I want a more fair and sustainable academia.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been weirdly fixated on what I’d consider my inevitable future career as An Academic. Somehow, I had picked up on the notion of doctorates, and decided I wanted one – preferably doing something involving animals and Amazon expeditions and the occasional shiny laboratory, but the specific field wasn’t the most important thing, The Title was. I imagined it would turn me into someone who was Officially Brilliant, someone who could then go on to spend a lifetime thinking for a living, a prospect that greatly appealed to me.

My other childhood ambition was to save the world. This was not, in theory, incompatible with my scientific dreams – at least not until my third year at university, when I decided to drop my major in psychology and cultural anthropology and become a linguist. Gone was every opportunity to spend my professional future saving the earth or fixing humankind. I’ve seen my future, and it involves lots of lambdas and semilattices.

Those of you who know me personally know that this has been kind of a struggle for me. I still want to save the world. I want it to be fair and sustainable and full of people whose human rights are being respected. And I kind of want to contribute more to that world than just my puny habits of buying fairtrade coffee and going to conferences by train rather than plane.

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether I, together with anyone who reads this and is interested, could somehow start with academia – after all, this is our world and it’s full of people routinely flying halfway across the world to deliver a single talk, conferences providing unlimited water in plastic bottles & no recycling bins, and huge piles of handouts being printed that no one even looks at. It’s also full of huge egos and people with burnouts and gender biases and commercial publishers with ridiculous profit margins. It’s inspired articles like this and resignation letters like this and scandals like this.

But I don’t really know what to do, let alone how to do it. An online platform where everyone can share their tips and ideas of making academia a better place? Practical guidelines on how to make your conference more sustainable? A kind of pledge for the young and unspoiled to sign in which they promise to stay nice, humble, open-minded servants of Scientific Truth? πŸ™‚

One thing I do know is that there’s strength in numbers – because some of these fair and sustainable choices involve deliberately not going along with the way things currently are, which might well hurt your career in small but unaffordable ways (these are hard times, and every publication and conference appearance counts). If I decide to take at most one intercontinental trip a year, or only submit articles to less widely known Open Access journals, or become that annoying person who brings up gender imbalances, child care and fair trade coffee at every workshop I organise, fewer people will hear about my work (and like me as a person). But if there’s enough of us, and we manage to turn this stuff into the norm for a new generation of academics, then maybe we can make the world a better place without having to sacrifice our career.

So – do you self-identify as an academic (in any field) and does this post resonate with you? Please let me know and we might think about this stuff together, because I can’t do this on my own. And if you have any other ideas or comments, I’d love to hear them!


About hannadevries

University lecturer (in linguistics/artificial intelligence) with occasional opinions on religion & social justice-related stuff.
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13 Responses to I want a more fair and sustainable academia.

  1. Denise says:

    I thought the ISEE (international society for environmental epidemiology and) conference in Basel this year did a good job at trying to be more eco-friendly: http://www.ehbasel13.org/english/greenConference.php. Sad to say I didn’t take the train to Basel (it was just way more expensive..) but lots of my colleagues did. The lunches were vegetarian and most people choose to download the digital program rather than getting the printed version (the digital version could have been a bit more ‘advanced’, but hey, it’s a start)

  2. Marielle says:

    Hey! I totally agree with your point – we need to be less pretentious about saving the world and start sweeping in front of our own door! But yes, we need a network, plus people with experience and good organizing skills! Otherwise, such a project is bound to fail because nobody has the time to start a revolution on their own…

    • hannadevries says:

      Exactly! And I’m prepared to put in some effort, but only if I know that people are interested. Because I have a dissertation to write and would rather not waste my time on something that’s bound to fail πŸ™‚


  3. benjamin says:

    Hi Hannah. I like your initiative. It is very important not to forget that you wanted to save the world. I think just writing about this sort of questions is a fairly useful contribution to society, just because it helps other people think about important matters and it will have an impact on the behaviour of people, even if it is difficult to measure.

    I think the problem in Academia goes beyond the plastic waste, gender and the publishers. I think the greatest transformation in Academia would take place if people get out of it and distribute what they have learned to the people who need it, without the dreadful disdain towards the non-cappuchino-world outside the city that academics often have fallen victim to. But you are already doing this!

    • hannadevries says:

      Thanks Benjamin! I agree that the problem (if ‘the’ problem even exists) is much more general than anything I mentioned. But I prefer to start with small and manageable changes in my own behaviour, because if I tell myself that I have to Fix The Whole System I just end up intimidated and paralysed.

      I also agree that maybe the thing we need most is a kind of humility – something that most newbie academics start out with, I think, but that just gets lost over time if you’re not careful. But I don’t know what I can do concretely to hold on to it or make sure others hold on to it, other than just being aware. (And ask others to give me a good reality check if I ever start believing that I *deserve* four nights in the best hotel in town just because I agreed to give a talk somewhere.)

      But maybe that’s why, in the end, our carbon footprint and plastic waste *are* important – because doing something about those ‘small’ things may serve as an important reminder that science/academia should exist for the benefit of the world, not the other way around.

      Also, cappuccino? I thought real academics drank only the most basic of filter coffees, from pint-sized mugs, without pausing to consider the taste :).

  4. Pingback: Wetenschapsactivisme | Qulog

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  6. Matthijs says:

    How about we form …*drum roll*… a committee! With a website and a biweekly e-meeting.

    We choose core themes that we divide, plus associated tasks, among the committee members. E.g.:
    –> Encourage conference organizers to choose sustainable alternatives. Advise on a web-interface for tablet-friendly proceedings and handouts. Investigate cup-borrowing options in the city at hand. Advise on optional, child-labour free T-shirts and bags.
    –> Select conferences with a gender imbalance and encourage the organizers of the next edition to do better.
    –> Investigate how fly-across-the-world conferences may best be replaced, at least in part, or at least, at first, accompanied, by e-meetings. Smaller groups, more interaction, more efficiency. The future! Promote the possibility by sending emails to key figures, and, why not, organize formal semantics’ first (?) e-conference.

    The good thing about having a committee, is that they won’t dislike you as a person when you send them encouraging/confronting emails. After all, you’re just the messenger. And also, I just think we can achieve much more when we have some structure like this. (And also, we could put it on our CVs, to explain or even compensate for the potentially lower number of conference visits or high-impact publications).

    I guess we would function like a consultancy firm that gives advice unasked for. πŸ™‚

    We could call ourselves “Context-change potential” (assuming we start small, within the field of semantics), or some other hilarious pun.

    Says he who has just flown to Japan. For two talks though, not one. And a little holiday. “It’s an investment in my future”, I keep telling myself. “Once I have a PhD, I will have to potential to actually change something, and THEN I will stop flying”. Of course, that’s nonsense, and I’m somewhat ashamed of myself.


    • hannadevries says:

      Thanks! I was hoping you’d reply to this.

      The problem with an advice committee is that I actually don’t feel terribly qualified to give anyone advice (let alone unsolicited). I’m pretty much still at the point where I’m still exploring what I can do/change in my own academic life (present and future), and I think I was hoping to build a kind of network of other young researchers who feel things have to change in academia, who can share resources with each other and sort of lead by example.

      But maybe we can have a committee that then proceeds to build this network. I do feel we should look beyond linguistics, since I think other fields are much more advanced when it comes to e.g. sustainability at conferences (see Denise’s reply above) and we could learn from them rather than invent the wheel ourselves.

      Also, have you seen this recent initiative? it might be tangentially relevant: http://www.scienceintransition.nl/ (sadly, we just missed the conference – i’d have liked to be there)

      p.s. if you *have* to fly halfway across the world to deliver two talks, Japan doesn’t sound like the worst destination. Also, happy belated birthday πŸ™‚

      • Matthijs says:

        I also do think we should look beyond linguistics… But perhaps behind the scenes, at first. I think we first need a network before we can organize (assuming that organizing is what we want; I think it has benefits). In semantics, we have that network, so we can organize. Then the network will inevitably grow, eventually to other fields, and then we can think about organizing at that higher level.

        I imagine it is much easier and fertile to contact the “immunity and infection club against plastic cups and sexism” or the “University of Amsterdam sustainability committee” by saying

        “Hi, we’re trying to do the same for linguistics; any tips? Also, we’ve just had tremendous success in our own field trying this and this.”

        than by saying

        “Hi, we’re some as yet unorganized bunch of people who want to start a academia-wide committee on Issues. Do you want to join us?”

        At least, I would find only the first kind of email inspiring; and the second rather hopeless, knowing at the same time that the first might develop into something alluded to in the second email.

        (Shameless advertising: http://rubbishisrubbish.wordpress.com/ You in? Cyp’s project. If you like you can contribute to the blog.)

      • hannadevries says:

        many good points. will you be at AmCol? shall we make plans over coffee & dried fruits?

        (still planning to try out rubbish-free living at some point, but I imagine I’d need some mental and physical preparation time. by all means keep challenging me, because I’m a coward. :))

  7. Matthijs says:

    (Dutch news: a political initiative to make all scientific publishing open-access by law by 2024)

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