Please consider the following doodle:
For most academics the cycle is well-known. It is obvious. It is the way things are.
If you point it out, you sound naïve, demonstrating your innocence, your youthful ignorance of what "life" is really like.
Yes, it's all about the money. What did I expect?
What is very interesting to me is that when money (or the access to it) is taken for granted, it is difficult to see why other people would find its lack (or unfair concentration) of particular interest.
Please look at the doodle again.
If you do recognize the normal state of affairs there, what, if anything, stands out?
Perhaps it's that in 2012 the cycle represents an academic culture untouched by recent transformations in the way we work and communicate, in academia and elsewhere, at least in most academic circles.
It's an old-school model, in which the only way of networking and sharing information was through "real life" (RL) interaction, by being somewhere at a specific time (and therefore being able to afford travel expenses--including "details" many take for granted like getting visas, etc.) and by publishing in a specific type of platform (the monograph; the peer-reviewed journal).
The old-school model allows no entry points for those not already wholly or partly inside it. It's all about positioning.
It is indeed true as well that Internet and web technologies will never be able to substitute "RL" interaction. We know this. Therefore it should perhaps be clear that RL is indeed a privilege. A privilege that, when it comes to academic conferences, not everyone everywhere can afford.
We are going though a phase in scholarly communications in which "impact" is one of the current magic words, but in spite of all the triumphs of civil rights movements, in spite of all the recent public awareness about social exclusion, lack of social mobility and gender and ethnic discrimination, we still as academics keep accepting a "research cycle" that equates "impact" (and career success) with access to funding.
The problem is this shouldn't really be said. One runs the risk of getting ostracized, patronized, pigeon-holed; labeled as resentful, othered, excluded.
How can we start discussing the inherently exclusive nature of this system without some essential solidarity with others we don't know of?
Money: that dirty word no one wants to talk about. Like child care in academia, money or its lack is rarely discussed publicly. It is a real issue: if you have no funding (i.e., no money) you have to either self-fund by getting further into debt --if you can-- or not attend this or that conference at all.
Lack of money is an obstacle, and yet students, contingent faculty, alt-acs, even senior, established scholars keep using their own financial resources, when they can afford it, to keep attending the major conferences in often remote, expensive destinations. There is a lot of pressure these days to be everywhere, to make it to all events, to leave no base uncovered. But the resources are limited, at least in most cases.
Let's face it; we academics love going to conferences. To most of them. It's an opportunity to have a great time; see old friends, make new ones, celebrate triumphs, promote ourselves and our research, learn about what others are doing, feel proud belonging to a special group.
We seldom think of those who couldn't make it. They remain outside, unseen. Their "impact" is bound to be minimized because they didn't make it.
Of course many conferences offer student and early-career bursaries, grants, travel expenses. They are often paid retroactively so having the disposable income or an ability to get in debt in advance are necessary. Some conferences get very generous sponsorships that allow them to have an affordable registration fee. Some conferences are more democratic than others. The conference remains very important. But this doesn't mean there aren't things we can do to adapt the way it works to make it more accessible.
But maybe it's about time we all started thinking about possible new models for academic networking, conferencing and measuring impact.
Millions if not billions of people self-fund their hobbies, but not their jobs. Academics and artists might be the only occupations which remain happy to keep self-funding their professional lives.
How long can this go on? How can it be sustainable to perpetuate a professional system where if we include the cost of higher education and self-funding it requires from us to spend more than what we earn in order to have a career?
But speaking about money is still a major taboo in academia. Money is the elephant in the room. An often unconscious awareness of privilege defines much of scholarly interaction.
How can us scholars working with accessible and affordable online tools help interrogate and intervene the unquestioned cycles of traditional academia?
Can teleconferencing, blogging and social media be employed successfully within academia to offer alternatives to traditional structural privilege? (They can also perpetuate it, as often evidenced by the self-referentiality of some conference backchannels on Twitter).
How can the good things of the cycle I doodled above be incorporated into an open, accessible, transparent culture leading to more inclusion rather than more exclusion?
In my recent research funding applications (pray for me); instead of requesting part of the available research expenses for me to attend more conferences I made it a case to request funding for some humble student bursaries.
This might not in any way be a radical measure to break the "vicious circle", but I see it as a question of principle, a little step towards recognizing that in order to encourage and empower talented young scholars money matters. It matters very much indeed.