It’s been a lonely year for many of us. For me, the first UK Lockdown coincided with the beginning of a year of research leave which should have enabled me to travel, visit archives, and above all, network. In the end, I spent most of the year in one room (where I am now), and found myself completely drained of the go-getting spirit which would have been required to actively network in the new, online format. In the first year of the pandemic, I attended a few online conferences as a listener, but often struggled to stay focussed after about the first 15 minutes. I came to feel despondent about the future of Zoom conferences over the next few years, as it’s so important for my work that I can meet and connect with other scholars in what is, for me, a new field.
This week, all that changed.
I participated as a speaker in not one, but two online events. Both were so enriching and stimulating that I am now convinced that the online conference is better than the in-person conference. If you struggle to focus at online events, fear them, or worry that they might ruin the joys of academic exchange in the future, please read on. I have some suggestions based on the two excellent events I attended this week . I’ll call them Conference 1 and Conference 2.
For context, Conference 1 was big, global, and pretty private (only speakers were allowed to attend). It had about 30+ participants in it at any one time, it lasted 2 days, and it was scheduled in the afternoons and evening (UK time) to allow people to dial in from all over the world. Conference 2 was much smaller: a panel of 8 speakers, open to attendance from the public, who could not be seen, but could post in the Q&A function to ask questions or make points. Both events were run using Zoom. I’m going to tell you what I loved about these conferences, and how they convinced me that the online conference is the way of the future.
- Pre-circulating papers to all attendees before the conference itself was probably the best aspect of Conference 1. Though it took me several days to read through all the papers (and even then, I had to skip or skim read a few), it felt like being in a special book club where everyone was obsessed with the same niche interest as me. (Yay!) Having the papers to read also meant that I got a lot more out of them. I could look up references, highlight key points, and re-read complex sections that, if read aloud, would probably have eluded me. And even better, all participants now have something more-or-less ready to send to a journal. What’s not to love?
- Both conferences understood the importance of strict moderation. In Conference 1, we had only 2 minutes to present a summary of our paper, and anyone who waffled on for two long at that point or subsequently was politely asked by the moderator to round it up. In some ways, it’s easier to control wafflers online than it is in person. We are all familiar with Zoom fatigue, and nobody wants to be that person taking up too much screen time. If someone does, however, they can always be muted! Or even removed altogether! I wish I could have done that so easily at one conference I organised in the past, where someone showed up just to drink the free booze and ask inappropriate questions of the speakers.
- The chat function can make group discussion more inclusive. In the past, some in-person events have adopted a sign language for Q&A sessions, to show whether what you want to say is a follow-up question, a new question, or a comment. (See point three on this list of chairing suggestions by the British Philosophy Association – thanks Rey Conquer of Expanding German Studies for showing me this). It is even easier to show what kind of point you want to make in an online conference. You can write ‘Sarah, new comment’ in the chat, and the moderator then has a record of the order in which people raise their points or questions, and can decide whom to call on when. This means that conversations can be run more efficiently, following one topic through to the end rather than going backwards and forwards between topics. It also means that nobody gets to call out without being unmuted or invited by the moderator, so the group doesn’t get dominated by the more confident speakers. (And remember, hecklers can be ejected!)
- Break times are actual breaks when you are dialling in from home. You can make yourself a snack, go outside for a breather, or do some yoga stretches… all without the fear of being thought unsociable. In an in-person conference, on the other hand, I would always feel pressured to use the breaks to connect with people. Obviously this has its advantages too, but over the course of the day this pressure builds up and leaves my brain feeling over-saturated. At an in-person conference, I usually have to resort to too much caffeine and/or alcohol if I want to make it through dinner. Conferencing from home was so much easier on the body. I even lay down at one point with my camera turned off (I’m pregnant, so it’s allowed), when I found myself feeling too drained to sit up any more. In an in-person setting, I might have had to leave the room altogether, which would have meant missing out.
- Finally, conferencing online can help all of us to reduce our carbon footprint. There’s no reason to fly around the world for a two-day event when that event can be run so much better online. As this recent article by some of the most well-known scholars in Genocide Studies makes out, it is actually unconscionable for academics concerned with past and present humanitarian crises to ignore our own complicity in the planetary crisis that is unfolding as we speak. If it’s so easy to shift our conferences to Zoom, surely this should become the new normal.
I do, of course, recognise that online conferences pose greater challenges to academics with children, especially during lockdowns when those children are stuck at home. Personally, I had the problem of how to sufficiently walk my dog, given only 20 minute breaks between panels in a conference that lasted essentially all day. But I think these are issues that parents and dog-owners can, hopefully, find better ways of dealing with as we move out of the pandemic. After all, surely it’s easier to find someone else to care for the kids/dog for just one day while we work from home, than it would be if we also had to factor in travel and perhaps an overnight stay in another town or country? I guess I’ll figure this out when my own child arrives.
Overall, then, I am encouraged that the online conference is the way of the future. We can make our exchanges of ideas more inclusive, more efficient, and more sustainable for our bodies and planet by moving our conferences online.