I have reached a new milestone in the ongoing tug-of-war between my desire to maintain a research profile in my field, and the ever-shrinking support for research-related activity (archive trips, conferences, symposia) at my non-Research University.
I am couch-surfing.
Here's the way faculty funding has worked in the past: the individual colleges have had pools of money to help partially support faculty conference travel and the like. The individual departments also have pools, though much smaller. Junior faculty are prioritized over those with tenure; actual presentations are prioritized over chairing sessions; simple attendance is only funded if there's something left over in the pot at the end (so, very rarely). All this strikes me as reasonable.
Unfortunately, as our overall budget has shrunk, so has the pool for travel funding. We used to be able to count on partial funding once a semester. Then it was once per academic year. Then the funding ceiling for that once-a-year funding was cut by 25%, which usually still covers airfare and registration, though not food or lodging. So I've been watching myself, trying not to go to too many conferences or focusing on nearby ones. If there's a specialist seminar within a day's drive, I made sure to attend, to keep myself in the game on the cheap.
And then, an opportunity: A one-day seminar about 500 miles away. The topic fits with a particular teaching specialty that my department wants me to take the lead on. It also fits with the new direction my research has been taking, and so would allow me to dive into the new field. They've got Big International Name as the keynote speaker. It's even held on a day where neither seminar itself nor the two travel days would conflict with my teaching schedule at all. And there is no registration fee.
How could I not go?
And yet... I would not be presenting anything. I'd be sitting there, listening, and learning. An important opportunity for me, but not something that I could get funding for under the current circumstances and guidelines -- guidelines that I, in principle, agree with.
So, how am I pulling this off without going $600 into debt? Simple: I have a friend from Puddletown who has temporarily relocated to a city about 35 miles from Seminar Location. Her city is also the location of the nearest airport. So she, blessed woman, has joyfully agreed to put me up for two nights, and has even offered to lend me her car for the round-trip commute. My price for this? Round-trip airfare on a budget carrier, and I pick up the tab for two dinners out with friend and her son (who have simple tastes).
I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, I wish it didn't come to this. "If I didn't have to subsidize my own job, maybe I could pay off my damn credit cards! AAARRGH!!"
But the more I think about it, the more absurdly pleased I am with the way this has shaken out. I'm looking forward to seeing my friend before and after a day of heavy academia. And as a person who grew up hunting for her school clothes at the Goodwill, I'm still proud of getting something really great for almost no money. And I'm reciprocating by hosting professor and grad student friends whose research & conference travel brings them into Grit City's orbit. So my karmic balance is cool.
But I do hope that this is not the shape of things to come. Because I don't yet have good friends in every major university town.