The Future of Conferences

Why would we do that anymore?

Like everyone, I have been thinking about, and wondering about, what life will be like post-Covid. I mean that in both the broad sense, but also in the sense of what it will look like for us as teachers.

There are many sub-topics on this branch, but today, I just want to focus on what the future looks like for conferences. In my teaching position, I typically attend 3-6 conferences a year, and offer (or am asked to give) a presentation at around half of them. I found, over the last few years, that I was getting a bit tired of all the travel, but it was always good to see old friends and colleagues, and learn something new. If I could get a local museum visit in between conference presentations, I always enjoyed that. In San Francisco, SFMOMA is my favorite, and the Milwaukee Art Museum with the gorgeous Santiago Calatrava building by lake Michigan is always thought-provoking and inspiring.

All of that, and so much else, shut down in mid-March of last year. Today marks one year exactly from my last in-person class. My last flight was returning from giving a talk in Salem, Oregon on March 6th. Since then, there have been numerous conferences I have attended, but all of them have been online in some form, mostly delivered via Zoom meetings or Zoom webinars.

Having made the shift, one can look back on the travel to conferences with fresh eyes. Did we really fling ourselves in large aluminum tubes around the country, at considerable expense and environmental impact, to go to these gatherings even after the technology for remote conferencing was robust? We did. Are the online conferences working pretty darn well? They are. But what is missing? It feels like something is missing.

I am not talking about conferences that involve display of physical items, like cars or boats. Those shows likely must go on in the physical world (as soon as they can do so safely). I am really just addressing conferences where ideas are exchanged, like teaching conferences. Having been in my field for almost a quarter century, I find that I am happy if I learn one new thing at a conference. It seems like a long way to go (wherever it is) for one new thing.

I had a cynical colleague once who, early in my career, explained to me that conferences were not for exchanging ideas - or even learning one new thing - they were only for “readjusting the pecking order” in each field. Even if that cynical view is true, the reality we all know - and have been reminded of in spades over the last year - is that humans need contact with other humans. It is not easy to meet new people on a Zoom conference, or introduce yourself in a quickly scrolling chat box. We transmit so much information in body language, in smiles, in communal laughter - none of which is quite the same over Zoom. It is also hard to have a meal together, which for thousands of years has been an essential way - across cultures - that humans gather and get to know each other.

And yet. The considerable inconvenience of getting packed, getting to the airport, getting through security, getting assigned the dreaded middle seat, getting off the plane feeling rather queasy (or is that just me?), getting a cab or Lyft, getting a hotel room, getting your stuff unpacked, getting to registration for your badge... As compared to the convenience of opening your laptop and joining a discussion or hosted gathering in your home... It is no comparison. And the cost - add up everyone attending and you get a substantial number - where does that come from, students? And the environmental impact from all those flights is substantial. It is hard not to wonder:

Do I really need to be here and eat this stale blueberry muffin with sugary crunchy bits on top just to get through the next session?

So - what is the future of conferences? This question is particularly interesting to me because I am hosting a second conference in late September to which 160 teachers and administrators attended the first in September of 2019. We have announced that the conference will be in person. But not everyone will likely feel comfortable traveling by then, and others will be short on travel money, and others will have delighted in the convenience of the online conferences they attended over the last year. One wants to cater to everyone, but putting on a three-day conference in any one form is a massive undertaking, much less three versions of the same conference.

Although I am not sure I love this answer, but being an advocate of hybrid education as I have been here and here - it seems to me that hybrid is the future here as well. Every conference will have an in-person element and an online element. This existed in a form pre-pandemic: for those conferences that were entirely in person, but taped all presentations and posted them afterwards. Perhaps now we will do that, but also have people presenting remotely into a room with people in attendance (we had one example of that last time), and we are thinking we might have a fully streaming day or half-day before the in-person conference takes place.

But we will draw the line at sending each remote attendee a stale muffin. Those things have more calories than they are worth.


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Letters of Recommendation

Having mentioned the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), I can recommend a virtual tour on Google Arts & Culture, which you will find here. I also mentioned the Milwaukee Museum of Art, and their virtual tour can be found here - also recommended.


Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a question: What were your favorite cities to travel to for a conference pre-Covid?

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