“The global pandemic has forced philosophers to develop skillsets and approaches toward the social side of our work that we otherwise would not have developed. Outside the bounds of the pandemic, that skillset can be used to help advance the profession in ways that might not have been evident to us before.”
In the following guest post*, Preston Stovall (University of Hradec Králové) shares some of the lessons he has learned from planning an upcoming conference and from the experiences of others about holding good conferences during a pandemic, which may also be useful in improving the value of conferences in less trying times. Towards the end of his post, he asks readers to share their thoughts on and experiences with varying approaches toward conference work.
Good Conferences in a Time of Pandemic—and Afterwards
by Preston Stovall
A year ago at Daily Nous, I raised a proposal to use the pandemic as a period for trying out more tutorial-based coursework in philosophy. As I said then, times of crisis are often times of opportunity, as conventional byways are shaken up and refounded. I’m currently helping to organize a conference scheduled to take place at the University of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic from October 19th to the 22nd. Like everyone else in this situation, we are making contingency plans for the possibility that the meeting cannot be held in person. With a year of the virus behind us, and if the measure of crisis is any indication, we should be facing a near future of manifold opportunity.
In that spirit, I want to look at conference work in a time of pandemic, and to open up discussion about some of the possibilities for playing with the format of philosophical conferences.
This examination builds on discussion that has already taken place, some of them here at Daily Nous. At the Philosophers’ Cocoon in November of 2020, C. Thi Nguyen writes about experimenting with the American Society for Aesthetics Annual Conference:
My guiding observation: big social Zoom rooms full of many strange people are fucking awkward. They’re weird; it’s much harder to naturally break into small groups; social chat flows awkwardly. So we tried a bunch of things. First, we ran parallel social sessions, to keep the numbers manageable. (For a 300 person conference, we did 3 parallel social Zoom rooms each night, and ended up with 15-20 people in most rooms.) Second, structure. We had structured activities for most of the Zoom rooms, including:
- Show and Tell Room
- 3 Minute Silly Talk Room
- Talent Show Room
- Joke Room
- Trivia Room
And they worked… insanely well. … It had a bit of the conference feeling that I relish most: of philosophers after-hours, loosening up and spit-balling the really interesting ideas.
In January of this year, Trappes, Cohnitz, Pâslaru, Perkins, and Teymoori (building on their 2020 article), ran a piece at Daily Nous arguing that online conferences should be the default position going forward, registering the opportunities afforded by the situation we collectively face:
Philosophers and other academics should take the natural experiment that the pandemic brought about as an opportunity to build interdisciplinary work groups to study and establish best practices for online conferences, environmentally friendly and accessible in-person conferences, and adequate ways to offset carbon emissions.
They conclude that the pandemic presents us not only with an opportunity, but an obligation. Later in that month, Heather Douglas addressed the question “When is it worth it (in terms of financial and environmental cost) to gather together in person?” She writes:
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?
Douglas agrees with Trappes et al. that the default should be online conferences, and she argues that hybrid events should be minimized in that while they do increase accessibility for some, those who do not travel in person are not able to participate in the in-person interactions of other attendees. Meanwhile, in April Justin noted that the 1902 presidential address from J.E. Creighton, the first president of the American Philosophical Association, defended the value of in-person conferences in a way that remains relevant today. I wish to set aside the question of whether we are obliged to treat online conferences as the default position, as the questions about best practices for online and hybrid conferences are worth addressing either way.
Instead, I want to draw together some of the ways to mitigate the problems of online conference that have been discussed over the last year, using our conference as a platform for implementing them.
A little background: the conference draws together philosophers and scientists, primarily in Europe and North America. If held fully face-to-face, it will be a four-day conference with about two dozen speakers. According to the poll run by Daily Nous in February, at the time nearly 60% of respondents planned to be willing to travel by roughly the time of the conference.
Our original plan for the period of October 19-22 was for two full days and two shortened days, with (roughly) a group of three talks on the first and fourth day, and two groups of three talks on each of the full days, along with four keynotes. Because noon here is six a.m. in New York City, if we keep with our original scheduling this would diminish the number of participants from North America attending before midday. Alternatively, we are considering an extended series of events that are spread out over the course of a semester, and still with some in-person event around the original conference dates (I personally lean toward this last way of adjusting things, if it comes to it).
Supposing a group of three talks and a keynote constitutes a session, that comes to six sessions with somewhere around four and a half to five hours per session. If we aim to take place across all of North America at a reasonable hour, we will have to run something in the afternoon and into the evening, local time. But six sessions could be done in six weeks, either in a row or spread out over a semester (and all of this is contingent on being able to orchestrate things with the keynotes in such a fashion as to respect our original commitments).
As Douglas points out, online conferences facilitate accessibility by minimizing some of the barriers that distance puts up. If essays are circulated beforehand, one might invite people to write in comments and questions beforehand, share them with the speakers, and encourage speakers to respond to any they wanted to address. This isn’t a substitute for direct questioning, but it does allow people who might not otherwise be able to participate directly to have a share in the conversation.
Of course, to be successful the host facilities and remote participants need the right audio-visual set up, along with a reliable highspeed internet connection. Lots can go wrong. But facilities today are tending toward more advanced technological hosting and broadcasting, while new software for online interchange is expanding the communicative possibilities. In Hradec Králové, the Museum of Eastern Bohemia recently underwent a full renovation, which included updating its audio-visual capabilities, and we hope to be able to use the space for at least part of the conference.
A common concern about the online model of conferencing is that features of in-person networking and social interaction are essential to a well-functioning conference, and that these features cannot be replaced in the online setting. This is something Trappes et al. found. Describing their essay in the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy they write:
We present survey data from four online conferences: The European Congress for Analytic Philosophy, and the colloquia Doing Science in a Pluralistic Society, Eco-Evo Mechanisms, and Philosophy of Biology at the Mountains. Our data indicate that online conferences are satisfactory in terms of sharing knowledge and getting feedback and seem to be more accessible, falling down only in networking.
Even in the best-case scenario, where we host the event in person, there will likely be some speakers who either cannot or choose not to attend in person. For that reason, it makes sense to look for ways to address such drawbacks. Morrison, Merlo, and Woessner (2020) look at ways to boost the impact of online scientific conferences, and they counsel a general shift in attitude:
First, to get in the right mindset, it will help to stop thinking of annual scientific conferences as only updating a subset of attending scientists on what is happening in a field and start thinking of conferences as being able to update the entire world on what is happening in a field of study—especially all relevant scientists, whether they pay dues for that conference or not.
They go on to propose recording presentations and making them freely available in online repositories, archiving and disseminating posters and abstracts online, and using social media to reach a larger audience.
There are a number of conversation-oriented programs for facilitating conference networking. SpatialChat and Wonder each bill themselves as alternatives to Zoom-style breakout rooms, ones that make for easier navigation among conversations. In September, The Scientist ran an article on a neuroscience conference that used an algorithm to match up participants based on research interests:
Then, in September 2019, [Dan] Goodman headed to the Conference on Cognitive Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, where he participated in a so-called mind matching session. Participants provided three abstracts representative of their research and were matched by an algorithm with up to six other scientists, with whom they had 15-minute conversations.
“My mind was absolutely blown by it, because I sat down, and I met six people that I’d never met before. Two of them were working on exactly the same problem that I was working on, and I’d never heard of them,” Goodman says. “I thought, ‘Okay, if you have something as powerful as this, maybe you can get rid of in-person conferences because you can replace that social element, which is the point of the whole thing.’”
Goodman got in touch with University of Pennsylvania computational neuroscientist Konrad Kording and Titipat Achakulvisut, a graduate student in Kording’s group who led the development of the algorithm behind the mind matching. It works by analyzing the text supplied by each person, as well as people they already know and people they hope to meet, and using those analyses to create a matrix of compatibility from which they pull possible matches. They use a similar strategy for matching jobseekers with job listings at meetings.
The article goes on to describe conference sessions with 3000 people. Most philosophy conferences do not come anywhere near that number of participants, of course. Still, something similar might be accomplished if conference organizers collected three representative abstracts from anyone who was interested in sharing them, and circulated the collection around to participants.
In facilitating that interaction, we might consider asking those who submit an essay whether they want to participate a research-matching test of one of these algorithms. If philosophers began to look at their conferences along the lines that Morrison, Merlo, and Woessner indicate, then over time a cumulative increase in the pool of researchers might lead to more effective implementation of such “mind-matching” algorithms. And of course, mind-matching is not the only benefit of this kind of networking; publishing and job opportunities might be facilitated by it as well.
The experimental breakout rooms Nguyen describes for last year’s American Society for Aesthetics Annual Conference are another source of inspiration. While a Joke Room or a Show and Tell Room may not be fit for every kind of philosophical gathering, they suggest ways of preserving some of the enjoyable social experiences of in-person conferences. And the 3 Minute Silly Talk Room might be replaced with an Elevator Spiel Room, where one presents a (serious) defense or brainstorming of an idea.
I opened by saying that times of crisis are often times of opportunity. The global pandemic has forced philosophers to develop skillsets and approaches toward the social side of our work that we otherwise would not have developed. Outside the bounds of the pandemic, that skillset can be used to help advance the profession in ways that might not have been evident to us before.
With that in mind, I would like to open discussion for consideration of other approaches toward conference work and networking. What has worked in your own fields, what hasn’t, and what are you interested in trying out in the future?