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Reimagining academic conferences: toward a federated model of conferencing

by Dror Etzion, Joel Gehman and Gerald F Davis

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, most academic conferences have shifted to online formats. This disruption to our routines presents a unique opportunity to consider alternative conference configurations. One possibility is that the momentum behind the shift to online conferencing is leading to a future in which gatherings are entirely virtual. At the same time, old habits die hard, and many in the academic community are assuming that a travel-free world is a temporary anomaly, and that very soon researchers will resume convening in person.

Several scenarios for the future of conferencing are possible, and most seem to have benefits but also drawbacks. We begin by identifying some pros and cons of in-person and online conferences. To maximize the positives, we propose a federated model of conferencing that thoughtfully integrates both in-person and online events. This model may help scholars not only to share academic knowledge but also to pursue values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship.

In-person conferences

For those attending, in-person conferences have four basic functions. First, they provide opportunities for intellectual development. Presenters are able to receive feedback on works in progress and are exposed to nascent ideas being pursued by other scholars. Early-career scholars are able to solicit advice, and more established ones are able to test the waters with riskier ideas before investing significant time and effort in preparing journal articles. Second, in-person conferences provide career development opportunities and constitute an important part of the academic job market. Conference presentations add heft to a CV, and provide valuable networking opportunities. Third, in-person conferences provide ample opportunities for ancillary professional activities such as editorial board meetings, professional association gatherings, and in-person collaboration. Fourth, in-person conferences provide opportunities for non-professional activities, such as socializing and sightseeing.   

At the field level, conferences can focus scholarly attention on specific topics, theories, or ideas. They can serve a coordinating function and facilitate collective sensemaking. Sometimes, powerful conference experiences can become field-configuring events that trigger meaningful academic advances. In addition, conference revenues are often the main source of funding for sponsoring associations, providing them the means to pursue other worthy initiatives.

Despite these benefits, in-person conferences do have some notable downsides. Large conferences can be overwhelming and take a significant physical toll due to disrupted biorhythms and jet lag, not to mention long and tightly packed days. Instances of sexual harassment and assault are all too common. Beyond these criminal activities, gender inequality continues to affect conference participation. Conferences also strengthen the status hierarchy, and many lower status participants find themselves on the receiving end of microaggressions and slights. Accessibility also continues to be an issue. Many venues are not easy for disabled academics to navigate. Travel bans prevent many scholars from attending conferences, and travel costs limit attendance to well-resourced scholars, primarily from the Global North. In-person conferences also produce a massive carbon footprint.

Online conferences

The forced shift to online platforms during COVID has addressed some of these downsides of conferences. Online formats promote accessibility by removing barriers associated with travel costs and physical impairment. They also help remove social barriers to participation, as some of the traditional markers of status do not translate well to the online format. Online platforms also promote inclusivity and content-richness. On platforms such as Zoom, it is easier to implement practices to ensure that conversations are not dominated by a few high-status people. For example, text-based chat functions enable participants to formulate questions at their own pace and provide links to helpful materials. They also serve as an archive that can be revisited when participants have more time to engage with the material.

Moreover, because online conferences are not constrained by time and place, they have the potential to promote ongoing engagement. Rather than several intense days, a series of shorter events, spread out over time, might facilitate greater reflection. Online conferences also promote diversity of session formats. Rather than 90-minute panel sessions, it is possible to have sessions as short or as long as people desire. Presentations could be live streamed from research settings, and practitioners who normally do not attend academic conferences could login to sessions that interest them. Online conferences also have timeliness benefits, as researchers do not have to wait to present their work. Likewise, meetings can be convened immediately to address urgent topics (eg COVID).

Yet, online conferences are not without their downsides. Due to low transaction costs, the number of online conferences is proliferating, creating the potential for overload. Online conferences have also led to anomie in the academy. Many yearn for a return to at least some in-person conferences, as the social interaction and random experiences they afford can be energizing. Moreover, the shift to online conferences has exacerbated the digital divide, constraining scholars who live in areas with less well-developed technological infrastructure. Surveillance capitalism is another potential pitfall, as online interactions leave traces that could have repercussions. Gaffes can go viral, and online interactions may be watched and listened to (and misinterpreted) by unintended audiences. Less malicious, but perhaps more insidious, would be a scenario whereby the dreaded teaching evaluation model is applied to conference presentations. Additionally, online conferences may reinforce tribalism in the academy. With a plethora of conferences to choose from, scholars may splinter off into self-reinforcing cliques entrenched around specific research programs, thereby eliminating opportunities for cross-fertilization and creating echo chambers. Gaming the system is another potential problem with the online conference format. Evaluating scholarly impact is a key focus in the academy, and tactics used to boost citation counts or journal ratings could easily translate to online conferences. Winner-takes-all dynamics are likely to ensue.

A federated model of conferencing

Having analysed the pros and cons of both in-person and online conferences, we propose a federated model of conferencing that constitutes the best of both worlds and produces a lighter environmental footprint while promoting equity and inclusion. As an organising principle, federation recognizes the utility of some central authority, but delegates most responsibilities to partially self-governing units which set priorities based on local preferences. Compared to unitary governance, federation embraces experimentation and fosters learning across units, thereby striking an optimal balance between scale and autonomy.

In a federated conferencing model, organising, decision-making, and participation would be pushed to the regional level while maintaining global coherence. Regional conferences that are centrally located and accessible by public transport would be easier on both attendees (by reducing jet lag and travel costs) and the planet (by reducing the carbon footprint of travel). Smaller regional conferences could provide opportunities for human contact that reduce anomie without being overwhelming. They would still enable senior scholars to participate on panels and pursue ambitious research programs while providing junior scholars and PhD students with valuable networking and career opportunities. Regional affiliation that stops short of tribalism also could support the development and adaptation of solutions to local circumstances. For instance, a regional conference in the North American Rust Belt would likely yield scholarship with different underpinnings, datasets, and points of emphasis than one in Central America. Regional conferences also may promote greater engagement across different academic fields and with non-academic participants.

With foresight and planning, such a federated model could strengthen the global academic community. For example, global meetings could be held synchronously across several regional hubs, thereby enabling access to both region-specific and global content. Hybridization within (ie questions submitted in-person and via text) and between (ie global and regional) presentations would enable participants to customise the extent of their physical and virtual participation and support an equitable global community. A federated model also could facilitate the establishment of local communities around research interests or other facets of identity, thereby providing valuable sources of support, particularly for scholars who feel isolated. Robust online platforms could support ongoing engagement among like-minded peers and strengthen their voices within the academy. Finally, a federated model could encourage relatively low-risk experimentation with other formats (eg unconferences, PechaKuchas), and a variety of other online and offline gatherings.

Conclusion

COVID has provided a unique opportunity to reflect on and potentially reshape the current conferencing model to better reflect values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship. As a tangible manifestation of the spirit of the academic community, conferences serve as a bellwether of our profession. A federated conferencing model has the potential to maximize the benefits of the in-person and online formats, thereby strengthening the academy, now and into the future.

Reference: Etzion, D, Gehman, J, Davis, GF (2021) ‘Reimagining academic conferences: Toward a federated model of conferencing’ Management Learning, 41: 429–442 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/13505076211019529

Dror Etzion is an associate professor of strategy and organization at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, and an associate member of the Bieler School of Environment. His research program focuses on grand challenges: the unyielding, intractable problems that characterize the Anthropocene.

Joel Gehman is Professor of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Management and Alberta School of Business Chair in Free Enterprise at the University of Alberta. His research examines strategic, technological, and institutional responses to grand challenges related to sustainability and values concerns.

Jerry Davis is the Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Management and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. His latest work is on reining in corporate power and alternatives to shareholder capitalism.


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Organising, funding and participating in care-friendly conferences

By Emily Henderson

SRHE member Emily Henderson (Warwick) runs the ConferenceInference blog with Jamie Burford (La Trobe), offering a unique gateway to research about HE conferences. Her recent post is adapted and reblogged with permission here.

Conferences are highly exclusionary spaces for all manner of reasons. They are also vital sites for learning, knowledge production and dissemination, career development, and the formation of collaborations and partnerships for publications and research projects, sites where jobs are directly and indirectly advertised and secured, and sites of friendship, mentoring and all kinds of relationships. Conferences are recognised in research on academic careers as important sites which have a plethora of indirect benefits. Furthermore, attending, organising and being invited to speak at conferences are also expectations which are included in many promotions criteria and also in some hiring criteria (particularly for early career scholars who may not yet have a publication record). The role of conferences is often downplayed in practice and in research; amassing research and evidence on the impact of conferences on careers has resulted in a clear and irrefutable conclusion: missing out on conferences disadvantages academics in multiple regards. 

While the role of conferences continues to be downplayed – often by those for whom it is easiest to attend – there will continue to be hidden inequalities which contribute to overall inequalities in the academic profession and which cannot be addressed until fully acknowledged.

Based on some initial understanding of this problem from my doctoral work on knowledge production about gender at Women’s Studies conferences, and from personal experiences, I decided to explore the exclusionary nature of conferences – with a particular focus on caring responsibilities. The particular features of the stance taken in this project were: (i) a wide definition of care, to include partners, children, other relatives, pets, friends and kin; (ii) a focus on how care interacts with both access to conferences and participation in conferences while there.

In December 2016, I won internal funding from the University of Warwick Research Development Fund for a small-scale project on the relationship between conference participation and caring responsibilities. This was originally intended as a ‘pilot study’ for a larger project, but it touched a nerve and became much more than a pilot study – producing important findings and provoking widespread interest, including several invitations to present the research at events on inequalities and on care in the academic profession. The discussions in turn highlighted the need for further discussions – and for concrete outputs to influence the actions of those involved in organising, funding and participation in conferences. To develop the project’s trajectory further, in 2017 I applied for funding from Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Studies and embarked upon the production of a range of outputs for different audiences.

The project was assisted by Julie Mansuy in the first phase and Xuemeng Cao in the second phase, and I offer my sincere gratitude to them for their assistance with the logistics and implementation of this project. The outputs from the project, ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation’, can all be downloaded or viewed from links included here (see also the events and outputs page on the project website).

The Conference Inference blog has already told parts of the story. ‘Conferences and caring responsibilities – individual delegates, multiple lives‘, explained how the project stemmed from the realisation that conferences are often designed for unencumbered delegates, and much conferences research (and indeed HE research in general) constructs an individualised academic subject who has no ties. The project explored conferences in their own right as sites which contribute to the development of knowledge, careers and collaborations, but also as a lens through which the academic profession as a whole can be viewed, given that conferences are both representative of and resistant to the institutional norms of academia (see Henderson, 2015).

Overwhelming care: reflections on recruiting for the “In Two Places at Once Research Project”‘, marked the moment where I realised that the project had touched a nerve. I was inundated with requests to participate – messages flooded in with enthusiasm and relief that someone was finally researching this – with snapshots of the complexity of academics’ lives, juggling care and academic work. The project research used a diary-interview method with 20 academics; a further 9 participants just filled in the diary. ‘Conferences and complex care constellations‘ revealed early findings, showing the range and complexity of different care constellations. This included temporary and long-term caring, shifting and dynamic care needs, hands-on and virtual caring, and a variety of different caring responsibilities.

The project has since produced a number of different outputs for different audiences, which all emerge from the study, with inflections from various discussions with colleagues, the project’s stakeholder groupreactions to the project I have received, and questions and comments from the various events at which I have presented the research.

Output 1: Recommendations briefing for conference organisers (view)

 This briefing, produced in collaboration with Leigh Walker and the Impact Services team in the Warwick Social Sciences Faculty, outlines how conference organisers can facilitate access to and participation in conferences for academics with a variety of caring responsibilities. Many considerations can be implemented at little or no cost (eg indicating evening social events in advance, or ensuring the wifi is easily accessible), but with significant impact. Care provision at a conference does not amount to providing a creche (see also Briony Lipton’s post, ‘Baby’s first conference‘). The briefing is targeted at both larger association conferences and smaller one-off events, which are often hosted in HEIs but tend to fly under the radar of institutional equalities policies.

Output 2: Recommendations postcard for Higher Education Institutions (Human Resources, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion personnel, Department Chairs) (view)

This is a short set of priorities for HEIs as a reminder that institutions expect their academics to attend conferences, but do not necessarily take responsibility for ensuring that academics are able to do so. While conferences are often portrayed as something like leisure – an optional extra (see ‘Conferences are (not) holidays‘), HEIs have a responsibility in this regard as long as academic promotions and hirings include conferences and the indirect outcomes of conferences such as publications and collaborative research projects – as well as ‘esteem’ and ‘reputation’ indicators. The postcard highlights the role of HR/EDI professionals in drawing together different relevant policies (eg relating to expenses claims, right to childcare, travel bursaries – see also the post about La Trobe’s carers’ travel fund) and the role of department chairs in being aware of and implementing policies.

Output 3: ‘Juggling Conferences and Caring Responsibilities’ short film (view)

 This short film, freely accessed on Youtube, aims to raise awareness of how conference attendance and participation are affected by the challenges of managing caring responsibilities. The film, produced by Mindsweep Media, includes reactions to ‘In Two Places at Once’ from: an EDI professional; a higher education and equity researcher; and academics with caring responsibilities (including a doctoral researcher with a young child, a dual career couple with a young child, and an academic who had cared for her elderly parents). Academics with caring responsibilities benefit from knowing that this is a shared issue and the film can be shown in training sessions and meetings for senior decision-makers.

Output 4: ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation – Final Report’ (view)

Henderson, EF, Cao, X, Mansuy, J (2018) In Two Places at Once: The Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation: Final Project Report, Coventry: Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. DOI: 10.31273/CES.06.2018.001

The project report is a more comprehensive but accessible resource, with recommendations for action by different parties, including EDI and HR professionals and people involved in the ATHENA Swan process or other equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives. The report is also an academic resource for research in the areas of care, higher education, gender and the academic profession.

Next steps

A chapter focusing on the diary data was published in Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion in Critical Events Studies (Routledge, 2019), with two journal articles and a conference presentation planned. I am developing a broader research agenda focusing on intersectional issues of access to and participation in conferences. Updates will be reported at Conference Inference, on Twitter (#I2PO), on the project website, or email me (e.henderson@warwick.ac.uk) to join the project mailing list.

Follow Emily Henderson on Twitter @EmilyFrascatore.