The number one thing that might save academia

The number one thing that might save academia April 24, 2016


Possibly. Or destroy it. Not sure either way.

A few weeks ago I read an article by Katherine Hayhoe at The Well where she talked about her commitment to always take her toddler son to academic conferences. I haven’t taken my children to all the conferences I’ve gone to–not by a long shot–but I’ve taken them to quite a few. I once schlepped my at that point 10-month-old younger kid from Indiana to Seattle so I could keep nursing when I unexpectedly won a book prize at that particular conference (I had written the conference off for that year because, well, it was in Seattle and I had a 10-month-old).

At another conference, my older daughter went with me so many times between the ages of 6 months and 6 years that the conference photographer always made it a point to take pictures of her and send them to me.   We called her the “conference baby.”  Relatives have watched kids in hotel rooms for me. Babysitters have watched kids in hotel rooms. Sometimes my husband and I have both gone to conferences and juggled the children (“You going to this session? Ok. I’ll take the kids to the pool and meet you at 3:30 so I can go to the session after that.”)  Once we juggled the children, the conference, and an exhibit table for Christian History….and pottytraining. Everyone survived, including the magazines.

I’ve generally met a good reception doing this (this was also Dr. Hayhoe’s story.) People have carried baby carriages up and down stairs for me. Dignified elderly scholars in the field of religious studies have cooed at infants while I presented papers.

But it’s always been ad hoc. It’s always been simply because the people involved were genuinely nice, helpful people. It’s never been because someone sat down ahead of time and said “Now, how could we make this conference work better for parents who want to be parents and scholars?”

Academia is such a disembodied thing. (I’ve written about this before.) (Twice, actually.) (No, make it three times.)  No matter how diverse the membership of the modern academic world has become, its institutions and procedures run as though they were intended for disembodied heads on sticks, or possible tweedy guys with pipes who have 1950s wives.

I have gotten the occasional comment that I would surely find my children “distracting” from the experience of conferencing.  Partially, yes, children are distracting from attempts at sustained thinking. But partially the kinds of attempts at sustained thinking that go on at many conferences are artificial.

We may gather in a too-cold hotel room to hear a paper presented and posture through the comment period as though all that mattered were the ideas the paper contained. But ideas always, always come in the heads of people that have bodies. Sometimes those bodies are grieving bodies. Sometimes they are suffering bodies. Sometimes they are rejoicing bodies. Sometimes they are parenting bodies.

What would happen to academia if we started treating each other as people?

(And in my case, it would start with a list of vetted childcare providers. Thanks. I’ll even send you an SASE. Keep the stamp.)

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