If/When COVID Ends, What Will Be the Future of Academic Conferences?Historians in the News
tags: conferences, academic labor
Like colleges and universities, scholarly associations had been looking forward to something resembling a normal academic year. That meant scheduling in-person annual conferences again, after more than year of virtual programs.
The Delta variant has of course frustrated those plans and led some organizations to transition to virtual meetings once more.
The American Sociological Association, for instance, called off its Chicago conference, planned for last month, after "it became clear that the global health crisis would not be resolved by our meeting dates and a large gathering of people from around the world would present an untenable health risk," said Nancy Kidd, the group's executive director.
Instead of meeting in person, the ASA welcomed sociologists to an online meeting that included hundreds of sessions, plus virtual social events, games and exhibits. Kidd said the event was successful, in terms of attendance and engagement. The group's 2022 meeting is still scheduled for Los Angeles.
The Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities last week pulled the plug on its annual meeting, set for Philadelphia in November. The group will now convene its meeting online.
Jeff Lieberson, APLU's spokesperson, said, "We wanted to have an in-person meeting and that was the plan." But after having conversations with members across the country and examining the state of the pandemic, including the spread of the Delta variant, he said, the group determined it wasn't "practical to have an in-person annual meeting. The health and safety of APLU staff and members has been and always will be a top priority."
Other associations are moving ahead with in-person conferences this year, citing members' desire for this kind of experience. Aware of the health risks, organizations say they're taking their health and safety cues from federal and local officials. This generally means setting expectations or requiring that attendees be vaccinated and wear masks.
These associations are also offering select virtual options for colleagues who opt to stay home.
As of now, the American Historical Association plans on meeting in person in January in New Orleans, for similar reasons. Jim Grossman, executive director, said he and colleagues are planning to continue aspects of the yearlong Virtual AHA program they organized in 2021 due to the pandemic. Yet future remote opportunities "don't necessarily have to be tied with the meeting," Grossman said. "The meeting will remain in-person centered, as of right now."
Logistics are another concern, especially as most scholarly associations have small staffs.
Grossman, of the AHA, equated running a truly hybrid conference to running two meetings, one face-to-face and one remote, at the same time.
"We don't have the staffing to do both at once," he said.
While fully hybrid conferences aren't the way of the future, most groups are committed to offering virtual conference elements beyond this year. Some academics have called for this for a long time, and online conferences have proven to be more accessible -- in terms of disability, affordability and time -- for many scholars since March 2020.