Embodying academic engagement

by Giuseppe Delmestri

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#sabbicycle (sabbatical on the bike)

Organization and management academics to more and more putting their brains into new forms of engaged “scholarship that addresses important challenges and produces actionable knowledge” (RRBM). I felt compelled to put also my body. Fed up with the feeling of hopelessness bred by watching our world heading towards collapse and my fellow humans willfully and joyfully contributing to it, I stepped on my bike in the middle of the harsh Austrian winter the 1st of march 2018 and embarked on a journey of Europe to bring my testimony: “Yes, climate change and social injustice exist,” “Yes, our individual actions and our economic system are root causes,” “Yes, they have and will have disastrous consequences on our children and grandchildren.”

The voices of climate scientists warning humanity that immediate action is necessary seemed to me like cries in the desert given the inaction of governments in the world. The airline and meat industries, to name two examples of huge carbon polluting industries, are predicted to continuously grow worldwide in the next decades, and I saw no signs that governments would cut on subsidies to the livestock industry or stop the construction of airports or additional runways.

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My sentiment was to put the body of a middle aged professor (I was 52), normally fit (not a fanatic extreme cyclist), on a bike and ride first from Vienna to Milan (830 km) to attend the yearly conference of new institutional scholars, a subfield of organization and management theory. Then, in the summer of the same year, I decided to travel to EGOS in Tallinn, 500 kilometers from the border to Lithuania – after having carried my race bike on a train up to Poland. I didn’t want to just travel and talk, I wanted my very hybrid body, made of flesh and bike mechanics, to be present on the stage and bring the testimony of the urgency of the message. Riding a bike in winter is not vacation and means accepting some risks on icy, snowy, rainy roads. The summer roads in the Baltic were much more amusable, but head wind and sandy roads made it also some of a challenge.

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The bicycle is a symbol of the distance still separating actual policies from those necessary to mitigate climate change and global social injustice. It is also a symbol of the determination that academics should have in discerning facts from fake. And it points to an idea of slow science and slow academy combining facts and the collegial pleasure of discovery. And indeed, after 1700 kilometers on a bike, about 1000 on trains, 600 on busses, 400 on a car (from Lugano to Chamonix and back), having visited several universities in Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, France, Poland, Lithuania and Estonia, and held speeches on sustainability and other projects, attended two conferences and two Ph.D. workshops, I discovered that the few moments of hardships were by far outweighed by many pleasures. Colleagues invited me to dine/sleep at their homes; other cyclists showed me around and the best way forward; a cook in a restaurant asked my FB-friendship proclaiming: “I immediately understood your message”; an old man in Italy gave me olive branches “because yours is a message of peace.”

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When a good friend and colleague told his son that I would visit Lugano by bike from Vienna this was his reaction: “And when does he work?”.  Indeed, sitting part of my sabbatical on a bike and clothing this in the neologism “sabbicycle” may sound as an elaborate way to justify taking a vacation instead of being productive in publishing some additional paper. To be sure, in order to have the privilege to take one year off from teaching I had to sign a research contract with my university promising ‘output’ aimed at major journals. The natural and normal way to take an academic gap year would be to cross the Atlantic and visit some North American academic ‘temple’, something I did in my last sabbatical ten years ago (a very productive and enriching experience, to be true). Instead, sitting several weeks on a bike, crossing several countries and pedaling may be seen as detrimental for productivity.

I argue that’s not, or better, it is, if we define productivity in modernist quantitate terms and not as the Latin fecunditas. My bet was that time spent in slow travel would not only be compatible with my short-term research-contract obligations but also with the long-term development of my personal academic ethos. Why? Let me offer you three reasons.

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First, according to Zen Master Fleur Sakura Wöss a sabbatical should be lived as an interspace, an unplanned In-between. A sabbatical should be similar to meditation and mindfulness practices that are ways to take perspective creating a fertile interstice in the flow of daily activities. Simply being –  without the urge of accomplishing or achieving. Simply collegially being. And indeed, travelling in this way made me aware that we are an inextricable part of nature. Motorisation destroys the possibility of such insights. In a car, or even in a train, the changing in landscape is like zapping on TV or surfing social media. On the bike, or walking, you become part of the landscape, its smells, temperature, colour, wind. You become landscape. I realized how ugly are our manufactured city environments. We got used to it, but when I emerged from a day cycling in the Baltic woods and along the fields and got in city traffic I felt pity for all those people sitting in the cars and looking at other cars. Cars should be brought out of cities! At first, I saw this #sabbicycle as a metaphor that I would not offer as a practical solution to our pressing problem of carbon pollution. But now I would suggest it as an aesthetic experience. Take a multimodal route combining trains and bike to your next conference! You will learn something personal and universal.

 Second, a ‘professor on a bike’ is also a symbol, maybe disturbing (hopefully not too bizarre), of a break with the status quo of the post-democratic politics of unsustainability theorized by my colleague Ingolfur Blühdorn. The bike symbolizes the possibility of an ecologically sustainable future. The real symbolic measure of the distance between our actual unsustainable way of life and a way of life that could allow future generations to survive and thrive. We have our only planet, which, as Latour is currently saying, is not a big ball launched in the universe, but, essentially, as a living planet, just a tiny flat surface of interdependent life connected to the sun. That we need to protect if we want our social communities to prosper.

 Third, the bike is slow. Slow travel also symbolizes a slow approach to academy, as in Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber’s Slow Professor Manifesto. Slow, in the deepest sense of the Slow Food movement, means combining time and pleasure – for thinking and connecting with others (students, colleagues, …). It also means engaged scholarship, where the terms of engagement are defined by a sense of ethics and not by external corporatized measures of impact. Taking the bike, or the train, can be potent ways for walking … oops, riding the talk. Scholars can use the symbolic power of their bodies and actions in creative ways to challenge existing taken-for-granted unsustainable practices and policies.

 All of this may taste as too much of a good thing. And I know the pitfalls of do-gooder derogation. But maybe, after 50, it’s time to ‘don’t care’, and simply, … pedal.

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Published by Giuseppe Delmestri

Italian, Austria, European and citizen of the world. Want to give my small contribution to solve pressing problems like climate change, inequality and discrimination. Passionate researcher, I like to write, to teach and support the people in my research team. And I love good food

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