Dr David Powell


If and how I travel as an academic IS my message

Tom Russell (1997), the Canadian teacher educator, coined the phrase “How I teach IS the message” in his seminal chapter on teacher educators’ use of modelling as a strategy for helping student teachers learn how to teach. It seems apposite for academics’ travel behaviour too.

On Tuesday 29th October, 2019, I was having breakfast at the NH Collection hotel in Seville; it was the morning of my keynote to Spain’s Deans and Directors of Education XVII Assembly at the University of Seville. After collecting a second cappuccino, I opened The Guardian, my paper of choice, on my iPad and began reading Professor Jonathan Wolff’s opinion piece on academics’ (mis)use of academic travel. It stopped me in my tracks. Here I was, eating my breakfast in a 4* hotel paid for by the University of Seville, having flown with Ryanair from Manchester, who, according to Kier-Byfield (2019, online), is “ranked among Europe’s top polluters”, having had a weekend in Seville and Granada (in my defence, at my own expense).

“David, are you part of the problem?” I asked myself, then tweeted; “Raises important questions for people like me, making me think about sustainable alternatives.”

So, this blog seeks to do three things:

  • it sets out some of the reasons for academic travel;
  • it presents responses to three questions I have asked some of my Spanish colleagues, those I knew before the conference and those I met in Seville, about my attendance at the conference; and finally
  • it sets out some ideas for individual and collective praxis by academics if we are to travel sustainably in 2020 and beyond.

Perk of the job?

Wolff (2019) suggests there are four drivers behind academics’ travel:

  1. To give talks to students and colleagues, for instance, my trip to Seville.
  2. Administrative visits linked to membership of project teams. A friend, Calum Thompson of Salford University, told me recently that he has to travel to meetings in Palestine because it is a condition of the project’s funding that people attend meetings in person. Virtual attendance is not allowed. Budd Hall’s and Rajesh Tandon’s work for UNESCO has a “global mandate” which requires air travel, though they use a wide range of technologies to connect with those they are working with once a project group has formed.
  3. To attend meetings of international organisations you are a member of. For instance, I travel to Brussels for meetings as a member of the Administrative Council for the Association of Teacher Education in Europe.
  4. To attend and present at conferences such as the SCUTREA conference in Vancouver in June 2020.

It seems to me that each one of these reasons is often driven by universities’ obsession with their position in international league tables, their funding targets, the international profile of their staff, and to increase the number of publication outputs and citations for exercises, like the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the UK, which contribute to league table positions. 

Sustainable travel starts at a personal level, so what does this mean for people like me when determining whether to travel or not? Rather than self-justifying my travel behaviour, I asked four Spanish colleagues to respond to three questions based on Wolff’s (2019) call for us to make our academic travel sustainable by “replacing it where possible, reducing it only the essential, and refining it so that it is really worthwhile for all parties". Many thanks to Professors Luis Marques Molias and Merce Gisbert, both of Universitat Rovira i Virgil and Professors Begona Pedrosa and Nagore Ipina, both of Mondragon Unibertsitatea for permission to quote from their responses.

The first two questions were related to my attendance at their conference in Seville and the third was related to their own travel behaviour:

  1. Replace. Have you ever experienced a virtual keynote? What was it like? Could my keynote have been replaced by a ‘Skype’ (or similar) presentation? What were the advantages to you as an audience member of me being there in person?
  2. Refine. How might my visit to Seville have been refined to make it really worthwhile for you?
  3. Reduce. Where did you travel from to the Conference? How did you travel to the Conference? What shaped your travel decision? How could you, as an academic, reduce your carbon footprint when travelling to conferences in future?

Replacing my visit?

All four of the colleagues I asked had participated in virtual keynotes. Merce felt that they had given her access to important knowledge, though what she missed was the “face to face and interpersonal interaction…especially the richness of non-verbal communication”. Luis reflected that in the virtual keynote he had experienced, "the interaction was not very intensive, it was a really more a 'master class' than a 'dialogue'". He drew attention to the benefit in this case of "having the opportunity to continue talking with [me] during the conference". Nagore and Begoña remembered two occasions where they “had connection problems, so we felt that we were ‘lost in digital translation'” and the audience “disconnected.” On the other hand, they recalled another which was, in their words, “wonderful” because of a good connection and a “good digital speaker”. They used bold, they explained, because “giving a keynote digitally requires some extra skills to engage the audience.”

Could my keynote have been virtual? Not according to Nagore and Begoña: “the fact that the topic (and your style) required a high interaction with the audience. Asking us to chat among us and 'modelling' some of your key ideas was really helpful to understand the key messages.” 

Refining my visit?

Merce would have liked more time to discuss some of the topics raised in my keynote in smaller groups. Nagore and Begoña reflected: “if the conference could have been in English, you could have had the opportunity to participate in the parallel sessions and we could have learned more from you.” These issues seem to be about how conferences are organised and raise questions for the organisers.

Reducing their own carbon footprint?

Merce travelled by train to avoid having to go to Barcelona airport. She found the train “comfortable”. Merce is committed to reducing her carbon footprint and only travelling to conferences when it adds value and increases her knowledge. Luis, who had helped to organise the conference, also travelled to Seville by train, from Tarragona. 

Because of where they are based, Nagore and Begoña drove to the airport from their university, “flew…to Seville airport and took a taxi from there to the conference venue. Then, we walked to the hotel.” An option for them was to take the bus but they said they would have needed “at least two days more to go the conference and come back home…

In the high-paced academic environment that surround us, time to take slower, more environmental friendly journeys is not always something we can afford. Reading Tyers’ (2019) account of his train journey from Southampton to Shanghai gives you an idea of what’s involved.

Nagore and and Begoña recognise the potential for more sustainable academic travel and conference practices. These include travelling to local conferences by public transport and reducing photocopying at conferences by using the conference “webpage as a reference.” 

Praxis for sustainable travel behaviour

Drawing on Marx and Hegel, Kemmis et al. (2014a, p.26) define “praxis… as ‘history-making action,’ that is, action with moral, social and political consequences—good or bad—for those involved in and affected by it.” This is the form of praxis, in my opinion, that my academic colleagues, our institutions, and I need to adopt if we are to undertake sustainable academic travel and, in the process, make the world a “better” place to “live and [work] inKemmis et al., 2014b, p.27).

What might this look like?

  1. Bill Esmond replying to my initial Tweet about sustainable academic travel wrote: “…get the train where possible (easy to Hamburg, did this last month)…
  2. A manifesto for sustainable academic travel that we could sign up/pledge to and try and keep?
  3. Organisations, like ATEE, which I am a member of and whose Administrative Council (AC) I sit on, looking at how they can reduce the carbon footprint of their conferences. One way they could do this is by requiring any organiser wishing to host a conference to submit an environmental audit with their bid.
  4. Off-setting emissions is reasonable, but it’s really just a way of covering our backs,” says Kier-Byfield (2019, online). We need to move beyond this, though it should be a minimum for organisations and individuals who choose to fly to conferences.
  5. Explore the use of technology to remove the need for physical presence. Wolff (2019) wrote about his experience of this. Recently, by Skype, I spoke to student teachers at the University of Osijek, where Marija Sablic, an ATEE AC colleague is based. Yes, we had some initial technology problems – I could not hear them – though once this was resolved it actually worked very well. So well, I could clearly hear and enjoy their Croatian rendition of Jingle Bells.
  6. Bring into the foreground the carbon footprint of our attendance at conferences which will include flying. One way of making this visible would be to have a section on the application forms for conference attendance and travel that asked what the carbon footprint of our attendance would be and what the conference’s carbon footprint would be. Decisions could then be made on grounds of sustainability.
  7. Project funders to re-direct their funding to “researchers in the global South”, suggests Budd Hall. It “is nuts”, Budd says, that academics in the Northern Hemisphere are paid to travel to the Southern Hemisphere to “lead research projects”.
  8. Funders writing into bids that virtual meetings are encouraged and expected and that applicants must indicate what the carbon footprint of their bid will be. However, Budd Hall pointed out to me that “different time zones [can] make synchronous communications problematic. The more powerful organizations make all their schedules according to their time zones and leave the rest of us to fit it in 3 am or midnight depending on where we live.”
  9. Individual and universities only bidding for funding where virtual meetings are permitted within the tender.
  10. Where flying is unavoidable, choosing sustainable airlines over less sustainable airlines.

What about me?

I have just had a paper accepted for the annual SCUTREA conference Adult Education in Global Times, which this year will be hosted by the Canadian Association for the Study of Adult Education (CASAE), and held in Vancouver. This brings the issue of sustainable academic travel into sharp focus for me. How and if I decide to travel to this conference IS my message to those I work with and those who follow me on Twitter.

Saj, a colleague, suggested on Twitter “maybe you could thumb a lift on the QE2!.” Now there's an idea!


Thanks to Dr Bill Esmond of the University of Derby; Professor Budd Hall, University of Victoria, Canada; and Saj Mohammed, of University College Birmingham, for permission to quote them. 



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