APA Meetings: Time To Reconsider The Timing?

It was a great idea to hold the Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association (APA) in Savannah, Georgia. Not only is it a beautiful little city that many people want to visit (and so a good use of location to add to the meeting’s appeal), it is also in the South, and so less likely than many other past APA Eastern sites to be affected by debilitating winter storms. 

Even the idea of having philosophers ferry across the Savannah River to get from one of the conference hotels on the city side (the Hyatt) to the island convention center at which the sessions were held was charming, and I bet it would have made for one of the most fondly remembered APA meetings ever.

One of Savannah’s iconic Southern Live Oak trees, dusted in snow (photo by J. Weinberg)

But we got unlucky. A huge storm hit the region the day the conference began, and now Savannah 2018 will be remembered as a disaster—and also, I predict, the beginning of the end of a winter-time APA meeting.

Savannah, perhaps not unreasonably, was not prepared to handle the snow and ice, which, arriving after a week of very chilly weather in the area, fell onto cold ground and stuck around for most of the conference. There did not appear to be much by way of salt, sand, shovels, or snowplows. One could literally have ice skated around the city.

Ice-covered streets in Savannah (photo by J. Weinberg)

It was too dangerous for the ferries to operate (reports are that there was no safe way for passengers to board), the bridge to the island was closed for a good chunk of the conference, and it took a couple of days for the shuttle buses between the hotels to start running again.

Some philosophers who were staying on the island hotel (the Westin), and who got there before the storm, were stranded there for nearly two whole days. Philosophers at the other hotel were in a city in which most restaurants and stores were closed, and what was open was woefully understaffed.

The storm shuttered the airport, and between that and weather disruptions elsewhere on the east coast, many philosophers were unable to arrive in Savannah. I drove from nearby Columbia, SC. The snow started falling during my drive, and what is usually a 2 and a half hour trip took over seven hours. Even I-95, the east coast’s largest highway, was at a standstill for a while.

I-95 at zero miles per hour on January 3rd (photo by J. Weinberg)

As a result of these weather-based problems, the conference’s program was severely disrupted, with many sessions cancelled.

Some philosophers took it upon themselves to reschedule their sessions, or hold them in areas of the lobby at the Hyatt, or in rooms that the hotel made available for the APA’s use. It was heartening to see these efforts to keep the show going on, both from ordinary members of the APA and its officers. The Blog of the APA performed a crucial function as a place to share information among attendees (and those who couldn’t make it). But despite these efforts, it seemed to me that most of the sessions scheduled for this APA did not take place, and most of those that did take place were less well-attended than they otherwise would have been. (It would be useful to hear from the APA if they know any numbers on this.)

An icicle-framed window on an ivy-covered building in Savannah (photo by J. Weinberg)

Though it made for a picturesque setting, some inspired organizational improvisation, and some bonding among philosophers, the weather-caused debacle raises questions about whether it is a good idea to hold an APA meeting at this time of year. This is not the first time an Eastern APA has suffered from weather-related problems (some readers may recall Boston 2010). And even the choice of a southern destination doesn’t do anything to lessen the chance that travelers from the northeast or midwest won’t face winter storm travel problems at their points of origin.

Some have suggested that we scrap the geographic divisions, or at least scrap the idea of having three separate meetings for them. I’m not a fan of that idea. I prefer three large conferences to one enormous one. Were there just one large conference, each of its attendees would miss out on more at it (owing to parallel sessions), and find it more difficult to find the time to meet with everyone they’d like to (even if they’re all there because it’s the one big conference—there’s only so much time).

A better suggestion, I think, is to move the timing of the Eastern to sometime between late August and Thanksgiving. The widespread use of video communications has liberated the APA from the constraints of the job-market schedule. I understand that conferences at other times may be more expensive than in the dead of winter. The additional expense, though, may be worth it. A largely cancelled conference is no bargain.


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