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? 🙂
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!