Grounded: anticipating scholarly futures without flying

December 13, 2017 Mat Paskins No comments exist


This post is about flying. More specifically, it’s about the connections between being a scholar and pressures to travel by aeroplane, what might be involved in resisting those pressures. I believe this would be a kind of anticipatory action which would allow us to think more clearly about our identities . A lot of what I have to say is about the ways in which academic historians can find ways of working which might not involve flying. This is because history is what I know a bit about; other fields and other professions will have different needs and different workarounds, and will find their own ways of developing more robust and sustainable communities which rely less on international travel by plane.


It is based on conversations I’ve been having with friends and colleagues for a long time, and is also inspired by some arguments about international conferences which Jim Grozier makes in a recent article for the blog of the British Society for the History of Science. Noting advice that sustainable futures would require significant reductions in flight emissions, Jim writes:

Academics whose careers depend on global collaboration and discussion will clearly find that difficult. Scaling down international conferences in favour of smaller, nationally focussed events is at least a partial solution; so is greater use of technology to allow remote attendance, and even remote participation. The technology required to do this isn’t new: five years ago I sat in a conference room in Moscow and listened to a talk being given from Chicago by a colleague who could not make the trip. We were able to listen to his voice and see his visual presentation; later, we were able to ask questions and listen to the answers. Indeed, “all-electronic” conferences are now being held, and I recently heard of one which had managed to provide the necessary facilities without charging a fee to delegates. At the same time, we must acknowledge that remote participation does not provide all the benefits we normally expect from a conference; the informal “networking” element is missing


I think this is right, regarding international conferences, and it’s worth extending further to think about other academic practices as well. It is quite easy to pathologise international conferences—one of the first thing people who are climate change deniers generally do when they’re complaining that climate scientists are hypocrites is to talk about how they fly all over the world. But as Jim suggests, finding alternatives to air travel can involve slightly different ways of working as well.



I last travelled by aeroplane about fifteen years ago, when I went to visit family in Stockholm. Shortly after this, a friend told me about a talk which she had attended by the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, at which he had discussed the disproportionately destructive effects of air travel. I remember that at the time I had hoped to visit Japan, though I no longer remember exactly why. I found this news hard to take—it was an affront to my sense of what I thought I could want from my life, a narrowing of horizons. I remember wanting very much to reject it and then feeling an increasing sense of calm when I realised that I didn’t need to; that in the extremely narrow realm of my own actions, I could simply decide not to fly. And in the time since, I haven’t.


Maybe a decade ago, there seemed to be quite a lot of people I knew who had made a similar decision. My impression is that this number is now quite a lot smaller. I suspect that this mainly reflects a greater awareness of what the job market requires than we possessed in 2002. These days, among the people I know, talking about a decision not to fly is halfway between a boast and the admission of an embarrassing ailment. The embarrassment comes in part from the sense that this decision has no real practical effect. Individuals decisions not to fly do not ground aeroplanes. Colleagues talk about having to go to international conferences, the appalling waste of travelling so far to see little more than the hotel and a conference centre. But the logic of working in universities requires us to meet colleagues from all over the world; and I’ve benefitted again and again from the wisdom and companionship of people who have flown in. Another friend, who delights in travel, offered to trade one of the long haul flights which they were planning to take so that I could take one—a transactional view which would have had exactly as much effect as my refusal to fly at all. I refused. I can’t see a way back through the decision which I made fifteen years ago: this is no longer a rational decision (if that’s ever what it was): it is now a habit, a reflex, a way of seeing the world. My recurring nightmares most often involve being made to drive a car, and being made to get in an aeroplane.


Although I believe the environmental motivations behind my decision not to fly are sincere, it is not hard to see how they could point towards a vicious and exclusionary politics. Many people need to fly—really, seriously, need—in order to see family, to return to their homelands, to go to work, to conduct negotiations, and so on. In the present political climate, there is a straight path between something like a refusal to fly and something like the prime minister’s denunciation of people who are “citizens of the world” as being “citizens of nowhere”. This aggressively anti-cosmopolitan politics offers fantasy reassurances to people deemed native subjects (“you belong here—we will look after you”) while terrorising people without those protections. I do not want to believe that my refusal to fly connects with this kind of nativism; in practice, though, I can see real risks of turning inward if we are less personally connected to other members of our scholarly communities in locations we can only reach by air.


At the same time, it is worth asking exactly why living a cosmopolitan identity requires us to travel by plane—and what ways there are of living openly towards the world, which don’t involve the destructiveness of air travel. For an academic—in my case, for an academic historian–doing this involves unpicking some of the assumptions about what our work demands and finding different ways of working, and especially of how to build trusting relationships at a distance. It also involves recognising how a scholarly profession which is based around air travel to which people have different levels of access is characterised by a lot of inequalities. To put it crudely, most Ivy League professors are able to clock up a lot of air miles, while most people who work at other institutions can’t afford to do that. And scholars from wealthy institutions, mainly based in the Global North, who are able and legally entitled to afford to travel the world have opportunities which scholars from less wealthy institutions, mainly based in the Global South, may lack. Perhaps developing strategies for working at a distance more effectively would be a way of supporting colleagues who will never be able to access the same resources as those in wealthier institutions.


Trying to do this is a good idea for a number of reasons—not least, that it is a way for scholars to feel less helpless. The circuit of international conferences, brief opportunities to visit institutions which can pay, and visiting archives all around the world can feel like a grind even when you do have time to do it. When you have serious caring responsibilities, whether for infirm parents, children, or others, it often becomes much harder to keep up. Scholars who are not able to find full-time academic appointment are similarly disadvantaged by a set-up based which is based on the networking and face-to-face contact which the current set up demands. Obviously, it would take a lot more than reducing flying to effect serious change in this respect, but thinking finding ways to work differently from less advantaged institutions can be a way of building different kinds of relationships.


For historians, some ways of working remotely have been fairly well explored already, while others are less clear. What we know about quite well is using proxy researchers to undertake research in archives which we cannot access ourselves. I saw a presentation ya few days ago by the historian Sergay Radchenko, in which he talked about the limitations and strengths of this approach. It works well, he said, when we already have a fairly good idea of what we documents are looking for. It is usually more of a problem when we don’t already know what an archive contains—it is not a good way of doing exploratory work. Historians working with proxies are also unlikely to get a “feel” for an archive—the logics through which documents have been collected, the specificities of the ways in which materials are arranged, and so on. Lack of knowledge of these things can be a serious impediment to historical understanding. Finally, archival practices around the world differ significantly, and historians may need to develop trusting personal relationships with archivists. It is not clear that they would be able to do this, working through intermediaries.


An established problem of this kind of remote working is how credit is awarded. If a proxy researcher is the one doing the bulk of the archival labour, the work is theirs—but if they are doing so at the direction of another historian, how credit be awarded appropriately? In particular, if researchers in wealthier institutions are collaborating with proxies without an institutional basis or who are based in poorer institutions, there seems a real risk of exploitative dynamics arising.


A second established part of archival practice in some locations is that historians are able to contact archivists and archivists send copies of materials directly—usually (but not always) for a fee. Again practice varies enormously, and the problems about lack of direct acquaintance with primary materials also persist. Moreover, it is possible to imagine a situation where archivists have to field large numbers of trivial or malicious requests, if such a practice were to become more prevalent.


This connects to another issue, about which I have seen less discussion: how we build trusting relationships with colleagues we have never met face to face. (Jim’s suggestion about local networking session goes some way towards this, but probably would not allow for close collaboration with people we haven’t met). Colleagues often talk about using teleconference programs to work together, but also note that face to face meetings are essential. It is not easy to specify why it meeting face to face makes such a difference, but everyone I have ever spoken to about this subject agrees that it does. It has to do with the greater range of communication—through body language, posture, touch, and so on—which are available in person, as well as the various ways in which communications tends to get lost in translation when we are writing, speaking on the phone, or talking over Skype. I would very much like to see research about how to improve trust in remote working.


If developing trust at a distance is a problem when working with colleagues in the same profession, who are likely to share something of the same worldview, it is likely to be an even greater difficulty when dealing with proxy researchers or other collaborators. I am aware of the very rich history of go-betweens in the construction of scientific knowledge, and that colleagues who are journalists or who work for NGOs have significant experience and established procedures for working with people they will not be able to meet, but with whom they need to collaborate. I hope that scholars can learn something from these other fields about working with trusted intermediaries. I am aware, however, that serious journalism and serious NGO work still usually requires extensive meeting face to face, enabled by air travel.


I do not think that any of this is without risk—it could be that any increased focus on working remotely would simply reproduce existing inequities—but I would argue, it is worth trying to find a vision of scholarly life which is less dependent on highly destructive socio-technical systems. Doing this is a way to feel less helpless in the face of rapid and often destructive shifts within universities, and to understand how our material practices contribute to exclusions from scholarly communities. It cannot provide an answer for everyone—people will still need to fly, for all kinds of reasons. But at least some of us should try to develop more robust and resilient ways of working together remotely.


There are some obvious practical steps which would help with this. Some archives maintain directories of people who are willing to do proxy research for researchers who are unable to access collections themselves. Others are very generous in supporting researchers from overseas. It would be good to gather best practice in this area. Of course we will need to be careful that archivists are not overloaded with requests. Other equally practical questions will probably require rather more muddling through. But we will not get very far by simply rejecting the bits of the job–such as international conferences–which are widely regarded as tiresome and burdonsome. We need alternatives for the parts which make us feel good about ourselves and our work as well.


Part of scholarly reflexivity should be to examine the things we do and the infrastructures they rely upon. We would not expect an argument to be entirely right the first time it is made—others will offer criticisms, denunciations, suggest alternatives. Through this scrutiny it will improve. It should be the same in trying to different ways of working. We should want to develop lots of them and as far as possible explore their strengths and weaknesses in practice. If the name wasn’t already taken, you could call this “grounded theory”.


Mat Paskins

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