“dumb–almost cosmic stupidity”

“dumb–almost cosmic stupidity”

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I couldn’t agree more with this assessment by Glenn T. Miller, academic dean and professor of ecclesiastical history at Bangor Theological Seminary, on the decision to split the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings.  In a piece by Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Miller is also reported to believe nothing “sinister” about the split: 

“Do I think it’s a conspiracy? No,” he said. “Academics don’t have enough energy for conspiracy.”

Well, maybe not…but it might be a conspiracy nonetheless.  Get a few drinks in one or two of those in the know–not a difficult task–and you will get a preview of the much-mentioned (at the AAR/SBL meeting in San Diego) but not yet presented survey that was taken of members of both organizations:  almost no one at all approved of the decision.  So why was it made?

Now there will be two annual meetings in 2008, with the AAR convening in Chicago (November 1-3) and the SBL in Boston (November 21-25).  This is bad for a number of reasons other than just the intellectual and, indeed, spiritual problems it causes.  Who has time for yet another conference?  And another conference means even more travel, and that is bad for body, soul, and the environment. 

This last point is made by Joyce Appleby and Nikki Keddie in their piece for Inside Higher Ed:  “Is This Trip Really Necessary?“ 

It’s probably news to most people that many scholars and administrators fly back and forth across the continent and around the globe about as frequently as movie stars. The number of conferences bringing together historians, biologists, physicists and their peers on a regular basis is staggering.

Every discipline and many sub-disciplines have national associations — many of them also have regional and international associations that gather their members at least once a year. The number of such associations and the size of their conventions keeps growing. Though the conventions of major associations do some important business, especially in job-hunting, the meetings are far larger and more numerous than this business requires.

Compounding the problem are all the student recruitment trips, job searches with campus visits, one-off lecture events with just a handful of attendees, and development officers traveling the country to raise money to support in part (what else?) academic travel.  As Appleby and Keddie put it, the very instution that alerted us to environmental degradation is itself a key offender.

The authors aren’t calling for a complete moratorium on travel, and neither am I.  I log a lot of miles myself.  I am not fully persuaded of the glories of a purely virtual world, and nothing can replace a face-to-face encounter with colleagues and collaborators.  And travel to foreign countries is a great tonic for cultural sensitivity and expanded horizons. 

That said, not every conference I’ve had to attend has been (if I may be honest) worth the effort.  I recently gave a presentation to a group of academics in Stuttgart from the comfort of my own office here in the States (using Skype, for free!), and it got the job done without a single technological hiccup, even though set up by a couple of amateurs (one of whom was me).

We will never be able to give up travel all together, nor should we even try.  We live at a time in which it is possible to see all of this world we inhabit, and the desire to do so is natural.  True, there are pernicious effects of “nature travel,” whereby places like Nepal and safari sites in Africa are wrecked by rich travelers seeking “adventure.”  But the drive to see what there is to be seen is in our general make-up, and it’s not a bad thing. 

Yet there are things we can do to mitigate the environmental effects of our work, and to the extent that we can, we should try to be a little gentler as we make our way in this world.