As editors of Conference Inference and researchers who are passionate about studying conferences, we have been watching the effects of COVID-19 – and the associated policies designed to control the spread of the virus – on the conferences industry and on the academic profession. There has perhaps never been such an important moment to track the developments in conferences. However, we have both alternated between feverishly pinging tweets to each other about conference cancellations and concerned delegates, and just struggling to live this moment out as people. Even just penning this response has been a challenge as we have felt weighed down with the uncertainty of it all. However, since we aim for Conference Inference to serve as a space for critical commentary on conferences, we thought we should at least try to express something about what this global health crisis means for conferences – and what our intentions are for this blog during this period.
The role of conferences in the pandemic
Conferences were some of the first activities to be cancelled as COVID-19 spread across international borders. Conferences were identified as risky events because these gatherings involve large numbers of people and often facilitate long-distance connections. Indeed, some conferences have already been identified as sites of transmission. Alongside this, concerns have circulated about the future viability of academic associations and learned societies, many of whom operate their conferences at cost rather than for profit, and who have therefore made significant financial losses from the last-minute cancellations (for more on this, see here). Other discourses have circulated about the readiness of conference providers to transfer their conferences to virtual formats when association members who are dis/abled and who have caring responsibilities have clamoured for years for more virtual provision (see thread).
Uncertainties have also abounded, particularly for precarious and early career academics, who are unable to get refunds on travel arrangements, or who have missed out on crucial job seeking opportunities, or who are unsure whether a paper that was accepted for a cancelled conference can still count for job application purposes. In yet another strand, convention centres are being reconfigured as hospitals and university conference caterers are providing food for students stuck in their dorms.
We’re in a global pandemic – why still think about conferences?
In a global health crisis where people are gravely ill and dying, and others losing their livelihoods and homes, it may seem inappropriate to offer commentary on conferences.
Conferences, as we have previously discussed on this blog, are often derided as being an unnecessary and pointless luxury, and this is certainly a moment where this discourse surfaces – ‘how can you be worrying about a conference in the middle of all this?!’
However, we do consider that there are important considerations in the midst of the pandemic. From an economic perspective, academic conferences bring year-round business to locations which otherwise depend on seasonal business, enabling the events sector to offer more continuous employment to the myriad of staff who work in the industry. Furthermore, conferences are often held in locations where the hospitality and events sector is an important feature of the post-industrial landscape, meaning that conferences provide important sources of local employment. Conferences are important places for related companies to garner business, such as book and journal publishers. They are also locations where jobs are informally and indeed formally advertised and even secured. And for many academics who are isolated in their institutions, be it politically, in terms of discipline, or identity (or all three), conferences provide intellectual lifelines and indeed vital spaces for knowledge to circulate and academic careers to develop.
Has anything changed? Will anything change?
Perhaps we depend too much on conferences for various functions of academia – networking, formation of collaborations, stimulus for publications, development of reputations, enhancement of CVs and promotion applications, job-seeking and head-hunting, testing of ideas, playing and socialising… Indeed as Conference Inference editors, we have written and invited guest contributors to write about the exclusionary and flawed nature of conferences-as-usual. We have published posts which challenge academics to rethink conferences in relation to the impact on climate change. We have also had an ongoing focus on how conferences are exclusionary for many different groups and in particular in relation to academics with caring responsibilities. For many who struggle to attend conferences, this year they will not miss having to make tough choices or the FOMO experience of sitting at home, watching conferences unfold on social media.
Indeed, many of us may hope that the experiences of this pandemic will lead to changes in the nature of conferences. Perhaps more will take place online, perhaps more will be local and perhaps international travel will be undertaken with more conscience. Perhaps those who struggle to attend conferences will be less disadvantaged in terms of exposure and career progression, and maybe other means will surface to provide for the functions that conferences have played. We and others have argued that conferences are in many different ways unsustainable in their current form, and that a radical rethink is necessary. The global jolt of this pandemic may be the reorientation that was needed.
However, we would also caution that academics withdrawing from conferences would not be without severe knock-on effects for an industry which has grown up around them, and upon which many who are less privileged than academics depend for livelihoods. Secondly, we would also express caution about utopian visions of a conference-free future – or at least a future where conferences play a reduced role – as the playing field of academia will still be uneven. When restrictions associated with the pandemic are relaxed, there will as ever be some academics left reeling, their lives and careers in tatters, and others straining to get out of the starting blocks into the new, amended academic race.
In short, then, a time for hope and – where possible – radical rethinking, but with caution.
Continuing with Conference Inference
As noted above, as editors of Conference Inference we have had to make a decision within our humble but now fairly well established corner of knowledge production about how to react to this crisis. We have discussed how we feel when we see others posting about their publications and achievements which are unrelated to the pandemic, and which at times come across futile and ill-timed. We have also discussed how everything seems to now have to refer to the virus in some way, and how sometimes it is refreshing to come across something unrelated but interesting – a welcome distraction. With conferences, it is impossible to discuss them without a coronavirus caveat: ‘of course they aren’t happening this year, but…’, ‘well who knows if they will happen again in the same way, but…’
For our blog, we have decided to continue, for now at least, publishing posts in the same fashion (once a fortnight) over the next few months, particularly as we have posts in the pipeline and do not want to waste people’s hard work in writing for us. However, we will offer all pipeline contributors a chance to comment on the relevance of the virus to their posts, so as to at least recognise that conferences are not carrying on as usual.
Special call for guest posts
We would also like to offer readers the opportunity to contribute guest posts to the blog during this period. We are aware of the recent growth of interest in conferences, particularly as many people have realised how much they took for granted that their conference plans would come to fruition (while many others noted that their chances of attending were as slim as ever).
In view of the many thought-provoking discussions on social media, we would like to issue a special call for guest posts during this time, in order to continue our role as a key critical voice in relation to conferences. While many of us are struggling to write and think during this period, we are also aware that others would welcome the chance to put some of their thoughts into writing. If you are interested in contributing, please read our call for guest posts and then contact us if you would like to propose a post.
On a final note…
Finally, we want to recognise that this moment is a journey for us too, and we have both collectively scored out planned conferences in our diaries, including the complex travel itinerary we had planned that would bring the two of us into the same room for some much-needed in-person friendship and thinking. We are trying to chart the developments while also living with the uncertainty and instability of the current moments. We hope this statement will have helped to clarify why we are continuing with the blog through uncertain times, and we hope that readers and potential contributors will join the conversation if and when it is useful in thinking through this pandemic and the different ways it is playing out across different locations and social structures.
Thank you and take care.
Emily and Jamie
Emily F. Henderson (@EmilyFrascatore) and James Burford (@jiaburford) are the Editors of Conference Inference.
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