Stay Home, Take Care

by Prof. Dr. Johanna Pink (University of Freiburg)

The uncertain future of the academic jet set

2018 was one of those years. It started out fairly harmlessly, travel-wise, but then it picked up the pace until I felt I never wanted to see another airport.

  • In April, I went to a workshop in Abu Dhabi. I flew in, participated in the workshop, presented my paper, did a half-day sightseeing tour, and flew back. There was simply no time for anything beyond those few days: summer term was about to begin.
  • Right when the term had ended, in late July, I flew to Yogyakarta, Indonesia, to organize a conference. Given that it was a thirty-hour trip, I granted myself a day of rest before the start of the conference and a day afterwards to meet colleagues. I successfully crammed a family vacation into that summer but missed my husband’s birthday.
  • In September, I had a grant interview in Brussels for which I had previously attended a training in Bonn, which required another overnight stay.
  • Right after having returned from the interview, I went to Tunis with a group of colleagues and students for an explorative workshop at a potential partner institution.
  • In November, in the middle of winter term, I went to Oxford for a PhD thesis defence, continued on to London where I presented a paper at a conference, returned to Freiburg, washed my laundry, packed again, and left for another conference in Denver.
  • These were only the international trips; I travelled to a number of talks and committee meetings in Germany and Switzerland as well.

By the end of 2018, I was exhausted and determined to do better in 2019. I failed. If there was marginally less travel that year, it was mostly due to a herniated disk and a death in my family, which were not exactly causes for celebration. Having returned from a conference in San Diego in November 2019, only to go back to teaching the morning after, I wondered whether I would ever manage to cut down on the inordinate amount of travel I was constantly doing.

I am, after all, working in Qur’anic studies, which is a small field. Nearly all the colleagues I have meaningful interactions with are based abroad, in Canada, Indonesia, the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, and so forth. I felt that there was no way for me to become and stay part of this global network if not by attending conferences, workshops, and meetings, travelling to give talks, or strengthening professional ties in other ways such as agreeing to examine my colleagues’ PhD candidates.

Therefore, I did not really expect 2020 to be any better. The first quarter of the year, as is often the case, was not overly busy, at least not in terms of travel, with the exception of a two-day scholarship selection conference in Berlin. But that was going to change, or so I assumed at the time. First, I was scheduled to give a talk in Naples in April. I had planned to take my youngest daughter, who always misses me most when I am travelling. I wanted to spend an extra day to explore the city with her. I have no doubt that we would have enjoyed it. I also have no doubt that it would have been another tremendously exhausting trip because, as always, there was no time to stay for more than a couple of days. In June, I was supposed to attend a conference in Bologna to receive a book award. In July, I was going to organize an international workshop in Freiburg. In September, I intended to take a group of students to Tunis for a field trip funded by the German Academic Exchange Service, and in November, I needed to attend a conference in Boston. And these were only the things that I knew of at the beginning of the year.

And then corona struck.

Italy was hit early, and hard. Italian universities closed and travel seemed more and more unlikely. When my hosts contacted me in early March to ask whether I was sure I could give my talk, I assumed it was unlikely but there might still be a chance. This seems laughable in hindsight. Of course, the talk was cancelled. Soon thereafter, the conference in Bologna was cancelled, too, although there was some vague promise of an online meeting instead. I could not really imagine how this might possibly work.

At the time, everything was happening too fast to really comprehend it. My children’s schools closed, the university closed, everybody started working from home. At the beginning, I was not really able to care about any of that because I had, ironically, come down not with covid-19 but with an old-fashioned influenza. By late March, I had recovered. By early April, the lack of meaningful interaction with colleagues was starting to grate on me even though I tremendously appreciated the much-improved family life we were leading. The only time we got to meet people from outside our household was when we went to the supermarket or I had an occasional Skype talk with a colleague, which seemed a strange way of communicating, given that we used to meet for lunch when we needed to discuss something.

At the height of this period of isolation, in early April, a colleague from the United States with whom I had worked on the board of the International Qur’anic Studies Association (IQSA) contacted me by e-mail. He wrote that, as “a sort of academic response to the Corona crisis and social isolation”, he was planning to host a series of one-hour seminars on the Qur’an over Zoom. He asked whether I would like to give the third in what was going to become a series of seven talks – nothing that would require much extra work from me, maybe just an updated version of an earlier paper. I felt excited (and, of course, flattered; appeals to my vanity nearly always work, as is the case with many academics, I suspect) and I immediately accepted the invitation.

The hour of video conferences and webinars

My Zoom talk, which took place in late April, was unlike anything I’d ever done. Of course, I’d been part of hybrid events before where some people were present on Skype while others were sitting together in the same room, which had always been awkward on both sides. This was my first online-only academic talk, though. I had decided to present my recent research on Javanese Qur’an translation which was really a special-interest topic but the easiest one for me to prepare at the time. I was surprised to see that attendance was higher than at many on-site conferences, which was partly due to the participation of a substantial number of Indonesian academics, few of whom can afford international travel. There were approximately 60 participants from all over the world, and we had a lively discussion afterwards. The recording was uploaded to YouTube and has attracted about 1.000 views so far. The other seminars in the series were similarly successful. To many of us, it felt like being back among people, only a far more diverse group of people than usual, and with a bigger impact.

Video conferences, talks, and webinars became more ordinary as time went by. The conference in Bologna, which had been cancelled, was replaced by a mix of pre-recorded videos and live sessions. The international workshop I had been organizing with a colleague has been postponed to 2021 and in the meanwhile, we will have a series of video talks. Much of this is born out of necessity because large or even small gatherings are still not permitted in many places and travel is seriously restricted. But many academics are also beginning to wonder whether what is born here will not be part of our post-corona future.

The demise of the coffee break

Of course, a video conference is not quite the same as an on-site meeting. There is less social interaction. There is no gossiping in the coffee break. There are no dinners or even trips to the beach with colleagues – and these are, I have to admit, among my fondest memories of previous conferences. But then, I have recently become acutely aware of how exclusive all these activities were. They have only ever been available to a select crowd of academics, mostly from the global north, who have funding at their disposal and may travel freely. Academics from underfunded universities, those without a permanent contract, with childcare duties or simply the wrong kind of passport have never been able to enjoy the advantages of the global academic jet set. And while I was lucky enough to be among the select few, I not only spent a large amount of money on my trips, most of which was provided by the tax payer, but I also left an excessive carbon footprint and contributed to climate change. Should this really be the only way we can build international networks? Maybe we are now beginning to see that there are cheaper, less harmful, and more inclusive ways of doing things.

Of course, replacing on-site meetings with webinars is not a magical cure for all ills of academic networking. It comes with its own problems, not the least of which are of a technical nature. In most Zoom meetings, there is at least one person whose bandwidth is not sufficient for a high-quality audio and video connection. If that person is the speaker in the meeting, things may become particularly messy. Moreover, a field trip to Tunisia can certainly not be adequately replaced by online activities, which was what the German Academic Exchange Service suggested to us.

The fact that everyone is discovering the power of the webinar at the same time does not always help matters. I hear an increasing number of colleagues complaining that the abundance of webinars is taking on absurd proportions, making them feel constantly guilty of missing out on things. In former times, a scholar who is based in Berlin would never have been expected to attend a talk in Jakarta, no matter how closely related to their research. Now that this is suddenly possible, it creates expectations that might be impossible to fulfil.

The future of post-corona academic travel

Will we carry the lessons from 2020 into the post-corona era? I think we will. Especially smaller international academic organizations such as IQSA are recognizing the huge advantages of less expensive and more inclusive meetings. Many universities across the world are suffering from budget cuts and the costs of airfare are likely to remain substantially higher than they used to be. Travel might be an option for even fewer of us than previously for a long time to come.

On-site conferences will definitely still happen, despite all this. But they might be held less frequently. Should it not be enough for a learned society to host a huge meeting every three years, rather than every year? Intermittent online meetings could complement these large gatherings, opening up opportunities for those who are unable to travel and have previously been excluded from attending. The technical frameworks needed to organize such gatherings are improving by the day. We are only just witnessing the beginning of it.

Maybe, one day, I will attend a Qur’anic studies conference that will allow me to gossip with a Canadian colleague in a virtual coffee-break room. We will be joined by a colleague with an Iranian passport who could never have attended in person because she would have been denied a visa to the place where the conference is hosted. The three of us will arrange to attend an interesting talk by a colleague from Pakistan who would never have been able to fund a trip abroad. Maybe none of us would have met in person before, which would be a pity, to be sure.

Not all of the changes that we are currently witnessing might be for the better. We will be unlikely to ever find ourselves in a glorious academic utopia in which all structural sources of inequality are erased. But the current pandemic does offer us an opportunity to rethink the costs and drawbacks of our travel habits and look for new solutions. We should seize it.

About the Author

Johanna Pink is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Freiburg. She was a Senior Fellow at FRIAS in 2015-2016 and came back as a FRIAS Alumna in 2017, during which time she worked on her project “Contemporary Qu’ranic exegesis in historical perspective”.

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