Examining the Future of Academic Events (guest post)

Following up on yesterday’s piece regarding online conferences, Heather Douglas, professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, in this guest post,* asks us to consider: “When is it worth it (in terms of financial and environmental cost) to gather together in person?”

Examining the Future of Academic Events
by Heather Douglas

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced an unprecedented change in academic practice. It used to be travel difficulties would cancel speaking events. Online meetings were rare, usually one-on-one or small group stopgap measures until we could meet in person.

The stringencies of the pandemic have forced a change in academic culture, and one which requires our examination and reflection. While many have missed the in-person meeting and traveling, many have breathed a sigh of relief at the easing of travel demands. Many have also noted the drop in carbon footprint of academic activities, and seen signs for hope.

As the end of the pandemic appears in sight (sometime in 2021 hopefully), we now need to reflect upon this period of transformation and ask seriously: what worked well in videoconferencing and what is lost?

There is much to be gained from events that take place solely online. It is clear that purely videoconferenced events are less expensive to run than purely in-person events, both from a financial perspective and from an environmental impact perspective. They also enable people who are unable to travel (due to disability, family restrictions, financial and time constraints, etc.) to participate on an equal footing. This has broadened (and often increased) participation in a number of events. Online events also offer easy recording and archiving for future use.

Running online only events requires some practice shifts. Being online is tiring, and events need to be more spaced out, with substantial breaks. Because we are not gathering together, there is no need to compress events into consecutive days. We can space out themed events over days or weeks for a “conference.” We must be mindful of time zone differences in scheduling (this difficulty is mitigated somewhat by recording and posting events). New conference platforms can reproduce the serendipity of conversation that arises from self-organized social groups (e.g. Spatial Chat).

Given these advantages of online only events, particularly well-curated ones, we need to think carefully about what the advantages are of in-person events. When is it worth it (in terms of financial and environmental cost) to gather together in person? We cherish the serendipitous meetings and hallway conversations of in-person events, but some of that can be captured online with platforms more flexible than Zoom.

Rather than a norm of in-person events, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to shift the burden of justification to why an event needs to be in-person. What is gained by the additional expense (financial, environmental, accessibility reduction) of the in-person event? Thinking carefully about this will allow for better decisions about academic event planning. The normal baseline should not simply move back to what it was pre-pandemic. The new normal of online only events should be the baseline, and we should ask, specifically and clearly, what motivates in-person events in the post-pandemic world.

There are clear reasons to meet in person in many cases. For example, when research involves interacting with a specific location (such as a particular ecosystem), meeting in person on that landscape has clear advantages. In addition, when workshops require creative and active participation, generating collaboration facilitated through shared physical materials, holding them in-person can be essential. Another reason for in-person meetings is the commitment in participation that being in-person produces. It is relatively easy to walk away from an online event compared to walking away from an in-person conference. The intensity of such events, and the ability of participants to carve time out to focus on the event, is part of their value. Other important aspects of in-person events need to be articulated, scrutinized, and weighed carefully.

Finally, there are reasons to be cautious about hybrid events. Those who participate remotely in such events are sidelined generally—the people on the screen are just not as engaging as those in the room, and the conversations that happen once the official parts of the program are over are inaccessible to those online. While hybrid events allow those who cannot travel to participate to some extent, it is not on an equal footing with those present in person. Hybrid events also add significantly to the cost of in-person events, because the technology is rarely in place for supporting such events in meeting rooms (at least for free).

In sum, the new normal should be online only events, with clear justifications offered for in-person events. What those justifications are needs to be elaborated, with the aim of making our academic events better across the board.

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