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.

What We Choose to Remember

President Joe Biden gave an address Monday night to memorialize the grim milestone of 500,000 Americans dying from COVID-19, according to the official tally. I am not saying anything novel when I say the event played to Biden’s strength as a politician. His ten-minute address was filled with empathy as he spoke about how lost loved ones remain with the living, about how we have to remember lost loved ones rather than becoming numb to the pain, and about how we should carry their memories forward into in our actions.

Biden’s first month in office has been spent activating the government bureaucracy that had been allowed to atrophy in the past four years, so while there are many people understandably angry about the vaccine rollout, distribution is heading in the right direction. This was a somber moment marking a systemic failure, but the address also worked to model best practices and encourage people to turn their grief into action.

It was a good speech, for what it was.

Several times in the address, Biden reiterated a line from the ceremony the night before his inauguration to remember 400,000 deaths, that “to heal we must remember.”

In Biden’s role as Mourner-in-Chief, this was a powerful line that tries to use collective trauma as a catalyst to unify the country. It asks people to think about their loved ones and turn that memory into thoughtful, considerate behavior where individuals take responsibility for the safety of everyone. Certainly, this is a believable sentiment coming from someone who has lived with loss almost his entire political career.

Nowhere in the speech did Biden ask his audience to remember anything but their lost loved ones.

On the one hand, this specific event was not the place for a discussion about accountability. Merrick Garland as much as said that an investigation into the events of January 6 where a lynch mob stormed the Capitol would be his first priority as Attorney General and other inquiries into the events of the past year will unfold over the coming months.

On the other hand, remembering the loss without also remembering why they died is cold comfort. I understand the impulse to not stoke what talking heads on any number of cable news channels might decry as partisan anger, but transparency and accountability are very different from partisanship. The one seeks to rebuild the infrastructure and trust in institutions by applying rules equally, irrespective of party; the other sees the world only in terms of friends and enemies.

I have a lot of sympathy for President Biden right now. He is attempting to walk a fine line and live up to his casting as a man who could unify a deeply-divided country. The result is events like this one where he can strike an empathetic note and talk about healing while trying to restore the government bureaucracy into something that actually works for the citizens of the country. However, may of the forces dividing the country are outside of his control and have been building for years to the point where anything he does, however centrist, is going to be labelled socialist. A Newsmax host even attacked Biden’s dog compared to past presidential pets.

Cultural memory always entails a push and pull between remembering and forgetting. These memories are malleable and open to manipulation. While working on an article about Ancient Greece in the pre-pandemic times, for instance, I read a lot about the historical memory genocide in Rwanda, where the ruling party led by President Paul Kagame has consciously shaped the memory of its role in ending the genocide in order to secure political legitimacy. By contrast, after a particularly brutal civil war in Athens in 402/1 BCE, the Athenians swore an oath of reconciliation that required both sides to “not remember” what had happened, formally renouncing reprisals.

But I also fear that the emphasis on remembering framed in terms of the personal grief and loss risks forgetting that these deaths weren’t just something that happened. These people did not die because of some avoidable happenstance. We only reached this mind-numbing number because of specific actions and inactions.

President Biden is right: we cannot forget those who died, and already people are beginning to discuss what form COVID memorials ought to take. But we ought to also take stock of what we are choosing to remember. For my part, I would love to see a Vietnam War-style memorial to commemorate the dead and also agree with the former Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith that local memorials dedicated to both COVID and the surrounding events of the past year would be appropriate. But I also believe that any memorial on its own would be inadequate. Remember the dead, yes, but also remember how we got here.