This November, the national American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature (AAR/SBL) meeting took place in Texas—San Antonio to be precise. Early on they announced that there would be a virtual option, which I selected. With the virtual option on the table I was happy to limit my travel time, even if it meant also limiting academic exposure just as I’m dissertating and eyeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet there was a moment when I started to second-guess that decision. For this school year I also have some responsibilities at the regional level, and the national meeting is a time to meet with and hear from leaders and representatives of other regions, in addition to connecting with scholars I tend to only see at this conference. In fact, there are some scholars from my own region whom I only see at the national event. As the dates got closer, I started to scan the program for virtual and in person meetings, comparing and contrasting the offerings, the benefits, and the costs. Most sessions I wanted to attend were offered virtually. The few sessions I would have wanted to attend I simply took note of, and (to be honest) I may or may not get around to following up on those notes. In the end I attended the conference virtually, just as the year before, and will simply have to work a little harder to connect with other individuals throughout the rest of the school year.

image: a large entryway in a conference center with a vertical sign left of center, directing conference goers with orange squares on a blue background.

But—Lord, have mercy—the decision-making process stinks. With events and conferences opening up, vaccine and masking policies more widespread (in most public arenas), the process of deciding whether or not to attend a conference in person feels exponentially more challenging. I say that as a childless, relatively healthy adult who does not live with anyone who is especially vulnerable.

Before the pandemic I only attended conferences where I was presenting or where I sought to develop academic community. Since my spouse and I have to cover most, if not all, expenses, I typically attend no more than two in a year. Once everything shifted online, suddenly more opportunities opened up. Last summer I was able to virtually attend Societas Liturgica “at” Notre Dame, and participate in a Lutheran conference at the invitation of a colleague friend. Last May we held our regional AAR/SBL conference online, and I had my first taste of moderating in a virtual space. It went fairly well, despite my limited expertise. (Why couldn’t that one person join the meeting after it started, even though I was looking for folks entering the waiting room? I have no idea.) I was starting to feel less isolated; like just about anything was possible—even when we couldn’t chat over coffee or share news over mid-afternoon snacks. Seeing familiar and friendly faces, even when I couldn’t say hello or wave across the room, is better than nothing at all.

And yet (blazing flash of the obvious), it isn’t the same. Conference networking is a thing; at times more significant than the scholarship presented. It is also very difficult to do in a virtual space. Those awkward times when a host would leave a Zoom room open for a few dozen folks to chat and say hello were painful to watch. To conserve bandwidth and not tax my little old laptop, my default has been to keep my video off more often than not. As someone who simply doesn’t like to show my face if I don’t have to, there are moments when online conferencing has been downright discouraging, even if they are counterbalanced with a constructive q&a exchange in the chat. There’s a different texture to the virtual space that, personally, I find very difficult to navigate. Besides, at the end of the day, my cat really does not care that I’ve just heard an especially thought-provoking presentation.

At this point in the pandemic I find myself wondering, what works well regarding online conferences, and what can we improve in order to make the most of both online and in-person meetings? Paralleling conversations around virtual church, I hear many folks talk about how necessary it will be to continue to maintain virtual channels for accessibility. This cannot be understated. Any organization committed to principles of knowledge-building across any/all borders (disciplinary, geographic, race/class/gender, neurodiverse) must provide channels for connecting going forward. And the tools we have now need to be adapted and utilized for such purposes.

I also asked my fellow WIT authors for their thoughts about online conferencing. Carolyn brought up another crucial point regarding the state of our planet and the impact of having to fly so often.

“In light of the climate crisis, I believe academia needs to carefully consider the ethics of inviting hundreds of researchers to fly to conferences to present their research – sometimes from great distances for only a few days. A growing number of academics are asking how we might organize conferences and share research in a more sustainable way, especially now that we have the tools to run online conferences effectively. For example, members of the American Philosophical Association have petitioned leadership to restructure their divisional meetings so that either one or two of the three divisional meetings is online each year. (Other helpful links: Flying Less in Academia: A Resource Guide and the Flying Less page.)”

Imagine that: taking our own scholarship seriously enough that we change certain habits and attempt to tread lighter on the planet. She then added this reflection, as well, about the difficulties of having to decide to go or not to go:

“As an underfunded graduate student, I have benefited a lot this year from being able to present my research at several online conferences at reduced prices, without any travel costs. I am supposed to present at an in-person conference in January, but I am beginning to feel uncomfortable about the risks of traveling in a pandemic right after the holidays, especially as I currently live with my aging parents. Although I was initially excited at the idea of being part of an in-person conference again, now I am wishing the organizers had decided to do it online so that I wouldn’t have to choose between presenting my research and taking on risk factors and travel costs.”

Like Carolyn, I had to choose whether or not I would attend a conference right after the holidays. It was originally slated for Toronto after having been cancelled altogether last year, but will be held in Kansas City, instead. Typically the annual meetings are not terribly large, which means that there are opportunities for rich conversations and proximity to senior scholars. Of course, the nature of the discipline (as with much of the academy) means that there are a number of older senior scholar types and others who have good reason to exercise abundant caution during this time. In my case, once the committee decided how and where the meeting would occur, it was not a difficult decision to make to sign up and attend in person—but I should note that’s due to two factors that pull in different directions. On the one hand, I am scheduled to present a dissertation chapter to my seminar, and to be welcomed into the guild as a full member; all positives. On the other hand I feel that not-so-subtle pressure at this time in my scholarly career to be present, to show up, no matter what.

At the end of the day, I recognize competing reactions within myself to questions of when to attend in person and when to attend virtually. I suspect that this will not magically change anytime soon. And as I think about possibilities for events and meetings in the future, I hope to remember this experience in all its contrariness.

What I have learned so far about online conferencing is this:

  • Seeing familiar faces is great, even when I don’t want to show my own;
  • It feels distant with no contact, no way to stop someone in the hallway, no leaning over to comment to a friend;
  • It feels intimate, to see someone’s home office, attic, or dining room, or wherever they’ve set up;
  • It feels safer to be apart, in light of community spread and varying levels of transmissibility;
  • It feels precarious, as a PhD candidate, not to participate more or somehow make oneself more ‘known’ to a community;
  • It is one more thing to schedule around, happening at early and late hours of the day, sometimes drawn out over multiple days;
  • It is sometimes the only certain thing on the calendar, as I continue writing and researching from home;
  • And, don’t get me started on Zoom dysmorphia.

2 thoughts

  1. I don’t have any actual answers to what you’re posing here, but I just wanted to comment two things about my own experience that can add to this conversation.

    First, I and my colleague are trying to put together a panel and looking for a chair/respondent for an in-person spring meeting. We have contacted several more senior colleagues whose research fits our area, but some have been unwilling to travel/participate in the in-person meeting due to the continued pandemic.

    Second, last spring the CTSA had a virtual networking option where we were all little dots on the screen and could jump into conversations. That was quite possibly the most awkward online experience I have ever had. I only participated in one of those networking sessions and only until I could talk with the person I wanted to say hi to. For an introvert, that was absolutely painful. It is much easier to join conversations in process in an in-person context than it is in a virtual space because you can’t hear what is being talked about until after you join.

    1. Elissa, thank you for sharing these! I have wondered about the experience of folks attempting to plan conferences and meetings during this time, and your first point illustrates some of those challenges. As for how to do informal conversations virtually–are academics especially at a disadvantage, considering how awkward we can be?? I mean, standing next to someone waiting for an opening is bad enough; how are we supposed to do that in a virtual space? I have seen the discord server used for events as a place to hold and organize conversations. Of course, it’s usually the same five people adding to the chat as you might find on facebook. But, it did help to frame out the individual zoom sessions.
      While writing this post, I was wrestling with the tension between simply the experience of attending conferences (and now having to decide when to go/when not to go), and parsing out what makes a conference meeting in the first place. And in the area of theology, broadly speaking, I notice an inherent tension between accessibility and cultivating (good) connections, which mirrors in many ways a similar tension within ecclesial discussions.

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