Of coronavirus and climate change: Zooming in on the future of academic and professional conferences

We’re about to go live with the Dec. 2020 Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop (https://www.humiliationstudies.org)

Last May (link here), I speculated about the future of academic and professional conferences in view of the unfolding pandemic. I opened by affirming how meaningful these gatherings can be:

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

I went on to acknowledge that the pandemic was forcing the cancellation of many events and the moving of others to online formats. Although I understood that platforms such as Zoom were making online conferences doable, I lamented the inherent limitations:

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.

Fifteen months later

Since posting that entry, I have participated in many online conferences, workshops, and seminars, with the events originating as close as Boston and as far away as India and Israel. I have been grateful for the opportunity to connect with colleagues and friends from around the world. Some of these interactions would not have occurred had the program been held in face-to-face settings. The travel times and costs would’ve been prohibitive.

However, I also was reminded over and again of the aforementioned limitations of such events. The informal chats and get togethers that are connective highlights of many academic and professional gatherings were sadly missing. Who knows what great ideas and future collaborations never materialized because we couldn’t chat over coffee or a meal?

Looking ahead

Well folks, like it or not, for at least three reasons, I think we’re going to be online for many of these events during the years to come.

Viral matters

First, this virus appears to be spinning off variants and mutations that will make travel planning an ongoing and earnest game of whack-a-mole (public health edition) for the foreseeable future. These realities are especially acute for conferences that attract an international constituencies.

For example, I’m currently helping to organize a global conference in France, scheduled for summer 2022. Let’s just say that a lot of folks are in a wait-and-see mode, even in terms of submitting panel and presentation proposals. Very recently, the European Union took the U.S. off of its safe travel list due to our current outbreak. Who knows what things will look like next year?

Air travel and climate change

Second, there’s the impact of air travel on climate change. Global aviation (including both passenger and freight) accounts for roughly 2 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. While this pales in comparison to the environmental impact of other modes of transportation (especially auto travel), commercial air travel — in particular — is disproportionately the province of people and businesses who can afford airline tickets.

I’m not suggesting that we should stop flying or shipping goods by air. But if people are going to fly, then let’s get the maximum bang for the buck. To me, that means prioritizing flights to maintain ties between families and friends, above all. I also think we need to value tourism, study abroad, and other travel purposes that enrich our lives.

In addition, I think we need to pick and choose between professional conference opportunities that require air travel carefully and wisely. On the one hand, piggybacking active participation in a favorite conference with seeing friends and family seems like a good use of a plane trip. By contrast, if one’s conference participation amounts to flying across the country to talk for 20 minutes on a panel and little else, then maybe it’s not a responsible expenditure of jet fuel.

Costs

Finally, there’s the matter of accessibility and affordability. Factoring in air fare, hotel room, registration fee, and daily expenses, a major conference can cost as much as a getaway vacation. For academics, especially, funding support for conference travel is unevenly distributed, to say the least.

Online conferences even the participation field a bit, notwithstanding their built-in limitations. Registration fees are often lower, and there are no plane tickets or hotel rooms to be booked. You can eat at home.

Of course, there’s a third conference or workshop possibility, and that’s a hybrid format that allows for both in-person and online participation. Unfortunately, the logistical nightmares from a planning standpoint make this an unrealistic option for most conferences, unless they’ve got oodles of money and first-rate, tech-equipped facilities and staff to go with them.

The professional benefits of high-quality, in-person conferences, workshops, and seminars with plenty of opportunities for informal interaction are significant, and thus I would hate to see these events disappear. For the time being, however, I think that we’re going to do a lot of our interacting online.

***

Some previous blog posts about conferences and workshops

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.

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