum and started saying ‘no thank you’ to most of the invitations I received.

But that doesn’t mean that I stopped communicating and collaborating with colleagues elsewhere in the world. Mobility these days can be achieved in carbon-neutral ways, using online technologies. Thus, a couple of weeks ago I held a seminar with audiences in Brazil, Argentina and Australia. A total of eight universities on three continents were connected through a simple and freely available videoconferencing tool, and I addressed these dispersed audiences from within the comfortable surroundings of my own study at home. I had done similar things before, and apart from the intellectual rewards I got from such exchanges, I could add the satisfaction of not having traveled by plane to several places across the world.

Or force my audiences to travel in order to hear me at work. For here’s another issue that should worry all of us: international academic mobility – think of attending large international conferences – remains very expensive, and in a world marked by increasing inequalities, this means that more and more scholars can simply not afford it. Of course, scholars from the Global South are badly affected by this. But flying to, say, Melbourne and attending a four-day conference there (with the plane ticket, hotel costs and conference fees) is not affordable for large numbers of European-based scholars either, and not just the junior ones. If the default mode of international academic exchange continues to demand physical long-distance mobility from participants, it will increasingly become a privilege for the few. Yes I know, nothing can replace the cosy and gossipy late-evening drinks with colleagues in the hotel bar at a conference. But the beer and the gossip come at a price that most academics cannot pay.

Those are the three sets of concerns that affected my behavioral change as a globalized academic: personal health concerns, ecological concerns, and issues of privilege versus open access in scientific practice – my ethos as a scholar in a democratic scientific community.

For those sharing some of these concerns, here are some of the methods I developed in response to them.

  • I try to maximize online technologies, but with an awareness of the fact that some of these technologies are expensive, while others are cheap. I try to use cheap resources that are available and accessible to most people.
  • Thus, I set up a public Facebook page as well as Facebook groups with specific networks for specific audiences. I use these as channels for communication and resource sharing with an international community of colleagues.
  • I also set up a YouTube channel, where videos of talks, interviews and so on are made available without restrictions. I created a blog on which all my publications appear first, and these texts are shared through an online working papers series and sharing platforms such as Academia.edu and ResearchGate. All of the materials I publish on these channels are open access. The same goes for Diggit Magazine, an initiative in new academic digital culture and new forms of academic communication (which is amazingly successful).
  • When I agree to do online presentations live, I always make a backup video. This ensures access to what I have to say whenever the technology fails (which is rare), and also enables access to my contribution after the event. It creates an archive, if you wish, of the event. One can check the video of the seminar I mentioned earlier here.

The point is that multiple instruments need to be developed and deployed in this effort to satisfy the three concerns mentioned earlier, for each individual instrument has some shortcomings. When combined, however, they guarantee intense mobility – not of the physical person, but of the intellectual one – and a much lower threshold of accessibility for scholars across the globe interested in that person and his/her work.

There are no paywalls involved, no membership fees, no registration fees, no publishers’ restrictions. Open access is what it is – open – and when applied in this way, it is a magnificent instrument of mobility. It is unsurprising that the result of this approach, for me, is interaction with a much wider and much more diverse community of scholars, a great many of them from the Global South. I now reach a larger and more interesting community than in my airport-and-hotel days. And I draw far more satisfaction from my work this way – a fantastic reward largely compensating for the work invested in this alternative system of academic work.

So perhaps you wish to explore similar methods. There is something absurd to the modes of academic mobility we maintain, something exploitative as well, and something exclusive that keeps large cohorts of very interesting people out of our orbit. Let us use these modes whenever there is no alternative to them, but with an awareness that alternatives are, indeed, available.

Jan Blommaert

 

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