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Academic Conferences After the Pandemic

Is flying to disciplinary and professional academic conferences a habit we might lose?

October 13, 2020
 
 

This week, I renewed my TSA PreCheck membership. Why? I’m not so sure.

For some (admittedly privileged) portion of academics, flying for work is a typical (usually annual) event.

I have flown somewhere for some professional or academic conference in almost every year of the past 20.

Disciplinary and professional conferences are part of the DNA of academia. Conferences are the places where knowledge is shared, careers are advanced, networking occurs and job interviews are held.

For professional associations, conferences constitute a significant (sometimes dominant) portion of revenues.

This academic year, I will not be flying to any conferences. All in-person conferences are canceled through 2020. I guess it is possible to imagine a scenario of in-person conferences resuming late in 2021 (an effective and universally administered vaccine), but I wouldn’t want to take that bet. Would you?

Let’s imagine that by 2022 the COVID-19 pandemic is in the rearview mirror, and in-person academic/professional conferences have resumed. Will academics start getting on planes to fly to conferences in pre-COVID numbers?

Once a vaccine arrives, one argument is that we will then see a rapid return to pre-COVID conference-going patterns due to pent-up demand. Everyone will be exhausted from all the virtual communications and desperate to see peers and colleagues from other institutions face-to-face.

The counterargument is that in-person academic conferences are more of a habit than a necessity -- that we can get 80 percent of the benefits from a virtual conference for 20 percent of the costs of an in-person event.

All sorts of things in higher ed will change after the pandemic. Once a growing but still marginal activity, remote work will become the new normal for many academic jobs.

The fastest-growing role in higher education, that of the instructional designer, is a job that can be done perfectly well from anywhere. How many other higher ed jobs are well suited for remote work?

I can imagine a sort of academic conference reckoning -- a shift in thinking where inclusivity becomes more important than propinquity. For instance, the online learning community may decide that it is better to have everyone be first-class conference citizens than to reserve that privilege for only those who can afford airfare and hotel fees.

Academic disciplines may see virtual events as a way of ensuring inclusivity for adjunct faculty. Access to a budget for professional travel typically does not extend to non-tenure-track academics.

For many years, faculty and staff from less well-resourced institutions (such as community colleges) have been significantly underrepresented at disciplinary and professional conferences. At the same time, attendees from wealthier institutions were overrepresented at these events. Virtual conferences (mostly) level the playing field and tend to result in events whose attendees better match the distribution of colleges and universities.

This is not to argue that all in-person events will cease once we are done with COVID-19. There will be a future for in-person academic conferences, just as there is a future for residential education (and campus offices). What will likely need to change is how academic conferences are run.

In the future, we may see smaller but more resource-intensive (lavish) in-person events. Academics will not travel to an in-person conference unless that event offers benefits far and above what can be had virtually. This will maybe mean better conferences, with less boring panels and passive talks, and more in the way of opportunities for collaboration and conversation.

The post-COVID-19 academic conference world might come to resemble the post-COVID-19 world of higher ed. There will be fewer but better (and more expensive) residential conferences, and more online (and improved) events.

Flying to an in-person academic conference might become more of a marker of privilege than in pre-pandemic days. The majority of academics may resign themselves to a new normal of virtual events.

Disciplinary and professional associations that depend on conference revenues to balance their books may want to start now in a process to radically rethink their in-person events.

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