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The Many Obstacles to Research Travel

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If you’re a faculty member at a liberal-arts college or a teaching-oriented university, you’ve no doubt had to skip scholarly conferences or decline academic invitations because they conflicted with your class schedule. We usually can arrange for a guest lecturer, a proctor, or some online activity to fill in for us on occasion. But how much can you do that before it gets impractical or unacceptable?

Travel is typically integral to the maintenance of an active research agenda. Most teaching-focused institutions claim that faculty scholarship is important. However, researchers in such institutions have fewer resources and less social capital in the research community, and face more resistance in keeping their research programs going. The difference in travel constraints between research universities and teaching-focused colleges is not just an inconvenience, but a strategic setback that constrains the productivity and visibility of our research.

If your research agenda necessitates you being more than a short distance from campus, then it is obvious that the work can’t happen much during the academic year. Field researchers often have sites that involve a road trip or a flight, and many people in the humanities need access to specialized libraries or archives.

Likewise, if the timing of your research is predicated on external conditions (like the weather, social or political events, or other incidents), then the liberty to drop everything and head to the field is limited. For example, there is a huge coral bleaching event happening on the Great Barrier Reef. I have a colleague who works with reefs and bleaching events, but I don’t think my department or college would be cool with her just flying off to Australia for a few weeks in the middle of a semester. At a research university, a grad student, postdoc, or adjunct could fill in for her in the classroom. But at teaching colleges, that’s a nonstarter.

As a field ecologist in a teaching-focused institution, one of the biggest asymmetries that I experience relative to other scientists is the liberty to travel during the academic semester. Since the start of this semester, one friend in my field at a research university disappeared off to a remote rainforest for some fieldwork for a couple weeks, while another attended two longish conferences on relatively short notice. Those are things that most professors at teaching institutions can’t pull off.

I am not claiming that the world should be otherwise, but rather, I am observing the disparity and making note of the challenges that it creates for researchers at teaching-oriented colleges.

The mindset toward professional travel tends to be different at such institutions. At a research university, nobody is put out if you have to travel for a conference, seminar, or fieldwork. Teaching institutions are not monolithic, but in a variety of campuses and departments, it’s understood that during the semester you might get to go to a conference but that’s pretty much as much as you’re allowed. Even if your bases are covered teaching-wise, being away for a week-long conference is a no-no. To be out of town too much is just, well, a little unseemly. In my experience that is a bigger constraint at small liberal-arts colleges, where on-campus face time is highly prized than it is at regional state universities like mine where, so long as I fulfill my obligations, I don’t get much guff for travel.

I’m an entomologist — which means that I study insects — and I should be going to conferences to share with others who study insects. It makes sense that we should schedule our meetings at the approach of winter, when we will not be missing out on much insect activity in the field. Since my first meeting two decades ago, the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America has typically landed a couple weeks before or after Thanksgiving. Clearly, the folks who run this academic society don’t have teaching schedules in mind when they schedule their meetings because I don’t think they could have picked a worse time. I’ve talked with so many grad students and professors who have skipped the conference because they just couldn’t get away from the classroom that week in near the end of a semester. I’ve skipped more of those meetings than I have attended because of its unfortunate timing.

I don’t mean to pick on the entomologists, because there are lots of other conferences that happen during the academic year. I personally would rather to go a conference during the academic year — rather than during the three months when I’m off the clock — but that functionally excludes a lot of people who otherwise would be more available to attend during the summer.

So what can academic event planners do to ameliorate the disparity in travel availability among researchers at different types of institutions?

  • Please do not exclude us based on the assumption that we are not available — we often can find the time!
  • Second, it’s easier to accommodate invitations if they are made before the start of the academic semester.
  • Third, professional meetings that take place over the weekend will take up less of the academic work week.
  • Fourth, please keep in mind that these asymmetries are also tied to reproductive status, as parents who are not positioned to be apart from their young children for extended periods are also experiencing similar challenges.
  • Finally, if you are a chair or an administrator at a teaching-focused institution, try to be more tolerant of professional travel during the academic semester. Moreover, you can proactively develop policies that support research-related travel during the semester for activities that cannot be readily scheduled when classes are out of session. That will not only improve working conditions for your current faculty but also can be an important component of the campus climate when attempting to woo competitive applicants for faculty positions.

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