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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Devin
Devin
11 months ago

“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.”
This is an extremely rare case where I’m unsure whether university administrators would be in the wrong if they didn’t see that value. First, while I would very much like to be able to travel to interesting places and meet new people, and my career as a grad student and hopefully in the future as a professor would be much worse without this opportunity, it is not clear to me how this translates into an obligation for the university (and, if it’s public, for society) to subsidize that, particularly given the negative effects of travel on the climate. Second, while there obviously are many benefits to the profession of in-person conferences, many of them impossible to quantify though no less important, I think there would need to be a clearer argument that these outweigh the costs, particularly when it comes to the climate (again) and accessibility.Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
11 months ago

I think you covered my thoughts pretty well Justin. I’ve done two online conferences since the pandemic and they’ve both been marginally acceptable but radically inferior to in-person conferences. If I weren’t already committed for the APA, I’d turn down that online conference too. Going to conferences, maybe especially APA conferences, is rarely deeply useful to my research (I often can get useful feedback from my commentator but rarely from Q&A) and I go mostly (in order of importance):

1. I can see old friends who are now teaching at universities all over the country and who I don’t see often

2. I get to visit cities I either already know I like or am curious to visit
(Corollary to 2): new restaurants to try!

3. I get some public speaking practice

4. Commentator feedback

5. Wandering into interesting talks

6. Random chance meetings during conference happy hours

I’m no longer on the market and am tenured so I really don’t *need* conferences for my CV. I do them because I enjoy them (and enjoy organizing them myself). After the APA I won’t be going to any more online conferences, they’re just not for me (unless a friend is organizing and I can help out).Report

Mike
Mike
11 months ago

“Acceptable but inferior”, on a particular weighting of goods.

On what weighting of goods is it acceptable and superior to use education budgets to buy jet fuel on a warming planet? Never mind the fragility of a system requiring in-person meetings when there’s pandemics afoot.Report

Jill
Jill
11 months ago

One positive to the online environment is that I’ve been able to participate in far more conferences (even if catching a handful of interesting papers) than I would be able to during a normal conference year. My hope is that even in-person conferences will continue with an online component in the future.Report

Kenny Easwaran
11 months ago

Mike – if we think that there is some positive value to the production of philosophical research, and if we think that the production of philosophical research goes somewhat better when researchers have a chance to talk to many other researchers at the same time about their work, then it’s quite plausible that there will be cases in which the benefits of this research might outweigh the costs of carbon emissions caused by the travel. (Of course, this doesn’t prove that this will always, or even often, be the case.)

If we don’t think that the value of the production of philosophical research could ever outweigh the cost in emissions of the plane flights, then you might ask why we should be so confident that the value of the production of philosophical research would ever outweigh the cost in emissions of our exhalations.

Of course, we should naturally try to structure the conferences that do exist so that they minimize emissions. That means hosting most conferences in cities with major hub airports (so that attendees are less likely to have multiple takeoffs and landings in both directions of travel), and ideally in locations where a large fraction of participants wouldn’t fly at all. That means more conferences in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, and more conferences in London, Paris, and Amsterdam, and fewer conferences in New Orleans, Kansas City, Berlin, or small university towns. It’s not clear whether this is in tension with accessibility considerations or enhances them – after all, more people can get to any particular such hub city, even if there are some people for whom these hub cities are less accessible than some particular smaller conference sites. Do we, as a profession, have a duty to locate some conferences near each cluster of members in our community, even if those conferences are thereby going to result in far more emissions for most attendees?Report

Sean
Sean
11 months ago

There are of course two separate issues raised in Justin’s post and Helen’s poll, respectively. Justin invites us to consider whether in-person conferences are all-things-considered better. A positive answer to that question will support the continuation of financial support from our employers and potentially elsewhere for reinstating these research and networking opportunities once it is safe to do so. The current state of the world of virtual conferences may just provide the necessary evidence in order to produce a well-informed answer to that question.* (Whether our employers will make a good-faith effort to look for a well-informed answer is, of course, a whole different matter.)

This takes us to Helen’s question, which is about subjective experience with virtual conferences. While I see that only a small portion of the votes went to “not a viable alternative”, the vast majority also seemed to think virtual conferences are acceptable but inferior. Now, connecting this to Justin’s original question (and taking Helen’s poll at face value), we have to ask how much of people’s subjective experience of virtual conferences as acceptable but inferior should figure into the assessment of the objective value of in-person conferences. I can only report that my experience thus far, having attended more than a few, is overwhelmingly positive–not to mention the fact that the virtual format made possible my participation in a few conferences that would’ve otherwise been impossible. Therefore I would like to hear from folks who think virtual conferences are inferior. This is not only because of my personal curiosity; also, at this point, given environmental considerations and accessibility considerations that other commentators have pointed out, it seems to me the burden of proof lies clearly on the pro in-person side.

[*]: For what it’s worth, in this context I personally think considerations along the lines of traveling being a “perk” of the profession should be viewed as insignificant in the grand scheme of things.Report

Andrew
Andrew
11 months ago

Y’all really don’t get how to argue for a questionable benifit.

Conferences are a perk sure but why not say. Conferences while serving an important academic function via the sharing of information with ones peers also form a critical link facilitating the the informal sharing of infomation through the building and maintaining of peer networks.

To support this simply build a casestudy of all the times your fwild was advanced through the interpersonal communication of academics who met or firmed bonds at conferences.

On a aside its seems to be a no brainer to also stream conferences. That way you get the best of both. If you can’t get to the conference you can still get 50% of the benefits.Report

Michael
Michael
11 months ago

The philosophical community right now has the opportunity to make a significant change.

We could announce a moratorium on all in-person international conferences in the subject, (to be reviewed again after 3 years, say).

If signed by major figures, and major departments, then that would be a significant statement, heard throughout academia: that there are steps and sacrifices that can and should be made to tackle the climate crisis.

It surprises me that people are talking about ‘perks of the job’. We are wrecking the environment. It really is happening. Here is something that we could do that could potentially have a significant impact and encourage others to follow suit.Report

Kenneth
Kenneth
11 months ago

Some of the comments make it sound like we need to make the case or that we hope that universities continue to see the value in conference travel. I hope they do, but I don’t think we should undersell how their supplying the resources for this is really a product of our collectively demanding it. Their policies (which may be school or college-wide, not department specific) are based on competing to attract faculty, not a magnanimous concession to our preferred lifestyle.

That said, I think we are justified in continuing to demand this. We may all have a role to play to meet the climate crisis, but I do think it is a distortion to view ourselves as The Problem here, with our by comparison honestly minuscule conferences, to such an extent that we should dramatically negatively impact our own lives and professional sociality. Frankly, I resent acting like we need to think super hard about our own behavior in attending academic conferences while consultants fly by the thousands on a weekly basis. (Since this might be taken to be engaging in what-about-ism, I’ll just say that this may not absolve us of wrongdoing, but it does feel like an appropriate basis of resentment.)Report

dmf
dmf
11 months ago

in-person conferences for state employees are a bad return on investment for tax-payersReport

Dmitri Gallow
11 months ago

I appreciate that there are real benefits to in-person conferences which can’t be had with webinars. Nonetheless, if I found myself face-to-face with a representative of the future generations who will suffer the worst consequences of climate change, I’m sure that I’d be embarrassed to point to those benefits as an excuse for the carbon the in-person conferences require.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
11 months ago

:
“Therefore I would like to hear from folks who think virtual conferences are inferior”

Here’s my attempt to make the case, in roughly increasing order of significance, and based on observation during the pandemic:

1) Talks are in general much less effective ways of communicating when they’re being screened on Zoom than when they’re being attended in person. I could theorize about why – difficulty in moving between slides and speaker, constraints on speaker’s movement, lack of reliable cues from audience to speaker as to how the talk is going, physiological and psychological effects of sitting and staring at a screen – but after nine months of the pandemic it’s just an empirical observation.
2) Q and A sessions generally work much less well virtually than in reality, especially at small workshops and seminars. The lack of various informal cues seems to make it much harder to manage an informal flowing discussion.
3) The bulk of the academic engagement at a workshop happens between formal events, over coffee, meals and other social events. In my experience, at the typical focused academic workshop nearly all the informal conversation is shop-talk of one kind or another, mostly about the research topic of the conference. Those kinds of conversations are very significant in moving ideas forward, establishing collaborations, clearing up confusions, and connecting graduate students and postdocs with senior people, and they are extremely hard to replicate online.

(Note that these are all reasons why in-person conferences are much better *from the point of view of furthering academic research*. I don’t have a great deal of time for the ‘perk of the job’ argument.)Report

Caligula's Goat
Caligula's Goat
11 months ago

Dmitri,

I’m curious how far you’re willing to carry through with that way of thinking. Do you drive? Do you eat meat? Do you take vacations? Do you buy things online? Do you eat produce farmed with conventional corporate farms? Do you keep some kind of running calculus about how much carbon all of your activities cause and try to minimize that number as the major component of your life? Is a life well lived one lived in this way? If not, won’t you have to look at these potential future people anyway and explain that while you thought that flight to Iceland was immoral that your many other activities were justifiable, even if they all contributed to climate change (and probably more so than the limited flights you would have taken)?Report

Dmitri Gallow
11 months ago

Calligula’s Goat,

I’m sure that there are all kinds of ways that I change my lifestyle so as to lessen my individual contribution to climate change. I’m not a moral saint by any stretch, and there is likely sufficient moral reason for me to do more than I currently do. But this isn’t a problem being caused by me, or you, or any individual person. This is a problem being caused by *us*, collectively. And it’s a problem which can’t be addressed individually. It needs to be addressed collectively.

Ideally, we would address the problem through state and international organizations agreeing to policies which have a hope of averting the worst consequences. However, it doesn’t seem that global leadership has any intention of taking serious action to address the problem. What they’re willing to do is not enough. In circumstances like these, it’s not clear to me what moral responsibilities fall to us, individually. I suspect that we incur additional moral responsibilities, though I’m not sure how many or how weighty they are.

But when I made that comment above, I wasn’t talking about what I or you or anybody has reason to do, individually. I took our discussion here to be about what *we* have reason to do, *collectively*. And I do think that, when larger, global institutions fail to provide leadership on a moral issue as significant as climate change, additional moral responsibilities fall to smaller groups and institutions.

And it seems to me that, as a group, one of the most significant things academic philosophers are capable of doing to address climate change is moving away from in-person conferences. Moreover, technological change has made this an increasingly feasible option. Given that, it seems to me that we, as a group, should be taking it very, very seriously. And while many of us have a personal interest in networking and forming professional friendships, I don’t think that giving much weight to those interests treats our current situation with the moral seriousness it deserves.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
11 months ago

On conferences and climate change:
– I can understand the view that academic research (or, perhaps, certain sorts of academic research) is just not important enough to justify conferences given the climate emergency, so that we should stop having conferences *even if* that’s very damaging to research. (I’m actually sceptical it makes any difference at all on net, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
– I can understand the view that actually there’s no, or only very slight, benefits to in-person conferences compared to virtual conferences, so that we might as well stop having in-person conferences, more or less irrespective of climate change (they’re much more expensive, after all).
– I’m much less sure I understand the view that we should move from in-person to virtual conferences, even at a substantial hit to research productivity, *given* the availability of virtual alternatives. It seems to require a rather precise balancing of the relative importance of research activity and curtailing air travel, such that the (ex hypothesi) large hit to research productivity that comes from shifting to virtual conferences is worth it to contribute (again ex hypothesi) to reducing climate change, but the still-larger hit that would come if we didn’t have Zoom would not be worth it.Report

Lowlygrad
Lowlygrad
11 months ago

I’m doubtful of the significance of the effect. Anyone have any estimates of the carbon footprint of Zoom servers?

From a quick Google: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/25/server-data-centre-emissions-air-travel-web-google-facebook-greenhouse-gasReport

Alan White
Alan White
11 months ago

While I think that restrictions on international conferences might make sense in the big picture risk/reward sense, and similarly regional conferences might be criticized as perhaps too narrow for participation versus product, I’ll risk ridicule from forwarding just one instance in my own career to advocate for continuing at least the regional APAs, which I also realize combines elements of international travel with regional over-focus. 37 years ago I was in Chicago attending (I think) just to hear some big guy sound off about whatever. But in an elevator I recognized a name-tag on a guy in my field who as well recognized mine as we were just beginning our print careers. That conversation blossomed into a life-long friendship and collaboration that may have resulted in only one co-authored paper but was so much more otherwise in making me a better philosopher. That fortuitous meeting enriched my life so very much and in so many ways, and was only possible because of the chance of face-to-face encounter that the APA provided. Zoom conferences have advantages especially these days, but I can’t see them providing the life-changing one-one-one encounter that’s possible with in-person ones.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
11 months ago

@Lowlygrad: just on physics grounds, the energy cost of a couple of days of a Zoom workshop can’t help being way less than the energy cost of transporting the workshop participants by air. The Guardian article makes a case that the aggregate carbon footprint of data processing is comparable to the aggregate carbon footprint of aviation, but the fraction of aviation carried out by academics going to conferences is way higher than the fraction of data processing carried out by academics at virtual Zoom meetings.

(All this irrespective of whether academics stopping conference travel would actually reduce carbon emissions from aviation or just displace it to other travelers through price elasticity.)Report

Sean
Sean
11 months ago

. Wallace: Thanks, David, these are very helpful points. I would just urge, though, folks to think hard about the extent to which these shortcomings are technology-related and/or due to us having to adopt to a new format of having conferences. I do think there are smarter ways of organizing Q&As and social sessions virtually out there. I have personally experienced very well-run Q&As on Zoom. And just yesterday C Thi Nguyen had a good thread on Twitter about his pleasantly surprising experience organizing a big aesthetics conference virtually (he raised challenges too). My biggest concern is with your (3), David. The simple contrast I have in mind is, on the one hand, the relative easiness for grad students or early career researchers to jump into an in-person casual conversation and, on the other, the difficulty for *anyone* to jump into a virtual conversation.Report

Junior Scholar
Junior Scholar
11 months ago

I appreciate David Wallace’s three observations against virtual conferences, and largely agree with Sean’s response. To say that virtual conferences have thus far been inferior to in person experiences is generically true in my experience as well. But that doesn’t mean we could not revise conference formats, methods, and goals, to make really productive online spaces for collaboration and feedback. I have rarely found in person conferences to yield great feedback on my work, and the benefits of conferences for me have primarily been the chance to engage with other people and ideas outside my own areas of immediate research. I can imagine a future in which online spaces were creatively constructed to allow for more meaningful feedback on work, and still retain opportunities for more casual conversations and exchange.

To David’s point 3 and Sean’s reply: I worry about the demands/norms/expectations for interpersonal interaction at in person conferences and how it might make some attendees more vulnerable or less able to engage than others. Depending on the setting, I don’t get the sense that early career and student attendees feel able/comfortable jumping into conversations with more senior people, nor do I witness more senior people necessarily making space for junior folks in conversation. Moreover, that socialization happens often in cocktail receptions at hotels might make some people even less likely to spend time attempting to network. Mindfully creating opportunities for exchange and connection across hierarchy/professional status and in supported environments could be a real benefit of online conferences. I participated in one conference during the pandemic that took great steps to connect junior people to senior scholars who had volunteered to mentor, and this allowed for multiple one-one-one conversations that would have never happened by chance if the conference had been in person. I would not have approached these same individuals to ask for their time and advice, let alone a half hour (or more) dedicated conversation.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
11 months ago

@Junior Scholar:

You’re of course right that it might be possible to make virtual spaces work better than they do. But I’m skeptical that (without radical technology changes) it will really ever compare to in-person meetings. Forget conferences, just think about what everyone’s social life has been like the last nine months. It’s been completely amazing that Zoom and the like have let us see and hear our friends, colleagues and family, but nearly everyone agrees that those interactions are still a pale shadow of actual, face-to-face contact. One can theorize about why that might be, but at some point theory gives way to experience. I am about as optimistic that we can get a fully satisfactory virtual substitute for conferences and workshops as I am that we can get a virtual substitute to meeting my friends in a wine bar… which is to say, not very.

On the issue of interpersonal interaction: I can well believe that this varies a lot from sub-field to sub-field. For what it’s worth: most of the conferences I go to are reasonably small workshops, and my experience of those workshops is that (a) most participants are mostly talking shop with other participants not from their home institution, and (b) I personally spend maybe half of my time talking to junior people and grad students. My suggestion to you (for what it’s worth, and you should feel free to ignore it – it’s not as if you asked for my advice) is that people at conferences are almost uniformly interested in being asked about their work and quite often interested in being told about your work, but that usually you do better to simply ask about someone’s work and/or ask to talk about yours, and let the mentoring develop naturally.Report

Philosopher Mom
Philosopher Mom
11 months ago

Am I the only parent of small children reading this thread? Or just the only member of a household who is incapable of letting household responsibilities go if I am still within city limits? I realize this wouldn’t apply to every member of our profession, but speaking for myself, conference travel is an invaluable opportunity to think uninterruptedly about a philosophical subject-matter. I don’t yet see any way to replicate the benefit virtually.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
11 months ago

“Am I the only parent of small children reading this thread? Or just the only member of a household who is incapable of letting household responsibilities go if I am still within city limits?”

No, you are not. I hadn’t actually realized how useful that part of conference travel was until it went away!Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  David Wallace
11 months ago

Amen.Report