Alas, on this Earth, ISA canceled its 2020 conference, and this year’s meetings are virtual. I cannot reject the hypothesis that the pandemic will not end until ISA returns to its traditional cold-weather conferences.
In this year of pandemic, academics have been congregating virtually. I have observed or participated in multiple online conferences and speaker series. There are decided upsides to them — but the costs are also becoming harder to bear.
Let’s start with the benefits, which are quite substantial. The biggest upside of virtual conferences is their relative efficiency. Meeting online means that no one has to block out the extra time to get on a plane and travel somewhere and possibly cope with jet lag. That is time that can be devoted to other activities.
The financial savings are also significant. Before the pandemic multiple graduate students, junior scholars and scholars in poorer countries complained about the cost of getting to and staying in Honolulu, for example. Virtual conferences have inequalities because of differing levels of Internet access and the like, but in comparison with real-world conferences, those inequalities are smaller. This enables a wider participation of scholars. This summer, I will be co-convening my own virtual conference featuring academics from four continents. The cost will be a fraction of that of an in-person conference.
With all that said, the benefits of in-person conferences should not be dismissed. The principal benefit is focus. The virtue of traveling to a conference is that the rest of one’s daily life is temporarily suspended. The real-time obligations of teaching, office hours, committee work or even grocery shopping no longer apply. This does allow one to focus on the conference material more. With virtual conferences, however, these obligations persist.
Time zones are another issue. Jet lag is not fun, but trying to wrangle a conference across five or six time zones has its inconveniences as well. It leads to panels that start at 8 a.m. or 10 p.m. to accommodate everyone. On Tuesday, I convened a panel that required Russian colleagues to be awake at 2 a.m. their time. It is simply impossible to hold an all-day or even half-day event in this context.
Furthermore, as I noted in February, the benefits of spontaneous interaction cannot be replicated on Zoom. I miss bumping into colleagues at larger conferences and catching up. I miss interacting with them during coffee breaks and meals, which are often where the most stimulating ideas are born. Zoom fatigue also decreases the likelihood of attending other panels beyond my own.
Even as some countries approach coronavirus herd immunity, it will take years for other countries. Virtual conferences (or at least partial virtual participation) will be a feature of academic life for the medium term. Indeed, Zoom teaching might also mean that conference attendees will be expected to keep up with their schedules at home.
I hope that these virtual obligations do not become the norm, however. The benefits of schmoozing with colleagues in a more informal setting might be hard to quantify. That does not make those benefits any less real.