The Future of Online Conferences in Philosophy

The Future of Online Conferences in Philosophy

The following is a guest post* by the organizers of the recent online philosophy conference, Minds Online, Cameron Buckner (Houston), Nick Byrd (Florida State), and John Schwenkler (Florida State). They lay out some of the advantages of online conferences and compare them to some of the advantages of in-person conferences, share some data about their conference, and raise some questions about how to best organize online conferences. As budgets tighten, as the environmental of impact of travel is taken more seriously, and as the philosophy profession seeks to be more inclusive—including geographically—more online conferences might more more sense. Feedback at this early stage, as practices and norms for them are emerging, is crucial, so please take a moment to share your thoughts.

The Future of Online Conferences in Philosophy

We—Cameron Buckner, Nick Byrd, and John Schwenkler, organizers of the recent Minds Online conference held at the Brains Blog—hope to start a broader conversation about the role of online conferences in the profession.  Our opinion is that the online format has many clear advantages, and there should probably be a lot more of them.  However, whether online conferences should supplement or supplant traditional conferences—and exactly how—is the question we hope to here open for discussion.

1. Advantages:  conference experience

One of the obvious advantages we saw in Minds Online was the excellent quality of the posts and the commentary. The quality of the papers is determined by the submission pool and selection process, so one might expect traditional and online conferences to here be on par. However, the lack of constraints on the location of the speakers freed us to invite and accept a broader range of papers. Moreover, busier participants are more likely to accept if they themselves do not have to produce any travel money and only minimally disrupt their regular professional or domestic schedule. It is unlikely that the quality of the talks at the conference would have been as high had it been in traditional, in-person format.

The quality of the commentaries was a clear win for the online format, generally superior to the comments offered at an average traditional conference. Though we can all probably think of some exceptions, excellent comments do not seem to be the norm at traditional conferences. By contrast, the online conference format effectively work in favor of better commentary. Among other things, since there are fewer temporal constraints on scheduling rooms and parallel sessions, organizers can also commission several commentaries for each paper, whereas only a select few papers can enjoy this level of attention at traditional conferences. There are also few constraints on whom one can commission as a commentator; in many cases, our invited commentators were of the kind of caliber that you might have expected them to be giving keynotes themselves, rather than commenting on papers written by graduate students and postdocs. We were also much better able to match up papers and commentators by subspecialty; whereas in a traditional conference often has to awkwardly match up commentators and papers by drawing from a much smaller pool of candidates—namely, those already planning to attend the conference—we could invite anyone, and could focus on people who had published on that very topic. This close match between expertise and paper topic probably also explains how we were able to get so many established philosophers to comment. The experience thus approaches that of exchanges in journals that invite short comments  and responses on a longer piece, but without the time lag between submission and publication that can stifle the exchange.

Another clear advantage is the slower pace of online conference discussion. We had the ability to spread each session out over a week and space the conference out over a whole month, permitting plenty of time for reflection and allowing people to leisurely tune in and out according to their interests and schedule. As a result, the comment threads were as good as the invited commentaries, sometimes going back and forth for dozens of thoughtful posts. Instead of focusing on remembering and articulating a complex question while simultaneously following other questions on different topics, participants could really take their time to think about the philosophical issues, re-read the post and other comments, and get the point right. The traditional Q&A by contrast tends to favor being confident and quick on one’s feet, skills that probably do not correlate with philosophical quality. Though the fast pace of a good Q&A can be exhilarating to some, as far as the quality of philosophy is concerned, the online format again seems to have clear advantages.

Finally, we have to mention how great it is that conference participants are not at the mercy of the dark gods of travel. For an online conference, one can be anywhere, dressed anyhow, participating in high quality philosophical discussion at one’s convenience. With traditional conferences, it has always been typical to spend as much time in cramped, loud conditions as one gets to spend actually attending the conference—not even counting the cases when weather or mechanical failure causes the kind of travel disruption that leaves one weeping into an overpriced drink at the airport Chili’s, dejectedly weighing the utility of being in one’s own bed against the terror of an interstate taxi fare.  True, there is a breed of philosopher who claims to get their best work done in airplanes and airports—but we wonder if this is a sign of remarkable adaptive powers and/or the need to forcibly remove them from office and Internet, rather than a natural advantage of airports and airplanes as such. Importantly, the burdens of travel and disruption of domestic life fall unequally on the genders in even the most progressive households, so there is also reason to think that freeing participants from travel disruptions removes some barriers to gender equity.

2. Data

Just to quantify some of these claims, we’d also like to share some data about the conference. We would be anxious to see comparisons to traditional conferences, if any such data are available.

First an overview of conference participation at Minds Online:

Minds Online - data table

Also, a world map representing the locations of keynotes’, presenters’, and commenters’ institutions
(blue marker = keynote paper / red = contributed paper  / yellow = commentary):

Minds Online Map

And gender distribution:

Minds Online gender

Though we would have liked to have done better, gender statistics here are better than the 16.6% female of full-time philosophy faculty from the APA’s 2011 report on the status of women in philosophy. Our number of submissions from women roughly matched the 21% of postsecondary philosophy instructors, but a higher rate of women than men were selected for presentations (on the basis of double-blind peer review). We did not implement triple-blind procedures for the first year of the conference largely due to a lack of adequate personnel, but we would be happy to hear arguments to the effect that this should be standard in the future. We would be interested to more rigorously compare our statistics to those of traditional conferences, but we did not find places where they were easily accessible. Suggestions from commentators with more experience in this area would be greatly appreciated.

3. Advantages for the traditional conference

Clearly, abandoning the traditional conference completely would come at a cost. Speaking for ourselves, some of our most serendipitous moments in the profession have resulted from chance encounters at traditional conferences: meeting one’s philosophical heroes (and finding that they are as lovely in person as they are in prose), catching up with old friends from graduate school or previous jobs, making new friends who share one’s interests, and learning surprising things about the climate or trends in the profession that would not normally be discussed in sessions themselves. These are things that one simply cannot accomplish in an online setting, and they make a powerful argument for retaining at least some traditional conferences.

Another model is of the specialty workshop. We believe that there will remain an important niche for this kind of event, because it allows for an intense, free-floating, exhaustive exchange of ideas among a group of very highly-focused specialists on some emerging topic. Often the ideas discussed in these workshops are too preliminary for a polished conference presentation, evolve too freely and quickly for recorded online discussion, and are best discussed at a level of detail that would not be accessible to those outside the specialty. There is little doubt that these kinds of workshops can be of substantial professional benefits to participants, especially those at earlier stages of their career who are still working out their “big ideas” and benefiting a large amount of targeted, informal feedback. To be clear, though, this kind of event raises significant concerns about “cliquishness”, specifically that niche workshops can form exclusive clubs that are preconditions for publication in certain areas but which can be difficult for outsiders to attend. Thus while we think such workshops will continue to play an important role that is distinct from that of large disciplinary conferences, organizers of such workshops should work hard to determine participation through open-submission, properly-conducted peer review processes rather than by invitation only, and should work hard to allow selection to be determined by quality and publicly-defined topical boundaries, rather than by friendship networks alone. Such workshops might also do more to make their materials and products more accessible to a wider audience, even if only after the fact.

A further, difficult-to-quantify variable that many of our colleagues have mentioned is the “energy” or “community” that they sometimes enjoy in traditional conference gatherings. Whereas following a long comment thread in an online discussion can be taxing and isolating, often ending after an hour or so with a yawn and a visit to Netflix, many report fond memories of conference discussions spilling out into dinner and continuing excitedly in unexpected directions until 2:00 AM. Even independently of “networking” and its benefits, some people find this kind of informal community of like-minded peers to significantly brighten their experience in the profession as a whole. Others, however—those who are not well-connected, or happen to be naturally less social—can find this kind of climate enervating, especially when perceived as a prerequisite for professional success. Even for the socially-inclined, this kind of experience can quickly turn from a dream into a nightmare with one inappropriate comment or unwelcome sexual advance. We are not sure how to strike the right balance with the community variable here, except to note that this factor can be a big plus for some and a big minus for others.

Another advantage for at least some traditional conferences is prestige. Though it is not a benefit of traditional conferences as such, having a paper accepted to a well-established traditional conference might be of a much bigger benefit to early career philosophers than a new online conference. Many such established conferences can also boast of lower acceptance rates, which can be taken as a proxy for prestige. We hoped to mitigate this concern a bit by trying to invite well-established commentators for all accepted papers, in the hope that it might boost the credibility of a “Minds Online” line on one’s CV. And, hopefully, broader prestige will come with time.

4. Questions for the future

Since the format of the online conference is itself still in flux, we are also curious how to best design it in the future. We focus on a few specific questions, but we would be happy to receive any kind of advice.

  1. In Minds Online, we closed comments on each session after a week, when the new session began. In several cases, we received excellent comments after the period had closed that we would have liked to have posted, but did not want to get in the practice of making special exceptions. Our reasoning for closing comments after a period of time was so that previous sessions did not detract attention from the next one. Was this worry well-founded? Should we have left comments open for a longer time?
  2. An innovation of our conference was the decision to space out sessions over four weeks, with one session per week (rather than posting all the papers and commentary simultaneously). Was this a good decision? Was the pacing and number of sessions about right?
  3. Is there more we could have done to bring in philosophers from other areas of the world?
  4. Is there more we could have done to be more equitable?
  5. We chose to have short introductory videos for each paper; the idea was that they were to provide a brief introduction that could help participants decide if they wanted to attend to that session. Were the videos helpful? Could they have been done better?

Acknowledgements: One feature in common between traditional and online conferences is that they are only possible with the help of lots of volunteer reviewers and organizers. Our deepest thanks go out to those who helped us organize Minds Online, especially the session coordinators Brett Castellanos, Jorge Morales, Mirja Pérez De Calleja, and Brandon Tinklenberg.

(image: detail of “Technological Mandala 2” by Leonardo Ulian)

Ulian - technological_mandala_02_the_beginning

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