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Will we miss academic conferences?

June 8th, 2020 by Graham Attwell
event, auditorium, conference

crystal710 (CC0), Pixabay

I liked Jess Cartner Morley’s article ‘The fashion show is over: what I have learned from twenty years of catwalks’ in the UK Guardian newspaper this morning.  The fashion editor says:

There are no real-life catwalks this season, with the first all-digital London fashion week kicking off on Friday, and online-only events scheduled for Paris and Milan next month. Most probably no physical shows for the rest of the year, with September’s fashion weeks looking unlikely. And after that, who knows? Will social distancing and recession kill the catwalk for ever?,…….

But I will really, really miss fashion shows. They have brought me so much joy. My entry to fashion week coincided with the moment the catwalk was evolving from its second half of the 20th-century form – a chic but rule-bound, elite, inward-focused parade that served a clique of editors and buyers – into a stadium-sized pop cultural carnival.

This seems a remarkable similarity to the academic conference. When some twenty five years ago I started going to such conferences, they were very serious. Even getting a paper accepted was a hard business. And then there were discussants also taking their role seriously. There was one Emeritus professor who used to turn up a particular conference every year and if he attended a session at which you were presenting you had to be worried. But the funding driven demand for ever more publications and the resulting plethora of new journals and conferences catering for this need has turned academic conferences if not into stadium sized cultural carnivals but certainly large arena sized. And although the social events are better than ever I am not convinced the quality of many conferences has improved. Neither does inclusion seem to have been a major consideration. Most participants in conferences at least at an international level are dependent on grant funding from their university and in many cases that has been in short supply in recent years especially for young and emerging researchers.

Will social distancing and recession kill the academic conference for ever. I don’t think so. But they are under yet more pressure in terms of the cost both in terms of money but also the environment. True: some conference organizers don’t have the knowledge and experience to run online conferences, True too that some online conferences – trying to copy the face to face event have failed perhaps to present such a compelling vision of what an online conference could be like. But others – for instance Alt-C who already have a great deal of experience of organizing online events – have nee superb (Alt-C even managed a fine Karaoke social online). As we become more experienced I am sure we can find new (and better ways) of ‘doing’ conferences. This might include looking at what period of time they take place over, it might include moving away for just paper presentations (basically lecturing) to a real discussion over the key ideas and findings being presented.

This summer I am taking part in two online conferences. For both I could not justify paying the full face to face fee plus flights and accomodation, neither would I have been enthusiastic at yet more travel. So to paraphrase Jess Cartner Morley: I’ll be binge-watching the next season of academic onferences from here, at home on my laptop. And I can’t wait.

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