“Penned Up and Forced to Listen”: On the Value of In-Person Conferences
There has been a fair amount of discussion of the future of in-person academic conferences. The COVID-19 pandemic has acclimated us to online meetings and events. Some have argued that online should be the new default for academic events, and have provided guidance and models as to what online conferences could be like (some of which predates the pandemic) and descriptions of what other academic events videoconferencing technology makes possible or easier.
As I’ve said before, I think it would be bad if in-person conferences became permanently rare. One thing I mentioned 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 there are other reasons, one of which was offered by J.E. Creighton, the first president of the American Philosophical Association (APA), in his 1902 presidential address:
This seems as if it was written for our era, in which an important problem of public discourse is its focus on snippets of speech and ideas detached from knowledge of their context, their motivation, and the whole person behind them, reattached instead to easy assumptions and convenient caricatures for polemical purposes. That picture currently characterizes social media more than it does academic exchanges, but it is a fantasy that the latter can be entirely insulated from the influence of the former. So why not make use of the conventions of academia—including in-person conferences—to push for the kind of discourse we want to see more of?
There is indeed something to being in a room with a person, being able to ask them questions but in a way beneficially constrained by the norms of professionalism, that is conducive to greater mutual understanding. And there’s something to the conference setting, which allows time for more relaxed interactions between more than just the academic part of our selves—more of the whole person—that can encourage a kind sociality that makes us better listeners of each other’s ideas.
In my experience, these benefits are strongest in smaller conferences that extend over several days with few or no parallel sessions, during which it is expected that most or all of the participants will be at most or all of the sessions. I think this is in part owed to the sense that your presence is noticed, which may lead to a feeling of obligated attention. I’m not going to say it is impossible to get these benefits through online interactions. It’s enough, I think, to say that the technology of online conferences and the norms around their use seem to make presence, attention, and participation more optional, and less likely to produce the goods we get from being “penned up and forced to listen.”
(Thanks to Nathan Ballantyne (Fordham), for bringing the Creighton quote to my attention. It is from a version of Creighton’s address, “The Purposes of a Philosophical Association,” published in The Philosophical Review vol. 11, no. 3, in May 1902.)
Good argument against no-platforming as well.Report
Good post, Justin. Even as someone who’s pushing for having more events online, I agree that small in person, conferences/workshops are the best format for kind of obligated attention – and that we could use more of that attention in the profession.
I’d guess that small online events can facilitate it better than large in person events, but it depends how things are organized. One online format that can help, I think, is setting up pairs of people in discussion, instead of presenting papers – kind of like just skipping to the ideal Q&A exchanges.Report
I think it would be unfortunate if things went back to normal after the pandemic, in part because online conferences are easier and cheaper to organise and attend; but primarily because I think that climate change is the most pressing moral issue of our age, and philosophers as a group should do what we can to mitigate its effects, even if that means making some sacrifices. I don’t think that any philosophical conference will be a difference-maker for the worst consequences of climate change. But that doesn’t keep most of us from voting, recycling, protesting, or donating to worthwhile causes—nor does it keep us from recognising our moral obligations to vote, recycle, protest, and donate. And I think that we have much more collective reason to address climate change than we have to vote, e.g.
But with respect to the consideration that in-person conferences force people to listen: if the conferences you attend don’t have significant numbers of attendees scrolling through facebook or twitter during talks, then I envy you.Report
Something to consider: equity and access to professional conferences, with all their attendant benefits, direct and indirect, for scholars who don’t have a travel budget (from a grant, their institution, etc.) and aren’t independently wealthy, as well as for scholars who face travel issues due to long term disability or health issues.Report
I wonder whether one possible response to the points made in the original post and in the comments by Dr. Gallow and O.M. is to emphasize regional conferences? They involve a great deal of face-to-face time, and they are at least hopefully sometimes less burdensome in the ways those comments bring out.Report
That’s going to be difficult with tightly-themed conferences: you want the best group of speakers/interlocutors for the topic, wherever they might be located.
It’s probably also going to exacerbate the inequities others have noted: regional conferences will naturally end up clumping in places like NYC, and be more readily accessible for people in the vicinity of the clump points.Report
Personally, I hope physical philosophy conferences are over. Roughly three reasons:
Also, I don’t disagree with the values that Justin alludes to above. At all. It just seems to me that they’re *radically outweighed* by the costs. And that it’s easier to redeem those values virtually (i.e., somehow) than to absorb these costs.
Finally, in 1902 there weren’t Zoom conferences. So I really don’t think Prof. Creighton had all the ideas in front of him.Report
Jon, could you write more about the tedium/clique aspects? Not necessarily here — I’d love to read a blog post about it and I think those observations are under-discussed.Report
Jon, of those, the first two of number one and all of number 3 seem like fine reasons for you, and people who feel similarly, to not attend conferences, but like poor arguments against physical conferences in general. (The “3 part question” bit can happen on zoom all too well, of course, so that part isn’t an argument against physical conferences at all.)
I get that lots of people don’t like physical conferences. That’s fine! But it’s bad to think of these things are general reasons to not have them, as opposed to personal preferences. Lots of the arguments I see against physical conferences seem like the later to me, including the ones noted above.Report
Personally, I have found, with rare exceptions, that the conference is an outdated mode of professional dress-up for philosophers.
My best conference experiences are the smaller, intimate ones focused one theme or one thinker.
Giant conferenes with 10 concurrent sessions have largely struck me as a waste of time where you decide to attend a talk simply based upon how cool the title sounds and then you end up with sessions with like one or two people in the audience.
TLDR: scrap large conferences; keep the small ones; somehow make the planning for conferences sustainable??
Not sure how that would look.Report
I find a totally different value in the large conferences like the APA. It’s a chance for several dozen people that I want to talk to at various points to all be in the same city, so I can corner each one for a chat at some point about some issue in their work. I don’t even have to go to any talks for it to be valuable (though the talks can sometimes give a bit of seasoning to this sort of conversation, and it’s at the moment hard for me to imagine the travel being approved and enough other people showing up if there were no talks).Report
Since the pandemic started, I’ve been having more email exchanges with philosophers who are working on the same issues as me. I’ve personally found these exchanges more illuminating and fruitful than most conference conversations I’ve had. That’s not to say that conference conversations haven’t also been fruitful, of course—but I personally find it easier to digest what someone has to say when I can read it though at my own pace, and I find it easier to articulate my own thoughts when I take the time to write them out than when I’m speaking in the moment.
Independent of whether we go back to our old profligate ways with conference travel, I think it would be a positive development of the pandemic if these kinds of exchanges were to become more normal. Insofar as they become the norm, this would obviate the need to track down philosophers at large conferences like the APA.Report
One thing I gain from these perennial discussions is that *some* philosophers should go to fewer conferences, or perhaps, different conferences. If the conferences you go to are, with rare exceptions, “an outdated mode of professional dress-up”, then absolutely you should stop going!
That said, nearly all the conferences I go to are ‘smaller, intimate ones’ – I don’t get that much out of meetings with lots of parallel sessions, and so I don’t go to them very often. (But I take Kenny Easwaran at his word that he finds them useful, and it’s possible I’m just not using them right.)Report
I think this is sound IFF smartphone and laptop use are disallowed during presentations and dialogue — otherwise I’ve seen and heard about too many people on Facebook during conferences to think it forces attention.Report
I love philosophy conferences. I think they are important and fun. Sometimes the formal talks and discussions are stimulating; often the informal discussions over dinner or drinks allow for conversations with people one would not otherwise meet. I’ve met people at conferences with whom I’ve stayed in touch over the years. Some of these people were of great help to me earlier on in my career.
Compared to in-person meetings, with all the richness of they entail insofar as human interaction goes, Zoom meetings are flat and boring. Sure, you can “chat” privately on Zoom with someone, but typically this has to happen while someone else is actually speaking (unlike talking over coffee or before or after a session in the hallway, etc.). I imagine there’s plenty of cliquishness taking place in private chats, which doesn’t make it any better as far as I’m concerned.
It seems pretty obvious to me that other things equal, in-person conferences are just way better. Other things are not equal, though. Some people don’t have the travel funds to attend in person. But it’s not obvious to me that leveling down by going online is the right answer. Departments with research expectations must fund conference travel and the APA should put whatever pressure it can on departments to do so. There could be more travel scholarships, too. Years ago I took advantage of the APA’s graduate student stipend and it was a great help–let’s fund more of those for scholars lacking institutional support.
Climate change is a problem, of course, but the contribution of traveling philosophers to the problem is close to zero. Those planes are going to fly whether we are on them or not. Our individual or group contributions are causally greater, probably much greater, in voting or recycling than they are for conference travel. Our advocacy on the policy level–e.g., pushing our universities to divest from fossil fuels–has a greater chance of making a difference than does missing out on real conferences. Instead of feeling guilty about going to a philosophy conference a couple times a year, work harder to influence the policies that let industry pollute more in a fraction of a second than any of us ever will in our lifetimes.
More generally, I think there are good reasons to be cautious about transferring larger and larger portions of our lives to the digital realm.Report
It’s true that the contribution of travelling philosophers to climate change is, in the grand scheme of things, negligible. But that’s not just true of travelling philosophers. It’s also true of each university’s investment in fossil-fuels. Even Harvard’s endowment will make a negligible difference to the spread of disease, the water shortages, the displacement of tens if not hundreds of millions of people from their homes, and the mass extinction of species that awaits us. Seriously addressing this problem requires sacrifices from all of us, even though each of our individual contributions to it is negligible.
In the case of conference travel after the pandemic, I see an opportunity for philosophers, as a group, to make an easy sacrifice to somewhat mitigate the horror we’ve unleashed on future generations. I don’t deny that it involves costs. I just think that, at this point, after so many years of inaction, it’s incumbent on all of us to do something. In the case of conference travel post-pandemic, the cost-to-benefit ratio is low enough, and the likelihood of change high enough, that I think we really should seriously consider it. Failing to seriously consider it is, in my view, failing to recognise the overwhelming moral seriousness of what we are collectively doing to future generations.Report
“Failing to seriously consider it is, in my view, failing to recognize the overwhelming moral seriousness of what we are collectively doing to future generations.”
That’s fair enough. But it’s possible to seriously consider it and still decide it’s not sensible.
My own reasons for skepticism (some of which I’m more convinced by than others):
1) academic conferences aren’t (or shouldn’t be) a perk for academics: they are (or are supposed to be) for the furtherance of scholarship. So it isn’t possible to assess whether they’re worthwhile without weighing the cost to scholarship, and the cost to one’s broader goals of that cost to scholarship, against the benefit. Now granted, it’s much less important for academic philosophy research (even allowing for its various interdisciplinary components) to happen, than for climate change to be mitigated. But that’s not the right comparison: eliminating academic conferences would (in my judgement) have a very substantial impact on philosophy scholarship while having a negligible (at best, see below) impact on climate change.
2) it is open to debate whether individual sacrifice of this kind makes a positive or negative net difference to the overall prospects for climate change mitigation. We are not going to materially mitigate climate change through everyone (still less: everyone in the West) individually deciding to make big lifestyle and work sacrifices until our overall carbon budget comes under control, so the question is whether incremental acts of sacrifice increase or decrease the likelihood of big collective individual action. My own suspicion is that they decrease it, because they polarize the debate on left-right lines in the West and they strengthen the sense outside the West that developing countries are being asked to make sacrifices that Western countries did not. It is at least defensible that progress is more likely to come from the kind of tech investment and tech transfer that lets people carry on doing the things they want to do for the most part and works out how to achieve that carbon-neutrally. (Obama-era investment in electrification R&D has plausibly made more difference to the fight against climate change than anything else in the last decade.)
3) Since we are considering individually-negligible contributions to a collectively-negligible part of what is itself a very small piece of the carbon budget, we need to be confident that there aren’t other individually-tiny side effects of international travel that also matter collectively. I can think of one: widespread international travel is one small part of the web of international connections that arguably decrease the chance of large-scale conflict. If China and the US decided to ban their citizens from attending academic conferences in each others’ countries, this would reduce carbon emissions as much as if those same citizens voluntarily decided not to go to those conferences. But it would arguably also contribute to increasing mutual hostility and incomprehension between the US and China, which in turn contributes to the possibility of conflict. (And great-power conflict is one of the few plausible 21st-century scenarios worse than unchecked climate change.) Obviously, any given cancelled conference makes an absolutely negligible difference to this. But it makes an absolutely negligible difference to climate change too.
Little of this is going to be persuasive to anyone who thinks that academic conferences don’t further scholarship. But if you think that, you should cancel them anyway: climate change or not, they’d be a waste of money. And if you think only certain conferences are academically valuable, only go to those: again, the others are, ex hypothesi, pointless. (I think academic conferences, or at least the right academic conferences, are extremely valuable to scholarship, but I’ve argued that at length elsewhere on DN so I won’t repeat it here.)Report
Dmitri, I think I agree with you that it “is incumbent on all of us to do something” [to help mitigate the harms of climate change], so long as “all of us” here refers to people likely attending philosophy conferences by plane, rather than to some much larger set of individuals, like all humans. But the obligation is to do something effective, not just any old thing, and, moreover, something effective whose costs aren’t greater than the benefits sacrificed (assuming a consequentialist framework here). And this is perhaps where I have greater doubts than you do about the effects of abstaining from conference travel or cancelling conferences.
I also have a worry that’s perhaps somewhat similar to the one expressed by David Wallace in his (2) above. We know that BP spent $250 million dollars on an ad campaign popularizing the notion of a “carbon footprint” and that this was done in order to shift attention away from the behavior of fossil fuel companies and toward the behavior of individual consumers. I’m generally very skeptical about individual behavior-based solutions to complex social problems. Climate change is no exception here, in my view. Good liberals are losing sleep about the bottle they accidentally threw into the wrong bin earlier that day while governments try and fail to solve their collective action problem.
Another possible negative outcome here, which is totally predictable and even likely, is that university administrators cut travel budgets because “can’t you all just meet via Zoom?” What we see going on with classes will just be extended to university life more generally. Why drive to college or fly there when you can attend via Zoom? Don’t you care about the planet? And what will good liberals who care about climate change say to that?Report
Thanks for this reply.
I really strongly agree with you about the importance of action from governments and international organisations on climate change. It’s not a problem which can or should be addressed by individuals. (Though I am also doubtful that governments and international organisations /will/ seriously address the problem.)
If we’re just assuming act consequentialism, then I also agree with you that the effect of academic philosophy changing its habits is zero (see my reply to Prof. Wallace above). But I also think that act consequentialism is generally going to advise against taking collective action, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m not an act consequentialist.
I see the pandemic as a society-wide opportunity for certain long-ingrained practices to shift in ways that will have positive effects on climate change, even though each individual industry will have negligible or zero impact. But right now, there’s a real shot at industries making some aspects of the life they’ve been leading for the past year permanent, and if enough of them do so, there will be a non-negligible impact on carbon emissions. That’s a change I want to see in the world, and when there’s the real possibility of a large, systemic change like that, I think we have obligations to work towards it when and where we can, even though our contributions will be negligible.
I would also, of course, love to see governments take serious action on climate change, and I’d love to see universities divest from fossil fuels and stop taking money from Charles Koch. But I’ve lost any hope that that kind of change is going to happen. Our leaders and our university administrators just don’t care about future generations. One reason I think /this/ systemic change has a chance of taking hold, and one reason why I think it’s worth putting one’s weight behind, is that it financially benefits the people holding the purse strings. (If you have more people working from home a few days a week, then you can save money on office space. If you have more zoom meetings with international clients, then you can save money on flights.) And I’ve come to think that the only positive developments on climate change we’re going to see are the ones that make influential people more wealthy.Report
I agree that there are many places where Zoom can be of great use, including working from home. But this is an example where many people want to do what happens to be consistent with mitigating climate change, and so it’s easy to agree with. It’s harder when going to Zoom carries with it a real cost, as I think it does in the academic context, whether it be conferences or classes.
I also agree with you that rich people tend to get what they want, and so if those of us who care about the climate problem can get climate interests to align with the interests of the rich, we might get somewhere, climate-wise. But I’m not ready to concede that this is the only way, and I think the costs of going digital more widely really are significant.Report
Thanks for this reply.
I do think conferences are valuable for scholarship, though, in my own experience, there hasn’t been additional value at in-person conferences compared to the kind of value which is now easily attained through internet communication. What I find myself actually missing from in-person conferences are the social interactions which occur outside of the official conference. Those kinds of interactions are nice for me personally, but I doubt they have a substantial impact on research.
Of course, that’s just one data point among many. My experience might not be representative.
I think we’re approaching the ethical issues differently. I’m not inclined to think about our obligations vis-à-vis climate change in terms of the expected consequences of our actions. I think that the effect of philosophers keeping conferences online is likely to be, not just negligible, but zero. (Google tells me there are around 10,000 philosophy professors and 1,730,000 people flying each day, on 5670 scheduled flights. Even if all of those professors are going to 3 conferences a year, which I’m pretty sure is an overestimate, keeping all philosophy conferences online would mean an average of 0.015 fewer passengers per flight, which doesn’t seem high enough to change any flight patterns.)
I also think that next to nobody outside of academic philosophy pays any attention to what’s going on inside academic philosophy, so keeping philosophy conferences online is very unlikely to lead to any broader movement with more of a chance of impacting flight patterns.
What moves me is the recognition that a significant number of industries have, over the course of the pandemic, adopted more sustainable practices which they now have an opportunity to keep in place moving forward. If the people who can work from home were to continue working from home a few days a week, that would mean many fewer drivers on the road each week. If unnecessary flights were replaced with zoom meetings—not just in philosophy and not just in academia, but in the vast panoply of industries where that’s now a possibility—then there would be a non-negligible effect.
There’s almost never a real chance of that kind of permanent systemic change taking hold, but I think we’ve got a shot at it now if lots of individual people in lots of individual industries—each of which have a negligible or a zero impact on carbon emissions—push for it. And that’s why I’m advocating for it in philosophy. In my view, we shouldn’t keep the changes in place in philosophy because it’ll make a non-zero difference to anything. We should do it because we have a real shot at contributing to a meaningful systemic change, and in circumstances like those, we should be the change we want to see in the world. (In my view, the situation is analogous to voting; my vote for Biden made zero difference, but there was a good chance that it would contribute to a large change—and it did that, even though that change would have happened without my contribution.)
Wrt 3: I agree with you that, in general, it’s incredibly difficult to think through what the consequences of any societal change will be. There are often unexpected benefits or unexpected blowback. Though I understand that you were just raising these possibilities as tail risks, to be weighed against the unlikely event of academic philosophy influencing the outside world. Granting the act consequentialism, I agree with your appraisal.Report
Thanks for the reply, which helps me see where you’re coming from more. There are some baseline differences here (some political, some meta-ethical) that I think a DN comment thread isn’t the best place to resolve. Maybe we’ll have a chance to discuss them in person some time (or, given the topic itself, perhaps not!)Report
I think we should advocate for alternative ways of traveling if flying is a worry. In countries like Japan, Taiwan and S.Korea, they have high speed bullet electric trains that can be an alternative to flying. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to implement such a metro system in the U.S. due to people lobbying our politicians to not to and because of strong private property rights. Academics living in Japan, S. Korea, and Taiwan can travel easily to conferences in their own country without having to worry about CO2 emissions.
The technology, knowledge, and money are there. The biggest barriers are politics and property rights.Report
Plausibly there’s a case that some bits of the US could benefit from a high-speed train network: the eastern seaboard, or the southern half of the California coast, maybe.
But on a national scale, the US is just a much bigger and less dense country: it has about 30 times the land area of Japan and about a tenth of the population density. It’s about 2,500 miles from Los Angeles to New York City, more than the entire length of Japan’s bullet train network. Even if you built that link, and even if it ran straight and managed an average speed of 150 mph all the way across the continent (which I think is massively optimistic, not least because there is a very large mountain range in the way) you’re still looking at a 17-hour journey. I’d need a lot of modelling to be persuaded that’s a viable way to replace transcontinental flights.Report
Something that I notice conspicuously missing from all this discussion is how much harder it can be for many people to engage in online discussions (particularly those with social anxieties of various kinds). I, for one, find it almost impossible to navigate the social awkwardness of online discussions. Whereas I almost always ask questions at in person talks.
It seems from my experience they also massively increase the tendency of just a few people to interact while everyone else sits and listens. The cliquishness of in person conferences happens at drinks etc. (what little there is, I generally think the cliquey people are overestimating their own importance). Whereas the cliquishness of online talks seems to happen right there in the talk.
Of course, there are probably people who find it easier to communicate on zoom than in person for similar reasons of social anxiety and awkwardness. But that would only move us towards a balance, not a default position.Report
I think one further problem here is that the online social awkwardness is mitigated to some extent, at present, by the fact that many conference participants already know each other from previous in-person meetings. But of course that would soon cease to work if everything stayed online.Report
That’s interesting. I actually thought the opposite about the Zoom sessions at the APA, that there was a a greater diversity of people commenting than I had experienced at the APA than in the past, and that a surprising benefit of the Zoom interface was how it flattened the hierarchical elements of normal in-person sessions. I didn’t think about this from an anxiety element, though I do think it is often easier to raise a virtual hand than a physical one for some people, but just from a social network kind of approach. What I missed most of the ability to continue the discussion after the session is officially over (or approach the speaker if one didn’t ask a question/session ran out of time).Report
Over my career, I attended somewhere around 2 dozen APA conferences, most in Chicago near my campus, about 3 hours away by car. I certainly would not trade my overall experiences in them for the kind of Zoom experiences I’ve had over the last year.
Well that’s enough. I would not trade my experiences at APAs–the good and the bad for anything (I wasn’t always the best in the roles I had to play, especially as a frequent commentator, but I learned from that too). Zoom has a firm place in the profession going forward, but it cannot wholly replace the in-person conference, at least not without some real damage to what we hope to do as becoming the best philosophers we can be.Report
The cited passage seems to praise in-person meetings as a corrective for not reading someone’s work, or reading it badly, or reading it while harboring an unfriendly disposition towards them. It seems to me that all these problems can be addressed by taking one’s professional and vocational responsibilities more seriously, rather than being “penned up and forced to listen” like errant children.
Also, the presumption that meeting someone in person would improve our appreciation of them as philosophers is suspect.The polite deference and sympathy elicited by in-person encounters can make people more charitable to someone’s work than is merited by the work itself. If it can cut both ways (I’ve certainly had encounters with philosophers that make me more likely to ignore their work), then what?
(These matters are of marginal importance compared to economic, ecological and equity/accessibility considerations, IMO.)Report
I know this will not be a popular sentiment, but why is it so cosmically awful to enjoy going to cool locations once in a while and discussing philosophy with colleagues in-person and in-depth over a beer or two? Is this advocating against in-person conferences really going to make any significant difference to the climate change problem, or is it just more virtue signaling?
We certainly don’t get paid a lot at our jobs, considering the amount of education required, and this is one of the good things about our line of work. Why not enjoy life once in a while? Geez……..Report