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On the bittersweet absence of conferences

The global Covid-19 pandemic that has ripped through 2020 has had far-reaching consequences in all areas of our lives. Within academia, it has radically changed teaching and learning practices as well as research practices, and highlights the rather fragile relationship that universities have with economic and political systems. There is much we need to learn here. How are we to adapt in an era where travel and large gatherings can no longer be taken for granted? Consider, for instance, the impact of the pandemic on academic conferences. While not the most important of academic concerns, conferences are nevertheless a cornerstone of academic work. A good conference can spark new ideas, stimulate research and teaching developments, and reinvigorate academics themselves. What does the pandemic mean, then, for our conferences?

First, a confession.

The ESPLAT chocolate bar

One of my favourite things about conferences are the breaks in between the presentations, rather than the presentations themselves. Let me be clear: I still value presentations and appreciate the opportunity to hear about other research. I also enjoy the ‘lucky dip’ approach of, occasionally, choosing a talk by random. You never know what serendipitous insights and connections you might make when you truly have no presumptions of the content or speaker. But more than this, it is during the snack breaks, lunches, and dinners in which the opportunities for interesting discussions can really explode[1]. During the simple act of walking to the lunch hall or standing beside someone in the queue for coffee, we can initiate a conversation that may well change the course of our career. This has happened to me at least once, in which a conversation over dinner ended up with moving to live in a different country.

The move to online conferences – for those which have not been postponed until 2021 or later – has thus been rather bittersweet. Aside from the cancelled travel and hotel arrangements and the worry about getting refunds, the chance to present our work and discuss research with international colleagues, we have also lost those informal opportunities for meeting people we would never normally have a chance to talk to. We have lost the chance to renew or generate new collaborations, meet old friends, and revive our motivation for our work.

We have, however, gained a whole lot in the process. I may not be the only one slightly relieved to be able to remove things from the calendar. I have not missed the months of preparation, nor the way it becomes the only thing that I can think about in the last weeks before a conference. More broadly, moving to online conferences has not only reduced the environmental and economic impact of these trips, but has also allowed increased accessibility in many ways. Conferences are, typically, a luxury and an elite sport. While not ideal (since being online demands at least access to a computer and a reliable internet connection, and the digital skills that we take for granted), it means that more people may be able to attend. Academics who might otherwise have been, whether unintentionally or not, excluded due to lack of resources, time, location, or the demands of other responsibilities.

There has been, of course, much discussion about this. From how the coronavirus might just be the impetus to move us toward more online meetings, to advice on how to plan for, or navigate and present at online conferences. It is not as simple as saying that moving online is a better way forward. As a presenter at a social psychology conference in Tampere earlier this year, unable to see anyone but my slides on the screen in front of me, it felt like I was talking into a void. Gone was the eye contact and visual feedback from an audience. I couldn’t see anyone, regardless of whether they were looking disinterested, confused, or - the joy - nodding sagely. Most of all I missed the chats afterward, to hear from other researchers, and to talk about the presentations we’d seen together. Whether as a presenter or a participant, it both opens up access to hearing about research while closing down some possibilities for discussion.

So, while there are more important things than conferences, they serve a vital role in academia. They are also a luxury and work on the assumption that taking the time and money to travel to meet up in large groups is something that every academic can legitimately do. The circumstances this year have thus shown potential as well as absence: that online conferences provide opportunities that we might otherwise have resisted. They might not always fit our needs, but online or digital conferences could be a valuable addition to face-to-face meetings. We just need to wear them in a bit. Adapt a little. I’ll miss the snack breaks, of course. We might need to provide online spaces where people can strike up conversations without it all, like, becoming really awkward. So that we can talk as well as listen. We need the research and the scholarly content, of course, but let’s not forget the spaces in-between.

[1] As a researcher who analyses mealtime conversations and the social psychological aspects of eating practices, I can actually claim this as work.


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