Purposeful travel and unplanned routines in transnational academic conference (Bing Lu)

In this post, Bing Lu reflects on how a sense of time and place brings transnational academic conferencing back to life in the wake of the pandemic.

Photo by Bing Lu

In the wake of the pandemic, in-person academic conferences have been increasingly on the menu again. This change gives rise to some discussion of factors that are contributing to people’s decision to attend in-person academic conferences (Kusumawardani et al., 2022; Vander Schee, B.A. & DeLong, 2022) and the ‘lost and found’ between virtual and offline conferences (Donlon, 2021). This post is also inspired by an earlier post written by Dr Sam Illingworth who used a poetic approach to illustrate ‘Nothing can replace the face-to-face event’.

In November, invited by the University of Lausanne, for the first time after the Covid-19 pandemic, I attended an in-person symposium on gendered academic mobility to present my doctoral research. This blog post is a reflection on this two-day experience of attending the symposium in Switzerland. Informed by the discussions of temporality and spatiality in mobilities scholarship, this post rethinks the linear assumption of timing and the fixed assumption of places which are both separated from mobile individuals’ status and performance (Hannam et al., 2006). To be specific, this post talks through how conference attendees’ different ‘speeds’ engaged in transnational travel and the ‘unplanned routines’ laid out by the conference schedule made attending in-person academic conferences an embodied and affective experience. 

Purposeful travel

Traveling to the site of the academic conference requires a series of purposeful preparations and administrative steps. These include but are not limited to, fitting the conference dates in the calendar, preparing necessary documents, booking return flights/other transport, and packing a suitcase. Physical travel reflects the unequal rights to travel especially in cross-border movements (Hannam et al., 2006). In my situation, as my passport does not grant me ‘visa-free mobility’ (Mau et al., 2015), I had to first schedule an appointment with the Swiss embassy to apply for a Schengen Visa for my access to a European country, followed by another day traveling to London to submit required documents as well as a paid post service to save me from another day traveling to London again to collect my passport once the visa was granted. The visa policy imposed on my passport demanded an earlier schedule and extra time for me to travel to the conference than for many other attendees. In this sense, with the same purpose of attending an academic conference in Switzerland, I had less ease of mobility and had to accelerate my own organisational processes so that I could catch up with the majority.   

Besides my comparatively disadvantaged passport, I suppose that academic attendees may experience various difficulties that put their transnational travel at a slower speed within the global mobility regime. These include the mastery of using smartphones to understand the local transportation, the financial capacity to afford roaming data in a foreign country, and the linguistic competence of speaking French or English in Lausanne.

The international academic conference reflects interdependencies between the physical travel and the speed of travel facilitated or reduced by the infrastructural and institutional conditions individuals must align to.

Unplanned routines

‘Unplanned routines’, by which I mean how we followed the conference schedule once we arrived there, mainly related to our habitual behaviours from previous experience. In Lausanne, the symposium organisers kindly pre-booked the accommodation for those of us who travelled from abroad with allotted bursaries. From the hotel, we took a city metro (with a transfer) for twenty minutes to Lausanne University where the conference was held. I felt a bit unsettled when I was first in the metro, hoping that we were on the right one. However, once we arrived at the university, the familiar conference registration routines soon settled me down. At the reception table we signed in on our arrival, collected the blue lanyard and a tote bag printed with ‘le savoir vivant’; we walked into the conference room and got ourselves seated. These experiences are not new for those that have attended academic conferences before. 

Then it came to the most familiar part, networking through small talks and presenting our own research. In an earlier blog post, I discussed how some physical objects were missing from online conferences such as the lunch break area where people could communicate over drinks and snacks. In an in-person conference, these ‘lost’ objects are all ‘found’ (Donlon, 2021). The coffee tables gathered a crowd during every break; we made ourselves drinks and grabbed pastries baked in French tradition.

The socialising in international academic conferences seems to be organised through various ‘nodes’ that entail ‘thoughtful gatherings’ (Henderson & Burford, 2020) across long distances. According to mobilities scholarship, for example, airports, trains, hotels, and leisure complexes all represent spaces of this kind. Our unplanned routines were prompted by a variety of nodes, from hotel breakfast to dinner somewhere in the city at the end of the day.

As one attendee jokingly remarked during the coffee break,

‘I feel so sorry that I can’t concentrate now, in the last two days I’ve been sleep-deprived, over-anxious about my own talk, and tossing in the hotel bed.’ 

I personally feel that some of the eagerness to return to the academic conferences with traditional in-person format comes from our desire to connect, to communicate, and to be seen by others in real situations. What accompanies such desire is the fear of misbehaving, of being misunderstood and being ignored. These desires, fears, and the physical exhaustion caused by the travel at different speeds and the routines orchestrated around mobility nodes make in-person academic conferences a bodily and affective experience.

Attending transnational academic events in post-covid times brings out new connections which are established in dynamic timings and space. These dynamic timings and spaces then give rise to the new considerations of sustainable travel, equal access, and our fundamental desire to approach people.

We did enjoy carrying on our discussion over informal socialising after the event, compared to clicking on the ‘leave’ button on the screen for a virtual event.

About Bing Lu

Bing Lu is an Early Career Fellow in Institute of Advance Study at University of Warwick. Bing received her PhD in the Department of Education Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. Her doctoral research investigated how academics who have returned from overseas doctoral study experience supervising doctorates in their country of origin. She is mostly interested in research about transnational flows of academics, doctoral education, and post structuralist exploration of research data. Twitter: @BingluAlice

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