Some Cattle to Go With the Hat

The rising cost of petroleum is doing more work on behalf of environmental sustainability than many campaigns designed to promote virtuously green or sustainable lifestyles. When sustainability means substantially lowered costs, or consists of a simple alignment between two kinds of repeated labor or expense, it’s an easy sell.

This takes an honest accounting of costs, however. If you’re trying to sell a major institution on a more sustainable energy infrastructure, such as geothermal cooling and heating (aka ground-source heat pumps), you’ve got to be upfront about the costs that will be incurred in terms of the complexity of the installation and maintenance. With a lot of environmental technologies the people and institutions that really see the benefits are often the lag adopters who wait and study the problems encountered by early adopters.

Sustainability advocates sometimes confuse aesthetic preferences for sustainable choices, in part because they discount labor costs to individuals and institutions by burying those costs behind the haze of “lifestyle”, as if philosophical commitment obliterates time.

I’ve pointed out that with my yard and gardening, I’m perfectly content to do many things that environmental advocates argue for. I allow parts of my yard to overgrow, I don’t use chemicals on anything, I don’t put out yard trash but instead collect it myself in a large pile in one corner of my yard, I rarely water except with new plantings, I have compost. Most of these things I do because they’re easier and cheaper to do given the yard that I own. I have the space to pile up branches, sticks and leaves, and it’s easier to pile them than it is to bag them up for collection. I have a chainsaw to cut up large branches and an axe and wedge to break them into firewood. When I can spare the money, I’ll buy a chipper/shredder and spare myself the need to buy mulch in the spring. Composting already saves me having to buy fertilizer.

When the stereotypically sustainable practice is a markedly bigger hassle, I don’t do it. I bought a good-quality push mower because it seemed cheaper and I figured it be good for me physically to use it. Problem: it doesn’t cut worth a damn unless I constantly sharpen the blades, which is either an expense or a major ordeal in labor time. I’d think about ripping up at least one major portion of my front lawn, only it’s almost entirely shaded by a big ash tree, so a vegetable garden or simple wildflower meadow is out. A huge shade planting would actually be expensive to put in and difficult to maintain. Allowing the entire front to go wild doesn’t just bug me aesthetically, it would actually incur costs (lower home value, more deer and dog ticks, eventually potential root damage to surrounding infrastructure, the social labor of dealing with neighbors who may object to the look of a completely wild front yard, and so on). In some climates and environments, lawn once established is cheaper and easier: the preference for it isn’t all some unsustainable mania or mindless conformity.


I guess I’m most struck, however, at how some arguments for sustainability skip over huge areas of institutional and personal practice where there are ready alternatives to business-as-usual which have big cost benefits as well.

I’ll take academia as an example. Leaving aside the use of sustainability as a Trojan horse that permits the introduction of a much wider array of political issues and commitments, a lot of academic advocates for sustainability focus on familiar targets, such as promoting recycling, increasing the use of organic and locally-grown food on campus, and cutting water and energy use in buildings. Some of these commitments make good sense from every angle. Some of them mix aesthetic preferences with more ambiguous claims about short-term sustainability. A preference for organic and locally-grown food, for example, seems to me to potentially muddle together a very complex terrain of costs, environmental models, ambiguous terminologies and personal preferences. I’d personally prefer it if our campus food services made use of high-quality organic and locally-grown, seasonally-available food. But that’s because I’m willing to pay a higher price if such food is made available and is prepared competently, because I’m willing to alter my eating habits to some extent to follow seasonal availability, and because I have transport and a nearby residence and can thus opt out when I’m inclined to do so. Students with more limited personal budgets or parents paying room and board might feel differently if the costs of this kind of food service were passed on to them. I’m not sure that it’s clear that locally grown food is always more environmentally sustainable at either large or small scales. With some food, I don’t care much if it is, because locally grown is better. (Summer tomatoes, for example.) With some food, it depends very much on who is producing it. If I have to choose between poorly made local cheese and reliable if undistinguished mass produced cheese, I’ll choose the latter. For me (and I think for some of those most committed to sustainability) that choice is not primarily determined by price–but for many, it is.

A different example. Right now, many academics (at Swarthmore and elsewhere) travel to the meetings of professional associations, to workshops, to conferences. I don’t know if the average annual travel of tenure-track professors has been estimated either within a single discipline or across the whole of academia. Taking myself for an example, I’d say that my average travel over the last decade has been to three professional conferences or meetings a year and two individual speaking engagements a year. This year is going to be above average: if I take July as the beginning of the coming academic year for this purpose, I’m presently committed to attend five meetings and I’m contemplating going to another one. If this coming year is typical, there will probably be a few unplanned additions to that list. Add to that travel to archives, fieldsites or other travel connected to the creation of data or research material, some of which should be a big part of my coming year.

Of that travel, what is absolutely necessary? First, at least some travel to research sites. Many archives are not and will not be digitized for the foreseeable future. Ethnographic fieldwork can’t be done remotely unless it’s focused on online environments in the first place. Experimental or observational science may have to be done at large, unique facilities and may require the investigator’s personal presence.

Second, very small-scale workshops seem to me to have some of the same character as a small class does, requiring face-to-face conversation and close reading. So do some formats for professional discussion and conversation. A good roundtable is spontaneous, performative, impromptu, and so I think requires the presence of a live audience and a live panel.

Third, interviews for job candidates require personal presence both for the interviewees and the interviewers. Phone interviews rarely do anybody credit.

How about a big or medium-size meeting like the Modern Language Association, American Historical Association, or African Studies Association? When academics go to these meetings, we’re there for one of four major reasons: 1) We’re on a panel; 2) We’re being interviewed or interviewing; 3) We like to see our friends and we like to travel and the meeting combines both; 4) we’re an officer of the association.

As I’ve said, I think the second reason is a good one. As far as the fourth goes, if I’m insane enough to be an officer of one of these groups, I have to go, though I’ve likely seen the other officers at other times during the year.

On the other hand, much as I like to see my professional friends and travel, it seems to me that I can accomplish this purpose without a large association meeting. A small workshop, a speaking invitation or just personal travel are all more satisfying ways to see friends. I got a lot more out of seeing friends at GLS, which is relatively small, than I probably will be able to get out of a huge meeting like AHA.

What I’m really thinking about are the panels. I’ve written before about my frustrations with the standard model for panels in the humanities and some of the social sciences: three or four papers to a 90-minute panel, none of the papers precirculated, all the panelists trying to read some excerpt (artfully chosen or hastily selected) in 15 minutes, a discussant who then takes up 15-30 minutes, and a few questions from the audience. The format is ostensibly intended for spectators, but it’s about as lousy a spectatorial experience as I can imagine. It’s certainly very far away from the norms of reading, discussion and publication that scholars are supposed to hold dear: we don’t get to see the details of what the speaker is claiming, and the speaker doesn’t get to hear detailed responses. If the point is to learn about new ideas and arguments in our field, that should involve a much more comprehensive format like poster sessions, but a lot of major professional associations in the humanities use poster sessions (if they have them at all) as an afterthought.

Most scholars I know agree that the conventional formats are of limited use. Some people tell me that the major reason to have them is to maximize the number of people attending who are giving some kind of formal presentation as many institutions will only grant travel allowances to presenters. Others suggest that panels are an important part of the professionalization and training of academics.

In any event, both conventional panels and poster sessions would be far more useful if they were in whole or in substantial part conducted as online discussions. Not just “slap it up and see what happens”, but as carefully organized, focused sessions. Solicit papers just as you would now, have a selection committee, put the papers up as .pdfs, and solicit three (not one) commenters who write a three to four paragraph critique. Then create a discussion thread, and tag or categorize the presentation so that readers can find it. (Some disciplines, especially in the sciences, are already operating this way with much of their publication and conversation.) This strikes me as a better model in particular for professionalization, almost like a public, conversational form of peer review.

What of the people who need to give a presentation to be reimbursed? That’s where the sustainability part comes in: let’s just kill off that part of professional associations. Reduce the annual meetings to job interviews and nothing more. Look for ways to regionalize those functions. Move the intellectual life of the association into online interactions entirely and redirect the budgets of the associations to reducing the cost of travel for job candidates while we’re at it. Cut the membership fees, which are substantial in relationship to value returned.

Like my compost pile, this practice would have the simple virtue of saving money. Well, for everyone except the hotels, convention centers, restaurants and cities that economically depend upon this kind of event, much as my compost pile deprives some fertilizer manufacturer of a sale of six to ten bags or so to me every year. Also like my compost pile, this would be by most conventional measures a vastly more environmentally sustainable way to carry out one aspect of our professional business. Less jet fuel consumed, less ancillary travel, and so on.

Some of the campus groups committed to sustainability do argue for an increase in telecommuting, but this is often regarded as a more exotic, rarified proposal. Here’s a context where at least some of the business that academics carry out through travel could be carried out in a more sustainable manner where doing so would (in my humble opinion) be an enhancement of that business, not a degredation of it, where the frequent costs of travel aren’t part of our necessary, daily business.

I’d almost think this makes this kind of advocacy an easier sell than major alterations to the underlying technological infrastructure of many universities, some of which may involve unforeseen liabilities or complications. But at least some of that advocacy comes out of a clean-room context where cost is thought to be someone else’s problem, to be passed on to future students, faculty, administrators and trustees. Talk of sustainability sometimes seems to me to be both too audacious and not nearly audacious enough.

This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Some Cattle to Go With the Hat

  1. Sdorn says:

    I agree with much of this argument about large conferences, with two caveats, one arguing in favor of face-to-face interaction at some level and another arguing against the AHA annual meeting entirely:

    1) I’ve argued elsewhere that I don’t think academics have a good model of what online conversations can look like. Part of that is inexperience with enough range of quality in online conversations and models of how to structure it: if you’re not looking at the Volokh Conspiracy or The Valve, what else is possible? We have this problem with teaching as well ( and I don’t have any great suggestions other than hoping that some ethnographer can push better thinking on this front. I’m not sure this argues at all in favor of large conferences, because the time/energy/infrastructure for those can be used to collect people online and experiment.

    1a) The regionalization of conferences can reduce expenses, and depending on the field, there are other solutions, such as the biennial meeting (European Social Science History Association, the Society for the History of Children and Youth, etc.), mixed together with online venues.

    1b) Online forums might open up “virtual conference” participation up to scholars who otherwise do not have the opportunity: graduate students without travel support, faculty at primarily teaching institutions, international scholars, etc., another net benefit which leads me to …

    2) The defense of the AHA Job Registry and similar placement opportunities at the AAA and APA (the philosopher one, not the psychology one) seems parochial and full of logical flaws. If flying to a conference is wasteful to you, as a faculty member, what about the graduate students who are in another geographic region, far from the conference? The class biases and status issues that infect job searches are magnified by interviewing people for 20 minutes at a time in a cavernous hall by tired search committee members when a large slice of graduate students just aren’t there. And of the money! Couldn’t Swarthmore (or any institution) bring an extra interviewee to campus for the same money that it uses to send faculty to the AHA (or similar meetings)? I suspect few historians are aware that large swaths of academe don’t have interviews at conferences and somehow still fill jobs at probably the same ultimate success rate (however measured).

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the issue with letting the rich institutions pay their own way, inviting 5-7 candidates on their own dime, is that the poorer institutions will say that they can’t possibly reproduce that expenditure, and that the annual meeting is something they’ve got to have. Of course, as you point out, many of them then misuse that opportunity by conducting interviews in the cattle-call room. If face-to-face is worth it, it’s worth it to buy some private, focused time–if all you want is 15 minutes in a big hall full of people interviewing, do it by phone.

  3. dmerkow says:


    It is worth noting that there are residual regional organizations that are mostly dormant that could be revived to serve as the foundation for something like what you describe. I know that Ohio has the Ohio Academy of History that has a yearly conference.

    A regionalized AHA could all meet on the same weekend, but spread across 5-7 regional locations with the live feeds of the keynotes and perhaps videoconferencing for interviewing. Since so much of the job market is more regional than is admitted, it might actual get greater attendance if the lesser institutions knew that the conference would attract attendees that might want to live in that area (I’m thinking of the Great Lakes areas, the Deep South where most academics avoid but plenty would love to get jobs).

  4. Matt Lungerhausen says:

    I liked this post especially the critique of the conference panel. Every time I go to watch a panel, I am excited and look forward to the presentation, but somehow the experience never lives up to expectations. Its not the problem of the papers, but the limited nature of the format.

    Pre-circulated papers and an on-line discussion might not eliminate the need for panel presentations at conferences, but should make them more fruitful. I also suspect that escalating travel costs will make the regional AHA conference more attractive.

Comments are closed.