Conferences, collaborations, and coxes

In her recent article for the Guardian, Sophia Kier-Byfield reflects on her guilt-ridden attempts to reconcile her attendance at an academic conference with her worthy efforts to help protect our planet.  As someone who cringes when bar staff stick a plastic straw in my mojito without a thought for the poor turtles doomed to endure its eventual intrusion as some very ugly décor in their watery abodes at best and a potential cause of their painful demise at worst, I feel Sophia’s pain at the seemingly unavoidable air miles, plastic and paper goody bags, and food waste that all come with any large event.  Indeed, scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara calculated that staff air travel to conferences and meetings accounted for around a third of the total carbon footprint for the campus, roughly equivalent to a city of 27,5000 people in the Philippines.  With most universities feeling the pinch of austerity and impending Brexit doom, my own attendance at conferences is somewhat limited by budget implications but last summer I was fortunate enough to attend the Ninth International Conference on Sport and Society at Florida International University in sunny Miami.  Tough job, etc.

Now, there’s no denying an academic conference is good fun.  A sunny location, good food, fun events (this particular offering was a boat trip around Miami Beach and a good nosy at the houses of David Beckham and Will Smith – jackpot, thanks organisers!), and the opportunity to drink cocktails and blether with lots of people who like the same geeky stuff you do.   Your mind is always given a shot of stimulation an espresso in your own campus café can’t quite match, through both the presentations and the random chats that happen when you sneak up for that third canape and complimentary beverage.  You return home with a notebook full of grand ideas, a collection of colleagues’ cards, and perhaps a wee souvenir hoodie or thermal flask.  How often, however, do those notes shape themselves into concrete research projects or improvements to your teaching material?  How long does inspiration last before disappearing under the rumbling academic wheel which carries us along until the brief relief of the following summer?  It is at this point that the guilt from the carbon-footprint of my work jaunt usually stomps back into my consciousness and the whole thing seems a little frivolous. 

On this occasion though, the story has a happy, non-frivolous ending.  At this conference, I had the pleasure of making a connection with Dr Agnes Coutinho of the University of Guelph-Humber, in Toronto.  Dr Coutinho was planning to take her students on a trip to the U.K. with a focus on the history of research and the role research plays in informing an ongoing paradigm shift in health and wellness, and our sun-soaked, aspirational plans for collaboration came to fruition last month when a group of ten students and two staff from Toronto made a stop-off at the our new UWS Lanarkshire campus.  Our postgrads presented accounts of challenges encountered during their own research and then our visitors were able to share ideas with current UWS undergraduates as they all planned their projects for their final year; a head start for the autumn term to come. 

By some sort of Scottish miracle, the sun made a dazzling appearance that afternoon and I was able to take off my academic hat and pop on my rowing coach visor to get our visitors out in boats at Strathclyde Park.  The home of the Scottish Rowing Centre and recent host of the European Championships and British Masters conveniently decided to put on a good show for us and was at its most picturesque, with the still, smooth water of which its local rowers can usually only dream (those who know, know!).  Our Canadian visitors proved to be naturals at the sport and the afternoon was passed in a sun-baked, giggly haze of good humour and companionship.

In the face of increasing environmental and budgetary pressure, the future of the academic conference seems likely to involve more opportunity for long-distance engagement through ever-evolving technologies of communication, and probably rightly so. Let’s hope however we never lose that potential for chance meetings over a cup to tea to develop into flourishing partnerships and adventures with new friends.

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