On Missing Academic Conferences

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Before the COVID pandemic, travel to academic conferences and colloquia was a large part of the job of being a professor at a research-focused university. The last few months have given us the opportunity to reflect on the hurly burly of academic travel. We’ve keenly missed many things about those in-person events. Yet there were things we don’t miss very much at all. While academic conferences are still paused, we wanted to make a note about what’s worth our time and not, and then make some resolutions about what we can do better.

The bloom of online conferences since last Spring provides a key point of comparison. The online conference has many of the same problems that beset the in-person conference: the schedules are overfull with interesting papers at conflicting times, presenters go over their allotted times and thereby leave no time for discussion, and the Q&A sessions tend to go off the rails with people asking questions that have more to do with their own views than with the presentation. But we were still pleased that the move online allowed younger scholars the opportunity to shine and get uptake with their work. And we were able still to hear a few presentations that provided some real insight. In these respects, online conferences are much like their in-person counterparts.

But there are differences. A unique feature of in-person conferences lies in the unplanned sociality that they make possible. The in-person setting allows for the possibility of passing some luminary in the hall between sessions, or meeting someone whose work you just read. In fact, it’s a piece of unacknowledged common wisdom that the true value of in-person conferences lies in unstructured time when one is not attending sessions.

For example, there are book displays at the major conferences, and wandering there can be beneficial: one can stumble across a new book, meet an editor, or run into an old friend from graduate school. Additionally, there’s informal dinner with colleagues from other universities, which allows one to hear about their developing ideas and to get caught up on the professional gossip. There’s also time at the bar, tongues loosened a bit, where one can be frank about a recent trend in the discipline or one can just have a few laughs with people who share your interests. Networking is the mercenary term for it all, but the experience and upshot of it is that of making connections, identifying with the culture of thinking hard about things, and coming to see oneself as a full participant. We get to be who we are in that cauldron of unstructured talk.

The trouble with online conferences is that none of that really happens. There are the giant Zoom mixers, but they are all too often dominated by one or two speakers. And even the smaller and more informal arrangements are still deficient. Time between sessions of online conferences is not the bustle between rooms with brief hellos and quick plans made for dinner and drinks, but a visit to the kitchen for a snack and settling in back at one’s lonely desk. In this way, online conferences a missing something important.

Some research societies declined to move their meetings online, opting instead simply to cancel. In these cases, we found we had a distinct experience: we didn’t miss them at all. Travel is time-consuming, expensive, and tiring. We take time away from our teaching, to say nothing of the impact travel has on our other roles – familial, civic, and so on. Conference travel and attendance is costly and when these conferences were cancelled, we felt a burden lifted. We were given the gift of time.

Online conferences mitigate the problems of expense and time. Being able to present research and get feedback online has reduced the footprint of travel for time and budgets. This development, we hope, is something we can make as part of our academic culture going forward.

So, we’ve both missed and not missed in-person academic conferences. Like so many things in life, they are mixed bags. Our hope is that the long pause occasioned by this pandemic prompts reflection about what’s worth keeping from the old normal of academic life. Undoubtedly, our classrooms will be different going forward, as we’ll likely be more comfortable with online materials and distance participation. So too, we hope, we can do this with academic conferences.

What would we like to see revived when we can attend in-person conferences again? First and foremost is a request for conference organizers and professional societies. Moving forward, in-person conferences should permit remote participation and presentation for those who choose not to travel. The cultural shift will allow a broader swath of scholars to participate, as travel budgets too often preclude participation from younger scholars and graduate students. Conference organizers need to identify resources for scholars who choose this route. In-person venues must be equipped for remote participants, including parallel online meeting rooms. Our experience with hybrid courses (half in-person, half online) makes it clear that these can be done effectively.

Second, suggestions for our fellow academics. Perhaps one thing the pandemic has taught us all is that many of us can be more selective about in-person conferencing in the coming years.  Those hours otherwise waiting at the gates for delayed planes and those sessions where we’re simply being read at by another scholar are costly in ways that maybe we are now more acutely apparent. Reducing those costs can be a gift we give to ourselves.

However, given the realities of the business side of academia, we should also resolve to more fully appreciate and cultivate the connections we make when attending in-person conferences. Our students this year have missed out on opportunities to make these connections, and so established academics should work overtime to introduce them to their academic community and to promote their work. It will all still be a mixed bag when we return, but we hope we can tilt the mix a little more toward the good.