Don't like it? Don't go

May 23, 2003

If academic conferences in exotic cities are such a chore, send me, suggests Valerie Atkinson

It has become de rigueur for academic staff to sigh regretfully when they confess that they cannot meet a deadline for completing some local (usually tedious) task because they are duty bound to heed an urgent call for conference papers. And then go give one. Abroad somewhere.

Research, you see. So demanding, so draining. The strain of expectation, the adverse effect of falling behind with the dissemination of new ideas, the dismay at missing out on networking, the horror of the blank page. It is almost as though they wish with all their fatigued hearts that they might have the opportunity to swap their intense, chaotic, intellectual lives with the ordered, mundane working structure of those who stay behind.

As Professor Lapping once said to his secretary, Maureen: "If only I had the comfort of working nine to five every day, like you."

But occasionally you glimpse the triumphant gleam behind the apologetic smile. Bad luck, sucker, I'm off to Florence. Or Honolulu. Or Melbourne - Melbourne, Australia, that is, as opposed to Melbourne in Derbyshire. The farther away they are bound, the more difficult it becomes to hide the exultant pleasure. Too far to take families with them; too far to be recalled for a work emergency; time lag in email and telephone correspondence making it unlikely anyone will try to get in touch; freedom indeed, together with the enticing possibility of missing return flights.

An extra day or two in Buenos Aires? A thousand curses.

I can already hear the howls of protest. "Who wants to travel half way round the world to stay cooped up in an anonymous hotel for three days and then face a cramped flight home with all the attendant possibilities for delay, lost luggage and jetlag?"

Well, OK, foreign travel has its disadvantages. But frankly, that's akin to asking: "Who wants (to fly in) a supersonic plane? Who wants to wallow in champagne?" I do. I do. Just give me the opportunity. It certainly beats the tedium of administrative work in campus England on a damp day in May.

And - be honest - a long weekend in Skegness or Southport just doesn't compare to a trip to Venice or Vienna. The lure of the unfamiliar is too thrilling, too irresistible. It may turn out to be more enchanting in anticipation than in reality, but most people would risk the disappointment for the pleasure of finding out at the expense of the taxpayer.

So however loud the protest, it is hard to believe that exotic locations are imposed out of some desperate attempt to seduce individuals into participating, without the tacit collusion of the entire academic cabal.

The fact that global communications are now so sophisticated and so easily accessible must mean that it is barely necessary to leave the computer terminal to exchange intellectual ideas.

So what happens when a dedicated don is transported to an exotic setting with golden beaches, palm trees and gently wafting warm breezes? Or to the buzz of an unfamiliar city? Do they really sit tight in their conference halls, blocking out distractions and sunlight (there are very few conferences in Siberia) in search of intellectual inspiration? Or do they fling off the shackles of their scholarly serfdom, slap on the factor 15 sunscreen and head for the poolside cocktail bar? Hard to imagine, in some cases, but I am willing to wager my part-time pension entitlement that most would find some sort of recreational diversion. If al fresco cafés and red-light districts are not fascinating enough, there are usually museums, local architecture or ancient monuments to explore.

And perhaps in the end, the real attraction is the opportunity to become different, in just the same way that holiday addicts do. The timid, bookish type can transform into an abandoned wild child for a protected limited period. And the more adventurous spirits can overindulge themselves safely away from the envious gaze of their less mobile colleagues.

Not that non-academic staff are entirely denied the opportunity to travel.

We have our moments. Only last month, many university administrators gathered, with great enthusiasm and excitement, for their annual hoedown. In Derby.

And that's Derby in Derbyshire, not Derby in Connecticut, in case you were wondering.

Valerie Atkinson is a department administrator at the University of York.

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