07 September 2008

new media, academic conferences, and our carbon footprint

Everyone loves conferences. They are, we're told, the place where academic work "really gets done," where we see what's "really going on" -- in short, where younger scholars become "socialized" into an intellectual community. During his talk at the English Institute this weekend, Gerald Graff went so far as to suggest that some form of conference participation replace class credits for undergraduates.

In theory, I love conferences too. What could be better than a bunch of smart, interesting people getting together to spit ideas at each other all weekend? You learn something, have your ideas challenged, make new friends and meet old colleageus. It's a kind of academic Shangri-La, where Socrates can ask a near stranger what he thinks about piety and no one rolls her eyes or yawns or politely looks at her watch.

In practice, though, conferences terrify me. A room full of Aspergers-ish academics making small talk over stale coffee is about as close to hell on earth as my cushy life gets. For all my high hopes ("this time it'll be fun," "I know people!," whatever), it never fails: as soon as each session is over, I retreat to an unseen corner and try to look busy on some electronic gadget. I wasn't born to schmooze, even with people I know and like, and it isn't a skill I'm going to acquire any time soon. I can't be the only one out there who feels this way.

Anyway, I getting distracted talking about my own anxieties. What really struck me today in all the rhetoric about how (to paraphrase Graff) FREAKIN AWESOME conferences are, is how freakin awful they are for the environment. How many academic conferences occur in a year -- thousands? Tens of thousands? Millions of people flying around the world all the time, every year -- that's a pretty big carbon footprint. Huge. I look around the room, at all the people nodding as Graff lectures on the value of conference culture, a panacea for all the petty political ailments of departments and institutions. But, in the stark reality of world in which 2.4 million people die every year because of air pollution, I have to ask: who's suffering from a chronic respiratory disease in Phnom Penh so that I can hear someone's postcolonial reading of The Tempest in Osaka? These are lit scholars, irony is supposed to be in their active vocabulary.

In fact, academics seem to be among the worst polluters. It's practically a career requirement: I have to go to conferences, and lots of them, like it or not. I'm attending a conference in Iowa City, Iowa this January, causing an estimated 1,161 pounds of CO2 to be released into the air. How much CO2 was pumped into the atmosphere for us all to gather in a beautiful room at Harvard, on a beautiful day in Cambridge, to talk about the periodization of literary history? And as important as literary history is to me, I have to ask: is this discussion worth that kind of damage it's doing to the environment and to our health?

As always, few people hold back their little snarky liberal jabs during humanities conferences -- "dare I say, conferences are like community organizing?", ha ha ha, it's funny, see, because of all that stuff about Obama's experience during the RNC! -- but never have I heard anyone express the slightest bit of concern about their carbon footprint. We're talking about conferences, and no one mentions it.

This is -- perhaps most frustratingly -- a problem with a solution. We don't have to stop attending academic gatherings; we just have to be smarter about it. We need new and better tools to collaborate online, to share video and chat in real time and virtual space. We need more research on how to foster a sense of community on the web; but, more importantly, we need the practical projects to back it up. The HASTAC Scholars discussion with Howard Rheingold, which used the video sharing tool Seesmic, was an interesting way of testing the waters. A project here at MIT, Cultura, has been working in this area for quite some time, although in a different capacity. In fact, the digital humanities community is working on a solution to nearly all the pedagogical problems posed by Gerald Graff today; we just have to get ourselves organized enough to make these initiatives stronger, more visible and more usuable. DH has got to step up its game and start addressing these kinds of issues.

New media, academic conferences, the environment -- these are all here to stay. At least I hope so in the case of the latter. For that to happen, though, we have to get the first two talking to each other.

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