Will Conferences Recover? Should They?

With promising news of a vaccine, one might hope not just for saved lives, but a return to “normal life,” including the regular features of academic work. Among these are the typically in-person events of conferences, workshops, and talks.

The pandemic has resulted in these academic gatherings being either cancelled or moved online (for example), the development of technology and norms for online events, and thoughts about how to organize virtual events well.

There is no doubt that the familiarity with online events forced upon us by the pandemic has its good side. Such events can be less costly, more convenient, more accessible to a broader range of participants, and better for the environment—and that we are all used to them means we will see more and more of them.

But it would be a pity if the pandemic killed off all in-person conferences.

We can see this by asking, first, what do we want out of conferences? Some of these things online events can provide, such as the opportunity to present one’s work to others for criticisms and suggestions. But that is not all that conferences are about. There are the professional friendships that develop by being in the same place for for an extended period of time, talking philosophy but also getting to know each other as persons, which in turn can inform, enrich, and encourage subsequent philosophical interactions.

But we can also ask what we want out of our jobs as academics. Being able to see parts of the world you otherwise might not be able to afford to travel to is part of the attraction of job that pays relatively modestly for the amount of time spent training for it. For many, travel is a key perk of the position, and for some, travel funds are part of the compensation package. If virtual events supplant in-person ones, then many professors’ jobs get worse.

Helen De Cruz (St. Louis University) recently conducted an informal poll on Twitter about whether online conferences are a viable alternative to in-person events:

She discusses the results at The Philosophers’ Cocoon. I agree that, as she says “online conferences can be a viable, carbon-friendly supplement to conferencing we do in person.”

I just hope that once it is safe to meet in person again, our employers see the value in facilitating and funding our ability to do so.

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