Academic and professional conferences in the age of coronavirus

I am hardly alone in attesting that I can trace career and life changing collaborations, associations, and friendships to various conferences, seminars, and workshops. These events have introduced me to people, ideas, and research that have profoundly shaped the course of what I do and fostered communities that transcend distance.

I have written frequently about the importance and meaning of such events. For example:

A workshop as annual ritual (2019) (link here) — Photo essay on the 2019 annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network, held at Columbia University in New York City.

A short speech in Rome (2019) (link here) — Text of my speech praising our shared experiences of participating in the biennial International Congress on Law and Mental Health, delivered at the 2019 Congress in Rome.

Workplace Bullying University, “All Star” edition (2019) (link here) — Recounting experiences at an enhanced edition of the Workplace Bullying Institute’s intensive training seminar, hosted by Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie in San Francisco, CA.

Dr. Edith Eger’s “The Choice”: On trauma and healing (2017) (link here) — I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Edith Eger, noted trauma therapist, author, and Holocaust survivor, at a conference sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California.

North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems (2016) (link here) — Report on a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada.

Conferences as community builders (2015) (link here) — Touting the many benefits of the 2015 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Atlanta, Georgia, co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology.

With these events and so many others, I could tell story after story about gaining meaningful, lasting connections and insights.

Thus, it is with a heavy heart that I see so many conferences being cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. I don’t disagree with these decisions; quite the contrary. Because this virus is very contagious and has life-threatening health impacts, I reluctantly believe they are the right moves.

Zoom to the rescue?

Can Zoom and other online conferencing platforms fill the void?

Some event organizers are moving their programs online, and I hope they turn out well. Video conferencing technology is way ahead of where it was just a few years ago. It is possible to hold genuinely interactive exchanges via these options.

But these platforms cannot deliver true alternatives to the fortuitous sidebar conversations, meals, and coffee meet-ups that are often the stuff of future projects and new associations. Great things can hatch from these more informal interactions. Online “chat rooms” simply do not provide the same space.

Return to “normal”?

For now, the prospect of hopping onto airplanes, staying in hotels, and sitting in crowded classrooms and meeting rooms understandably won’t appeal to many people, nor should it. I am saddest for newer scholars and practitioners in so many fields who have not yet enjoyed the enriching experiences that I have had over the years and who may be denied them for at least the better part of the coming year. 

As for the future, so much depends on advancements in public health and medicine. Hopefully, travel and large face-to-face meetings will become safe again sooner than later. Then maybe we’ll see a return to the kinds of gatherings that can change lives and create communities.

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