Written by Rachel Douglas-Jones, co-Head of ETHOS Lab, IT University of Copenhagen
2018 was a big year in international awareness of the climate emergency. Inspired by the Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg’s lone campaign which started in August, children across the world have been on school strike on Fridays, under the hashtag #FridaysForFuture. The Extinction Rebellion movement formalized in October.
For many of us, these movements hit close to home. 2018 was also the year that anthropologists coordinated for a wholly virtual conference, Displacements / #displace18, written up by Anand Pandian here. In 2019, following the American Anthropological Association’s refusal to develop virtual presentation options, a number of scholars dropped out.
Academics travel. We travel for fieldwork, to speak, to conferences, to meet collaborators and make projects happen. We often fly. In 2015, ahead of the climate talks in Paris, an international group of academics launched a petition addressed to universities and researchers, asking them to fly less and reduce academia’s footprint. It currently has 688 signatories, from North Carolina to Glasgow.
Those who have chosen to fly less are asked to tell their stories. To date, we have largely heard from academics reflecting on the professional and personal consequences of their decisions to fly less.
But what does it mean to be the other side of the engagement, the hosts of the ground-traveling scholar? While the FlyingLess petition asks universities, as much as academics, to participate, we have heard fewer stories from hosts. I describe some practical, institutional and intellectual considerations that hosts can use to help support a scholar committed to flying less.
Preparing to host
In February 2019, we hosted Dr. Hannah Knox at the ETHOSLab, IT University of Copenhagen. The original purpose of inviting her was to be a mid-way examiner for a PhD. Hannah has written publicly about her decision not to fly, and written up her experiences.
So before inviting Hannah, I looked into what we could offer institutionally to support her. Traveling by land is, for some institutions, a puzzle. Some systems mandate the use of an official booking service, others have extremely strict requirements on the modes of transport that it permissible to reimburse. We are fortunate to be in a well-resourced system that provides budgets for international mid-way examiners. If Hannah chose to travel differently, could we host her differently?
- I had asked our administration whether they would be happy to reimburse travel by land, which they replied they would “within reason”.
- I also thought about how the University could support her by extending the trip beyond the usual one night. Could we make the trip more feasible by combining budgets? (We did)
Figuring out these practicalities (that we could both technically reimburse travel by land, and that we could potentially cover some nights of an extended stay) meant that when I first contacted Hannah about her visit, I could both acknowledge that she was not flying, and specify what we could offer.
Traveling by land is usually slower than flying (although not always). This can turn into part of the appeal, with train hours used in the kind of slow thinking sorely lacking in most academic days. Time is political, whether it is being won, protected, or given up. As others have noted, the tying of academic travel to conferences, panels, committees to professional advancement ‘too often asks [academics] for what is simply impossible to give, either in terms of their own time or a spouse’s’ (MoChride 2019).
I wanted Hannah to get the most out of coming to Copenhagen, knowing that she would be spending this more extended time with us and away from her friends, colleagues, students, and family. Rather than considering her visit to a single academic event, then, I began to ask how else we could think together during her visit.
Invitation and Activities
Once we knew we were working with more days, Hannah and I expanded the range of activities.
Instead of simply engaging her as an external examiner for a mid-way PhD exam (a total of 3h for several days of travel), we held a further three events.
- First, on the day before we held a teaching-oriented event, taking the opportunity to brainstorm together on what a syllabus for the Digital Anthropocene would look like. This was based on interest Hannah had in a workshop that had happened the previous year in Aarhus, hosted by James Maguire and Astrid O. Andersen.
- Second, we held a big social dinner to talk openly about research interests and possible future collaborations.
- Third, working with colleagues Astrid O. Andersen, Ester Fritch and the Danish Anthropological Association, Antropologforeningen, we hosted a book launch of Hannah’s recent co-edited volume Ethnography in a Data Saturated World in the Lab. Lots of students were introduced to the new book, and we handed out discount flyers from the press!
These additional activities prompted us to mobilize local networks in Copenhagen, creating opportunities for Hannah to meet with Danish scholars beyond the mid-way, with the side benefit of expanding spaces of disciplinary discussion in the city.
The conversation about institutions and climate in Denmark is developing. In January 2019, a leading national newspaper, Politiken, committed to reducing flights for their journalists and covering more locations that can be reached by public transport. A declaration drafted by colleagues from Copenhagen Business School calls for sustainability to be formally written into University charters.
Hosting is an important dimension of what Universities do. By making bureaucratic processes open to reimbursing land travel, and by exploring options to extend a stay (both financially and academically) hosts can play a vital role in supporting FlyingLess academics.