The temporal dynamics of being an international visiting scholar

In this short piece of writing we are interested in the ways in which one globalising move — the appointment of the ‘visiting academic’ — disrupts and rearranges the temporal routines of academics’ everyday lives.

Yolande Strengers

Originally published on DEMAND, 16 May 2016
Authors: Yolande Strengers and Mikkel Bille


Academia is increasingly concerned with international connections and collaboration. While the benefits of such endeavours are increasingly discussed (Glover et al. 2016), we rarely acknowledge their effects. In this short piece of writing we are interested in the ways in which one globalising move — the appointment of the ‘visiting academic’ — disrupts and rearranges the temporal routines of academics’ everyday lives.

We write from our perspectives as international visitors to the DEMAND Centre at Lancaster University, and draw on anecdotal knowledge of other visitors who have made this journey, although we cannot claim to speak on everyone’s behalf or represent all experiences.

Our first observation is that being a visiting scholar creates ripple effects, which traverse countries, cultures and multiple time zones. This also impacts on who can visit, and who cannot. The first thing the visiting academic encounters is a move across time and place. Of course, all travel does this to some extent, and most academics are well-versed in handling this disruption through attendance at conferences and other events. For some of us this means our circadian rhythms are literally turned upside down. For others it is a matter of adjusting a few hours either way of ‘normal’. With this move our routines are in disarray. We are out of time(zone) and place. For the visiting academic, it is the duration of this event, which makes it distinct.

Unlike the temporary conference visit, where most of our time is occupied by designated activities, the life of a visiting academic invites us to establish a new normality — to re-establish routines that mirror those back home, or explore new ones. We find a new running route or yoga class. We seek out a new favourite coffee shop or bar. We borrow or invest in materials like pots, pans and bikes that we simply wouldn’t bother with if we were only staying for a few weeks. For some, this creates an opportunity to ‘reset’ or relax our routines — eat better, for example; or eat worse. We might be inspired to try new things — hiking, biking, or dancing. Or we might seek new friends and relationships. We may become more spontaneous and opportunistic in our work, saying ‘yes’ to things we would not normally agree to, or doing things ‘on a whim’ (like writing this article).

In most cases, the visiting academic leaves nearly everyone and everything behind (aside from what can fit in the ~25 kilogram luggage allowance). Partners, children, pets, lovers, family, friends, houses, colleagues and our ‘day jobs’ stay at home. Then again they don’t. They reappear in different forms, making new temporal demands on our time. Skype conversations must be coordinated around local time zones, meaning early morning work meetings for some, and late night conversations for others. Equally, personal calls might be taken in the middle of the day to fit in with home routines. ‘Work’ may continue 24/7 on email, with the working day literally extended by traversing multiple time zones. New boundaries and rules are either put in place to restrict this continual flow of contact, or alternatively we just let it all in, mixing our personal and working responsibilities. Time flexes with the visiting academic, and we can also flex time.

Sometimes those we care about most deeply visit our temporary homes, creating a cascading effect of temporary disruptions. For those of us in the same continent, short trips back and forth may be possible to reconnect with family and home life. However, most of us also leave a trail of temporal reordering back home. Partners and colleagues must accommodate our absence. For those with families, this may include taking time off before or after the visit to mitigate the impact placed upon partners and children. In other cases, house and pet sitters are called on to perform routines in our absence.

Our second observation is that despite the constant stream of contact, the life of the visiting academic can be lonely. More often than not, we find ourselves alone. While our international colleagues (and housemates/ landlords/ landladies) are incredibly welcoming and friendly, they naturally have their own lives and temporal rhythms to fulfil. We must become comfortable, or even pleased, with our own company in ways we may not be used to, such as going out for movies, meals or drinks on our own. The visiting academic is also faced with longing and loss back home — for those we love, and for activities we miss out on, like friends’ birthday parties or family occasions. We must cope with unplanned disruptions with the prospect of not being able to do anything about them. Sick family members or pets, deaths in the family, or departmental crises may send us into a tailspin of guilt and resentment. We might work ‘extra hard’ to justify being away from home, or we might feel like we are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Why then, do we bother coming at all? Some of us seek to escape daily rhythms — work, family, life. Others come for a holiday — bringing our families with us. Some of us seek direction — looking for new inspiration and ideas to guide our next moves. Others have a clear project in mind — something that the absence of normal routine allows us to pour ourselves into during every waking moment. We may want recognition and accolade — to showcase something we’ve done and promote it to a wider audience. Or we may seek colleagues who we think will improve our work. And of course, we often seek more than one of these things.

The disruptive nature of this experience renders it accessible and desirable to few. We need to be cautious of the almost romantic position the visiting scholar occupies in academia, where it is increasingly valued for its own sake, rather than for what it produces. The relative absence of ‘stay-at-home’ fellowships is telling. While ‘research leave’ might be the closest approximation, we are unlikely to put this on our CVs as a sign of success. In contrast, the international visit is recognised as a promotion or grant-winning attribute.

This neither seems fair for those academics who can’t afford to disrupt their lives in the ways discussed above (such as many parents for example), nor desirable as we seek to address the energy impacts of hyper-mobility in a climate constrained world. Instead, the visiting academic experience should be recognised as one of many ways in which academics get inspiration, demonstrate value and do important work. Equally, those academics who cannot visit should also be acknowledged by the academy for the important work they do at home,and for their flexibility in undertaking the work left behind as the visiting scholar travels the world.

Yolande and Mikkel are current international visitors at the DEMAND Centre, Lancaster University. Yolande is from RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia, which is currently 9 hours ahead of UK time. Mikkel is from Roskilde University, Denmark, which is one hour ahead of UK time and £120 away.

References

Glover, A. Strengers, Y. Lewis, T. 2016, ‘Academic aeromobility in Australian universities’, paper presented to DEMAND Centre Conference, Lancaster, 13-15 April.