COVID19 has dealt a welcome death blow to academic conferences in 2020. A few small workshops have offered poorly attended “virtual” sessions, but the idea of a large, face-to-face gathering has been rejected by professional associations the world over. Should we cry for the loss of academic conferences this year? Should we lobby for them to be reinstated in 2021? I think not.
Year after year, hundreds of thousands of academics trek across the globe to present a paper at a conference. We justify these long-haul trips by saying to ourselves (and to our universities) that we are “disseminating knowledge” and “networking,” but let’s get real for a moment, shall we?
Academic conferences are all expense paid vacations for most academics. To argue that they enable knowledge dissemination is absurd, especially given the high cost (financial and to the environment) of flying around the world, sometimes twice or three times per year.
“Academic conferences are all expense paid vacations for most academics. To argue that they enable knowledge dissemination is absurd, especially given the cost (financial and to the environment) of flying around the world.“
Let me give you an example. Last year I flew from Perth, Australia, via LAX, to New York for the American Sociological Association Annual Conference. From the doorstep of my house to the doorstep of my hotel in NYC, I had travelled almost 40 hours. The first day of the conference was a haze because of the time zone difference. When I finally presented my paper on the second day, a whopping five people were in attendance: myself, the session chair, two other presenters, and one audience member. I had 15 minutes to present my results, and another five minutes for Q&A. Where was everyone, you ask? Come on, it’s New York City? Did I expect people to listen to my paper or go to a Yankees game? As a general rule of thumb, the cooler the city, the lower the attendance.
As far as networking goes, we scramble in between paper sessions over a cup of stale coffee, hoping to exchange business cards, but before we can even get to know one another, we’re already off to another session. From what I have experienced, we spend much more time at conferences hanging out with people we already know than getting to know new people. That’s the truth.
And so I ask: is flying from one corner of the earth to another, staying in an overpriced hotel room, eating overpriced food, and sharing your research for a whole 15 minutes really worth it? Even more ridiculous is the fact that our conference fees (which are sizeable) largely pay for keynote speakers to attend free of charge, even though these star academics have more than enough money in their research accounts and grants to fund the cost of their own trips.
Obviously, if you’re on the job market and interviews are conducted at the conference, you may be forced to attend in 2021. But if not, I would urge you to use that money to hire a research assistant. This will give you a much better return on investment and it will help keep the academic job market afloat in these difficult times.
Prof. Andrew R. Timming
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