The Chronicle got one right. It outlined yesterday some discontent among sociologists at the cost of attending the American Sociological Association annual conference. If you don’t live in or near the host city, the combination of registration, airfare, hotel, and food can easy run over two thousand dollars for a single conference. And the ASA isn’t unique in that. If anything, it’s fairly typical.
If you’re independently wealthy, or extremely well paid, or you happen to work in a setting with ample travel budgets, then the cost doesn’t matter much. But if you’re like the vast majority of working academics, the cost is severe. Many institutions have relatively meager travel allowances, if any at all, and travel is usually the first thing to cut when budgets are tight.
The cost functions as a filter, screening out the non-elites and ensuring a deeply skewed representation of the discipline. The questions that get attention are the ones considered important by the people who work in large departments and who have the luxury of specializing. The folks who teach slates of intro courses year after year struggle to attend, and often, don’t. Their questions go unasked, or get answered for them by people who don’t face the same institutional realities they do.
But it’s a difficult problem to fix.
In the short term, travel is a reasonable target for cuts. In most community college settings, full-time faculty do not have a publication requirement for tenure or promotion. (That’s why I get twitchy whenever I read that the path to acceptance of digital humanities, or OER, or whatever, involves tweaking tenure processes to give as many points for them as for traditional research. We don’t give points for traditional research. The suggestion carries with it an assumed institutional background that erases my own.) Most of the budget is labor, which means that most budget cuts would require firing (or not replacing) people.
Conference travel isn’t like that. The short-term cost of cutting it is diffuse. And grants are often more likely to fund travel than they are to fund, say, instruction, which means that it’s easier to make up cuts to travel than cuts to instruction.
Still, something real is lost -- to the faculty, the college, and the discipline -- when faculty are kept away from broader discussions for too long.
I’ll offer a few suggestions, and then look to my wise and worldly readers for more.
The simplest, and least difficult, change would be for conferences to DROP THE CHARADE OF THE LAST HALF DAY. That last half day requires another entire night of hotel stay, and rarely accomplishes much of anything. Panels are lightly attended, because people are catching flights. The net cost of the last half day far outweighs any real gain from it. Reducing the length of the conference by a night/day would reduce the rental cost for the association (and therefore the registration fees for attendees), and the room charges for the attendees. This should be a no-brainer.
Making regional conferences more relevant could also help. Perhaps scheduling all of them on the same two or three days, with live video hookups among them, could get around some of the issues of provincialism. Getting Twitter cross-chat among the regions could make for some lively discussion, and the infrastructure is already there. It would probably involve having the national organization take a more directive role relative to the regional ones, but that strikes me as solvable.
Philanthropy could also play a more intentional role here. If academic conference travel matters as much as some of us think it does, we should make the case to prospective donors. Donors who want, say, community college faculty to be able to keep up with their fields could make significant differences relatively cheaply.
Or, we could just keep booking three hundred dollar a night hotels in expensive cities, and lamenting the nearly complete absence of the folks who work at teaching institutions.
Wise and worldly readers, short of a visit from the money fairy, is there a better way to handle conference travel?