Is it time to abandon in-person academic conferences? or “Who’s kind of meh on going to APSA?”

Jul 20, 2021

The Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association is coming up in late September. One of the panels that I’m on is virtual. The others are in-person. And I’m just not feeling it.

It’s not that I’m wary of traveling. I’m vaccinated. My family is vaccinated. My friends and colleagues are vaccinated. My wife and I are already talking about ‘where we’re going to go first’ in terms of serious trips.

I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of APSA. I attend irregularly. ISA and EISA are more my jam. But I usually have a pretty decent time, especially when the conference is in a good location. This year it’s in Seattle. I like Seattle. It’s a good place to hold an academic conference.

Judging from the completely non-random sample that is my various direct-message inboxes, emails, and social media, I’m not alone. There are a lot of us that are looking at APSA and thinking “is this really worth it?”

So what’s going on?

Some of my own reluctance probably stems from mild agoraphobia. I’m pretty introverted by disposition, and over a year of COVID-ing hasn’t helped. I assume I’m not the only one. But what it comes down to, I think, is that in-person conferences – especially large in-person conferences – seem like a lot of effort. Especially given that the online panel experience is at least acceptable. In some ways, it’s better. The transaction costs are certainly much lower.

ISA in New York, 12 BT (photo credit: Dan Nexon)

What about sidebars, meetups, and gatherings? I’d wager that it doesn’t take long for most scholars to figure out these are the real purpose of large academic conferences. There’s some loss there. My experience from ISA is that merely the fact of the virtual conference was enough to facilitate televideo meetings – and not only with other panelists.

ISA used Slack worked as “common room,” which helped make sure the trains ran on time but was otherwise pretty meh. This underscores the major drawback of most virtual conferences: they don’t allow for spontaneous conversations or snowballing social interactions. That’s a major drawback for junior scholars – and especially graduate students – as it forecloses perhaps the major mechanism through which one develops a broader professional network.

Most of my friends are academics. I met most of them at conferences. While some of the process has shifted over to social media, it is those “wait, don’t I know you from Twitter” moments that help to actualize those ties – that make them, as the jargon puts it, multiplex. There’s also the matter of getting to know subject-area editors at presses, which also becomes more daunting without a exhibit hall to wander and the excuse to set up a meeting.

… virtual interactions are always going to involve higher cognitive loads than in-person ones; spontaneous meetups and sidebars will be more difficult.

Some of this can be compensated for online, especially if cocktail-hour simulators – platforms with spatial components such as virtual conversation circles – further mature and more conferences adopt them. But it isn’t going to be the same. For the foreseeable future, virtual interactions are always going to involve higher cognitive loads than in-person ones; spontaneous meetups and sidebars will be more difficult. And unless we can start using travel allowances – such as they are – for unofficial work sessions, many collaborations will still need conferences.

What do do? Well, over at the American Philosophical Association blog, Helen De Cruz (St. Louis University) has an interesting proposal (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld).: alternate in-person and online meetings, but with the latter largely in the form of smaller conferences. Dr Cruz’s overarching argument for reducing in-person conventions focuses on the most important consideration – that is, carbon footprint. But it covers a fair amount of ground, including differential how in-person events generate their own ‘network access’ inequities.

De Cruz also notes that concerns about ‘network access’ (my phrasing) cuts both ways:

In-person events organized at large convention hotels are less accessible for a wide range of philosophers: those with disabilities, chronic illness, social anxiety, underemployed people without travel funds, people with caring responsibilities. This, by itself, constitutes sufficient reason to keep one or two divisional meetings a year remote. Solving those accessibility concerns with a hybrid format seems logistically complex, given that the APA does not even have the funds to put a projector in each room, and would give an impoverished experience for people who choose to attend remotely. Leveling the playing field by going fully remote seems to me the way to go.

For social connection and a different experience, we can still keep one or two in-person events. The APA would in that respect fall more in line with other large professional academic organizations such as the American Academy of Religion or the Cognitive Science Society.

Keeping one or two APA divisional meetings remote would also drastically reduce our carbon footprint. The frequent flying that academic events require has a heavy carbon footprint, and some events are more carbon-heavy than others. For example, suppose you have a speaker fly in to give a departmental talk. In those cases, there is just one person who needs to make the trip by plane; everyone else attending typically lives close by. But a large regional conference has several hundred people flying in. Increasingly, for some academics frequent flying has become morally costly, and constitutes a form of moral injury.

What do you think? Which tradeoffs do you feel most acutely? Is it time to do away with in-person conferences, split the difference, mix and match in some other way, or get back to business as usual? How much does it matter if COVID-19 – and other future globalized diseases –become endemic, disrupting travel in unpredictable ways? I know that I remain up in the air, to use an inappropriate turn of phrase, on these questions.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.