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11/01/2020

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Meh to Conferences

The sad truth from my perspective is that conferences are so rarely beneficial in assisting me with my ideas or the paper at hand. They often spark additional ideas in me (most of which never come to fruition mind you), but more often than not, the comments I receive are only rarely helpful.

The benefit of conferences in my mind is two-fold: 1) They permit me to chat with colleagues in the field and get my name more known; 2) They permit me to break up my routine and ultimately, motivate me.

I can't see online conferences doing what I need them to do to a sufficient extent. I've largely stopped going to conferences unless invited or unless they are workshop-style where papers are distributed in advance.

First-gen grad

As a first generation graduate student and PhD from a low income background, getting to conferences were always difficult. My grad program only reimbursed the cost of conferences afterwards and with little income or family resources, attending a conference in the first place was often impossible.

So, online conferences are a huge opportunity for someone in my position. I think this will become a bigger issue for many with the fallout of the pandemic and its effect on the job market.

non-US graduate

As someone who received very little to no funding for conference travel, I welcome the shift to online. I managed to learn about quite a few new developments in the fields I'm interested in by attending talks that got moved to zoom. While there are drawbacks to presenting my work in an online conference, having to do so without covering travel costs from my own pocket is a considerable advantage.

This is even more so for scholars from countries having to undergo complicated visa procedures to attend in-person events. In the past I had to cancel a conference talk because the acceptance note came too late for me to start the visa application procedure (I should mention that this is a rare situation for people of my nationality, but not so for other academics). When I mentioned this in a conversation with academics who were Western Europe/US citizens, they admitted never having thought about it, so I suspect neither have the organizers. I don't remember seeing this issue covered in discussions on diversity in philosophy (though I did for other academic fields).

Finally, as someone experiencing a certain level of social anxiety which is typically exacerbated in academic conference setting, I find conferences without 'informal' socialization less straining on my mental health. Same goes for the possibility to type questions.

Assistant Professor

I appreciate Helen's post and the responses thus far to it. I agree that conferences are problematic from an environmental sustainability standpoint (getting on that flight does so much more harm than all the good I can do being vegetarian, recycling, conserving resources in my home, etc.) and also from an economic standpoint (arguably the people who benefit most from the networking as students and early career scholars are most likely to not have sufficient funding for conference travel). The socializing part of conferences can be both beneficial and risky (a cocktail reception at a conference hotel might not feel safe to all potential participants).

Right now online conferences might feel "acceptable but inferior" - yet we are still in a learning phase about how to optimize online experiences. At at time when many of us feel isolated, not being able to travel to a conference might feel like a particularly acute loss of the networking, socializing/motivation that Meh to Conferences noted are often the best parts of them.

But I would like to imagine that we get better at online conferencing, and re-imagine them in creative ways, so that we actually get constructive feedback on work, and learn things about the works in progress of our colleagues. Right now they are inferior, but could they become superior to in person? I think it is possible.

A few suggestions:
1. Protect online conference time as though you are in fact "out of the office" or "out of town" such that you are NOT trying to respond to routine work inquiries/hold synchronous online classes/etc.
2. Consider finding one thing about each presentation you watch online and emailing the presenter a follow up question or suggestion. This is a way to connect over the work, for the presenter to get feedback, and to recreate often happens after a panel or presentation: the conversation continues in the hall or at the reception and this is where feedback might be most meaningful and helpful.
3. Conference organizers could get creative about trying out different models of presentation rather than the standard presentation followed by Q&A. Maybe moderated discussions among several people whose projects intersect would be fruitful, or more work-shopping of papers than presentations. Perhaps more pre-reading and small group discussions. And maybe loosely structured conversation time around an idea or activity to motivate networking and more general exchange of ideas.
4. Fill out conference evals to let organizers know what worked and what didn't and make and specific suggestions about how to improve in the future.

Sergio Tenenbaum

So far all online conferences/talks I've been to (considered going) were hosted in Zoom or a similar platform. Perhaps some of the social aspects and quasi-informal aspects can be provided by platforms that are better designed for this purpose (such as https://gather.town/). It makes the conference more expensive, but perhaps a more acceptable alternative (even if not a perfect replacement) for in-person conferences.

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