A Premature Return to Normal and In-Person Conferences

Last week I attended my first in-person conference since January 2020 when I attended the AIA-SCS annual meeting in Washington DC.

It was a surreal experience.

On Wednesday afternoon after I finished teaching for the day, I hopped in the car and drove to Eau Claire, Wisconsin to attend a regional history conference where I would be chairing one panel and presenting on another. Both the venue and the conference acknowledged the ongoing pandemic with signs requesting or requiring masks (depending on where one was at a given time) and seats conspicuously distributed about six feet apart around the presentation spaces. Most people abided by the mask guidelines, as far as I could tell, but this only served to make me more frustrated with those who weren’t whether or not they had the pretense of food or drink nearby.

How much I like in-person conferences under normal circumstances depends a lot on my headspace. I get quite nervous about public speaking and go through frequent bouts of imposter syndrome, but I also find these events invigorating. For every time I have stood awkwardly at a reception, I have made two friends by putting aside my hangups and just gotten into a conversation. After all, the attendees are (generally) there to make new contacts. Likewise, I am now at a place in my career where I can pull aside graduate students after a talk to give them positive reinforcement and suggestions much as was given to me a decade ago.

I have loved the accessibility that accompanied the pivot online during the pandemic, but there is a tradeoff. I have attended more conference than usual, as well as workshops hosted out of Winnipeg, Rio de Janeiro, Oxford, Chicago, Oregon, and Athens (to name just a few), but I have not found the virtual experience nearly as conducive to networking, at least as someone who was not already connected to the host networks.

In this respect, I found myself glad to be back at a brick-and-mortar conference where there could be fortuitous encounters in line at the coffee shop or where I could grab dinner with conference attendees (on a patio).

By the same token, the decision to make this an in-person conference led to a significant amount of chaos. Many people—myself included—had applied to the conference with the understanding that it would be held virtually. When this turned out not to be the case, I was fortunately still able to attend, but many attendees required virtual accommodations. To their credit, the conference organizers did provide a Zoom option for these attendees, but we were still working out how this would work the day before the conference started. The format made it easier for people to present more easily than to watch papers online, but when it worked things went smoothly enough. However, this time crunch put the onus on panel chairs (rather than tech volunteers) to manage the Zoom feed, so when it went poorly things went haywire, whether because the organizer and panel chair couldn’t reach a presenter (who likely sent a pre-recorded talk that went unnoticed) or because a nervous presenter closed out a Zoom room and no-one noticed until it was too late to bring the attendees back.

The reality is that we are still in the middle of an ongoing public health crisis. I was willing take the risks of exposure because I am fully vaccinated (still <6 months since my second dose) and could afford to take many precautions in how I travelled. Still, if we are going back to meatspace in-person conferences, I think that they will have to include a hybrid or virtual option for the foreseeable future.

If anything, this experience reminded me that saying there will be a virtual option is one thing, but executing it is something else entirely. Suffice it to say that I am even more pleased that the AIA-SCS has been planning a virtual event for months already even though the conference is in January.

I enjoy the ritual of setting aside my daily routine for time spent engaging with colleagues. This time I just also spent this conference thinking about how this was all premature. Wishful thinking won’t make the pandemic go away. I understand the desire to win back some of what has been lost over the past year and a half, particularly if most attendees are already vaccinated, but it is too soon to return to the pre-pandemic status quo, if that should even be the goal.

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