Conference Inference 4th anniversary post: Blogging conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic

In this post, Jamie and Emily look back at the goings-on of Conference Inference during 2020. We share what it was like to blog about conferences over a time where events and the people behind them have been significantly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We also discuss some of our Conference Inference resolutions for 2021.

Blog editing in our thinking hats

There are so many takes on what 2020 has felt like that it’s difficult to know where to begin an anniversary post like this. Often pieces which collect reflections on the year that was begin with an almighty groan about words that many of us have become too used to – like ‘coronavirus’, ‘social distancing’, ‘superspreader’ and ‘zoom’ – as well as words that have tended toward overuse such as ‘unprecedented’ and ‘new normal’. While we might groan along with these writers, it is challenging to try and think about conferences in 2020 without many of these words.

This anniversary post is an annual fixture on the Conference Inference calendar. Each year we like to take a breather over the Christmas holidays and come back to the blog with some thoughts to share on the adventures of the blog over the past year and the aspirations we have for the one yet to come. In this post we return to some of the aspirations we set for ourselves for 2020 to see how we are getting on with them, we share a little bit about what it was like to blog about conferences during the current pandemic, and we pull back the curtain to reveal a little about the blog analytics for the year.    

Checking in: Our aspirations for Conference Inference 

We typically start our anniversary post by returning to the goals we identified when we began the Conference Inference blog in 2017. We think of this as a sort of touching base and also an interesting experiment that allows us to track how our thinking may be changing over time. 

We made the decision to collect conference inferences because we saw the need for more analytical and creative thinking about conferences. We noticed that much writing on conferences was produced in an orbit of ‘advice’, and while this is useful for introducing newcomers to some of the conventions of conferencing, it doesn’t tend to push at the limits of how we think about, organise and enact ourselves at conferences. It was our hope to tug accounts of conferencing in a slightly more scholarly direction. 

We hoped to both bring together accounts of interesting work that we knew must be being produced about conferences, and to entice scholars who may not have thought about conferences yet to bring their expertise to the subject. It was also our goal to bring together conversations that may otherwise not come into contact because of national or disciplinary differences. As we have tended to the blog over the past few years, we have learned a lot. We now understand our work as contributing to a nascent field of inquiry that we call “Critical Conferences Studies”, a cousin of both “Critical Events Studies” and “Critical Academic Mobilities Research”. We also now know that research about conferences isn’t ‘missing’ per se, it is more that it is highly dispersed and disconnected. Often, researchers write about conferences within a particular disciplinary niche, sometimes without seeing them as broader phenomena connected to higher education and knowledge production.  

Additionally, as we have said many times before: one of our primary goals in founding the blog was simply to work together more! Having met at a conference as doctoral students we wanted to invent reasons to continue thinking together. We landed on conferences as a shared object of inquiry. 

Conferences were something that Emily had spent much time thinking about during her PhD research which was titled: Eventful gender: an ethnographic exploration of gender knowledge production at international academic conferences (see here, see link to Emily’s book here). Jamie hadn’t thought as much about conferences, but he saw how they could be interesting windows to peer through in order to understand concerns he was interested in like intellectual work, scholarly becoming and knowledge production. We both agreed that more recognition ought to be paid to academic events and the mobilities they induce. 

Happily, Conference Inference has enabled us to work together in an ongoing way. We have built off the work we do on the blog, collaborating together on a number of pieces about conferences. Last year, the special issue in Gender and Education that we guest-edited came out: Thoughtful gatherings: gendering conferences as spaces of learning, knowledge production and community; we co-wrote an entry on conferences for the Sage Encyclopedia of Higher Education; and we wrote about conferences in a collaborative piece (with Tseen Khoo, Helena Liu and Z Nicolazzo) on the impact of Sara Ahmed’s work in Critical University Studies. We are just about to embark on writing a book together for the Routledge Insider Guides to Success in Academia series, which will be titled Making sense of academic conferences: Presenting, Participating and Organising. So, from our experience: friends who blog together also write together! 

Over time we have slowly settled into some processes that work for us in terms of the pace of getting blog posts out (more on this below), how we solicit and receive posts (lots of approaches via social media and from article alerts), and how we engage audiences via social channels like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (you can follow  Jamie and Emily on Twitter and/or follow our Facebook page).

A reflection back on 2020 

As we noted in our COVID-19 response, this has been a strange year to run a blog about conferences. As editors of the blog, we have tried to keep our ear to the ground and our eyes on our Twitter feeds to discern patterns and trends. Together, we have amassed an archive of cultural commentary on conferences and COVID-19 and it all lives in our DMs! 

The disruption to conferencing in 2020 seemed to open onto a complex affective scene. Some colleagues were relieved to cancel travel plans from what looked to be another too-busy year. Others may have felt delighted that they finally got access to events they would not have been able to participate in otherwise, perhaps tinged with disappointment that such accomodations couldn’t have been made sooner. Some colleagues felt disconnected, missed friends and colleagues, and longed for the personal and intellectual benefits of mobility. There were also colleagues who didn’t notice any difference at all, as conferences aren’t a routine part of their academic lives.  

Despite many conferences disappearing from our calendars, 2020 was also a time of much reflection on experimentation with what conferences are or could be. Numerous pieces have been written which call for rethinks – whether these are framed as radical departures or opportunities for improvement. We have also invited contributors to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on conferencing, including these posts by Joshua Porter & Fraser Raeburn, Britt Botti-Amell, Gail Morton and Ole B. Jensen. Each of these posts document experiments with ways of organising, being at, and thinking academic gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the blog, we have also participated in fora to debate these issues, including the AARE Professional and Higher Education SIG’s ‘Missing Conferences?’ event (see also this excellent summary by Agnes Bosanquet – the Slow Academic) and a Tweetchat on the future of academic conferences hosted by #VirtualNotViral. It is our view that there are many more discussions to have about the implications of COVID-19 on the future of conferences and events. 

Conference Inference in 2020: By the numbers 

The back end of WordPress (the blog-publishing system that we use) allows us to see lots of information about how people engage with Conference Inference. We can track levels of engagement with particular posts and pages, the countries our audience are clicking from, what search terms people use to find the blog, and what links people click through to, and so on. We even know that 7PM (GMT) is the most popular hour people engage with the blog, and that Thursdays are our best days! 

During 2020, we published 26 new posts, which met our aspiration to publish one post each fortnight. These 26 posts amounted to some 37,800 words, or an average of around 1400 words per post.  This is fairly consistent with the average words per post over the four years we have run the blog (though we aim for fewer!). 

Since the beginning of Conference Inference in January 2017, we have published 108 posts, the majority of which have been written by our fantastic community of guest contributors. Our most popular post (for the fourth year running!) was Sex and the Academic Conference. We can see the search terms that people use to find the post. Let us just say that we are happy to confirm that the conference remains a site of keen erotic interest! 

Our other top posts for the year were:

10. ‘Confer-ring’ at contemplative studies conferences: Conference ethnography in a time of COVID-19 (Mareike Smolka)

9. Conferencing “disabled style” (Nicole Brown)

8. Rethinking the Digital Conference in the Age of COVID-19 (Joshua Porter & Fraser Raeburn)

7. Conference regrets as an attendee, speaker or organizer (Xuemeng Cao)

6. Capturing the abstract: what ARE conference abstracts and what are they FOR? (James Burford & Emily F. Henderson)

5. Why do doctoral students attend conferences? (Omolabake Fakunle)

4. Discussing the Discussant – a Queer-ish Role? (James Burford and Emily F. Henderson) 

3. Are doctoral students missing conferences? An interview with Brittany Botti-Amell (Brittany Botti-Amell) 

2. Inclusive conferences: thoughts on why and how we can (and must) do better (Alice Chautard and Claire Hann)

See the list of top posts here.

Like the year before, most people found the blog through search engines, followed by Twitter and Facebook. For 2020, the top 10 countries where our audience is based were: USA, UK, Australia, Netherlands, India, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Philippines and France. 

Some resolutions for 2021

As we have been reflecting on blogging over 2020 we have been thinking about the kind of pace we want to live at this year. Over 2020 we kept up our regular blogging schedule of fortnightly posting, mostly thanks to the wonderful contributions of guest posters. However, over the last year or so we have seen other blogging colleagues like the Research Whisperer shift from a weekly publishing schedule to something more relaxed over the period of the pandemic (see their excellent post ‘Surviving’ here), and the Thesis Whisperer have moved from weekly, to bi-weekly, to monthly, and away from a community content model (see Inger’s excellent post ‘Winding down the Thesis Whisperer?’ here). Tapping into our own sense of how we have been feeling and reading our colleagues’ posts led us to question whether we too would like to experiment with a slightly slower pace. Given that in 2021 we will also be writing a book together, we want to keep ourselves feeling excited to play in the blog space rather than feeling burdened with the amount of work it generates. As such, we’ve decided that we’ll aim to move to a monthly publishing schedule, potentially moving to fortnightly if we receive a flurry of submissions. We won’t say no to excellent posts that come in, but we might send out a few less invitations in 2021. 

Thank you! 

This post marks a milestone: Conference Inference has turned four, and we have passed the 100 posts mark! This milestone is one we share, as our blog is based on a model of hosting the content of a community of contributors. We couldn’t have come this far without the generous contributions of many people. 

We would like to extend a big thank you to the following authors who wrote posts for Conference Inference in 2020: 

Ketaki Chowkhani; Toma Pustelnikovaite; David Clark; Brittany Botti-Amell; Mareike Smolka; Ole B. Jensen; Ashley Ng; Gail Morton; Omolabake Fakunle; Julia Hope; Nicole Brown; Joshua Porter & Fraser Raeburn; Claire Timperley, Kathryn Sutherland, Meegan Hall & Marc Wilson; Trudie Walters; Julie Mansuy; Josef Ploner; Emily Fekete; Kimberly Jamie; Sarah Anne Ganter; Alice Chautard & Claire Hann; Wade Kelly; and Xuemeng Cao.  

Thank you too to the audience that engages with, shares and writes to us about our posts. We look forward to sharing further inferences as 2021 unfolds.

James Burford (@jiaburford) and Emily F. Henderson (@EmilyFrascatore) are the editors of Conference Inference.

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

3 thoughts on “Conference Inference 4th anniversary post: Blogging conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic”

  1. “…one of our primary goals in founding the blog was simply to work together more!” – best reason for doing this. 🙂

    I just wanted to comment on the mighty effort of the Philippines. The Research Whisperer top countries for 2020 were USA, Oz, UK, Philippines and India. The Philippines has long stood out as a strong supporter of the Research Whisperer. They’ve held that fourth spot since 2017. I know that they are the 13th most populous country in the world (thanks, WorldOMeters), but I still think that they are doing a remarkably good job at reading academic blogs. 🙂

    Thanks for doing what you do, Jamie and Emily.


    1. Actually, Philippines and India drop down the list if you look at views per population. Then our top countries (after filtering out countries with less than 10,000 views) are: Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, UK, Singapore, Canada, Norway, Hong Kong, USA, Sweden, Netherland, Philippines…
      Surprisingly, the tail-end is Malaysia, South Africa, Germany, Spain, Kenya, Italy, France, Nigeria, Pakistan and India lucky last.

      If you put the outliers (countries with less than 10,000 views) back in, then Niue makes a surprising entry, just between Australia and New Zealand. Country of 1,626 people, and they have racked up 11 views. Impressive!

      Caveat emptor: These are all time stats, not yearly stats. Also, they are WordPress page views, so treat them with a bir grain of salt.


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