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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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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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Putting the education back into governance and teaching

By Rob Cuthbert

The theme of the 4th Annual Conference of the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE) was Challenging Higher Education: it did not disappoint.

The opening remarks by CGHE Director Simon Marginson (Oxford) were a rousing call to arms, urging universities to look beyond current bipolar conflicts to develop a more collaborative world, in which UK universities would do more than just “work the British colonial circuit”, in a post-Brexit world of regions where UKHE might not have a region any more. Marginson segued into his introduction of the Burton R Clark Lecture, now a fixture in the CGHE Conference, and delivered this year by Bob Clark’s good friend Michael Shattock (UCL).

In his lecture on ‘University governance and academic work: the ‘business model’ and its impact on innovation and creativity’ Shattock previewed some findings from his latest book, to be published in July 2019. His research with co-authors Aniko Horvath (King’s College London) and Ellen Hazelkorn (Dublin Institute of Technology) in a range of universities in the UK had revealed accelerating diversity of modes and missions, and a trend towards ever more intrusive government policymaking. Governors who might once have been critical friends were now obliged to enforce regulatory guidance from the Office for Students, perhaps the thin end of a wedge of more lay intrusion into what is taught, and how. Paradoxically the idea of the student as customer barely featured in the almost dystopian landscape he painted, first of teaching and then of research. The metric-driven pressure to perform should not, said Shattock, be confused with Clark’s identification of a ‘strengthened steering core’ in the entrepreneurial university. (He would say that, of course, since the original strengthened steering core was probably Warwick’s during Shattock’s towering tenure as Registrar, but it doesn’t make it less true.) That core was closely connected to the academic community, whereas the current academic climate risked repressing rather than fostering academic innovation and creativity. The ‘English experiment’ with HE marketisation had reinforced executive governance; it was time to restore the academic community to its proper role as a key partner in governance. Questions and discussion pushed Shattock to a ‘back to the future’ position somewhat removed from his argument, as he was reluctantly driven to extol an Oxbridge model of governance by academics in contrast to the unduly top-down executive management and governance searingly exposed by his research. It was, nevertheless, a lecture which in a fitting way did justice to Clark’s legacy.

Next up the organisers had conceived a panel discussion on ‘Brexit, UK and Worldwide Higher Education’, not – as no doubt first planned – days after Brexit had actually happened, but on the day after a seven-hour Cabinet meeting had led to proposals for a further meeting, something Cornford surely wrote in Microcosmographia Academica. A post-Brexit Panel would have seemed like a good idea at the time, but now it fell rather flat, despite the best efforts of chair Ellen Hazelkorn (Dublin Institute of Technology) and engaging contributions from Nick Hillman (HEPI) and David Palfreyman (New College, Oxford and an OfS Board member), arrayed perhaps symbolically on the right wing of the panel (as seen from the floor). Lunch intervened before the second keynote from Marijk van der Wende (Utrecht): ‘On a Learning Curve: New Realities for HE in a Changing Global Context’. Her theme was the rise of China, probably soon to become the world leader in HE, and already surpassing the European Union in R&D spend, and the US in scientific output. It was a presentation informed and enlightened by much first class research evidence, but hindered by unreadably small text in many powerpoints, problems with the sound system, and a fire alarm which forced the hall to empty for 30 minutes halfway through her presentation. She was however able to rally and finish with an upbeat quote by the Rector of Leiden about Brexit not holding back the progress of scientific collaboration.

The CGHE team decided to make no concessions for time lost, their judgment vindicated by the continuing presence of most participants staying for the delayed finishing time after 6pm. They were drawn first by the parallel sessions reporting work in progress on some of the many CGHE projects, living up to the Director’s prospectus by offering multi-level global perspectives on public good, graduate skills and careers, sectoral evolution, participation, financing and equity, management and academic work, and more. Golo Henseke and Francis Green of UCL were developing a thesis that social skills were increasingly important for graduate earnings, drawing economic comparisons across Europe, and comparing European and US experiences. Vassiliki Papatsibas (Sheffield) and Simon Marginson were in the early stages of a project on ‘Brexit, emotions and identity dynamics’, where they had been taken aback by the emotional ‘turn’ their data had forced upon them. Does reason enable and passion disable? they speculated. (How else, I wonder, can we account for the flood of academic tweets seizing on every lone shred of evidence pointing to the iniquity of Brexit, from those who would otherwise be railing against government’s own attachment to policy-based evidence?). Aniko Horvath reported early stages in her research with Jurgen Enders (Bath) and Michael Shattock into the scope for negotiated local orders in university governance, drawing interesting comparisons between the UK’s legitimation of committees as part of governance structures, and Germany’s attitude, which regards the role of committees and working groups as at best questionable.

In the final plenary Paul Ashwin (Lancaster) spoke with research-informed passion on ‘Transforming University Teaching’. Oversimplified accounts of the educational process make us lose sight of the educational arguments for undergraduate education. Too often we mistake privilege for ability, and prestige for quality. Justifying HE in terms of generic skills is reductionist, and purporting to explain HE in terms of signalling for employers simply reinforces the iniquitous force of global rankings and institutional prestige. Instead we should recognise that universities are the distinctive custodians of structured bodies of knowledge, and teaching is about designing ways for students to develop access to one or other of those bodies of knowledge – that is how teaching may truly be transformational. This is a continuing process of hard intellectual work: we need to change ourselves and our curriculum, not expect students, managers and policymakers to change so we can stay the same.

Thus the conference ended as it had begun, with a call to put education back on centre stage – in these troubled times that is indeed challenging higher education.

SRHE member Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog.


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Mind the Gap – Gendered and Caste-based Disparities in Access to Conference Opportunities

In an interview with Conference Inference [1] editor Emily Henderson, Nidhi S. Sabharwal discussed inequalities of access to conference opportunities in India.

Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)

EH: Nidhi, can you explain first of all where conferences come into your wider research on inequalities in Indian higher education?

NS: Equitable access to professional development opportunities such as conferences is an indicator of institutional commitment to achieving diversity and inclusion of diverse social groups on campuses. Continue reading


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The deaf delegate – experiences of space and time in the conference (BSL version included)

By Dai O’Brien

In this post, Dai O’Brien discusses spatial and temporal challenges that deaf academics face when attending conferences, and presents some preliminary thoughts from his funded research project on deaf academics. This post is accompanied by a filmed version of this post in British Sign Language.

Access the British Sign Language version of this post here.

Attending conferences is all about sharing information, making those contacts which can help you with research ideas, writing projects and so on. This is the ideal. However, Continue reading

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Freedom, equality, choice and China

By Rob Cuthbert

The Annual Conference of the Centre for Global Higher Education on 11 April was enough to reassure anyone that research into HE is in rude health. With a globally diverse audience of 250 or more at the UCL Institute of Education to talk about The new geopolitics of higher education, it was time well spent. Continue reading


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‘Academics in the arena’ – showcasing conferences research at SRHE 2017

Emily Henderson writes on fulfilling her dream of convening a symposium on conferences research at the Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference.

This post was first published on Emily’s blog, https://conferenceinference.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

When we set out to create an academic blog on conferences, it was in part because conferences research is so disparate – in terms of discipline and geographical location. The Conference Inference blog has provided us with a wonderful platform to share research and comment on conferences over the course of 2017, including from a fantastic array of guest contributors – and we will be thinking more about this first year in our 1-year anniversary celebrations in early 2018. However this post reports back from a very special treat – namely, five papers on conferences grouped together in the same room at a conference! The symposium, entitled ‘Academics in the Arena: Foregrounding Academic Conferences as Sites for Higher Education Research’ (see information here, pp. 25-27) brought together a variety of critical perspectives on conferences, along with a discussant contribution from Helen Perkins, Director of SRHE (Society for Research in Higher Education).

The first paper presented early analysis from an ongoing research project on fictional representations of conferences by Conference Inference co-editor Emily F Henderson and guest contributor Pauline Reynolds (see Pauline’s guest post). The paper, entitled ‘“Novel delegates”: representations of academic identities in fictional conferences’, focused in particular on academic identities at conferences as they are portrayed in novels, short stories and graphic novels. Fictional conferences act to both equalise and reproduce academic hierarchy; delegates are homogenised as masses and crowds, uniformly badged and seated, just as delegate-professors are singled out for VIP treatment and delegate-students are denied access to certain spaces and conversations. Continue reading


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SRHE Newer Researchers’ Conference 2013

By Jennifer Leigh

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the SRHE Newer Researchers conference. The day began with Mike Neary’s thought provoking keynote on ‘students as producers’. He explained this as an act of resistance to ‘students as consumers’ rather than ‘student engagement’ or ‘student-led teaching’. We were then thrust into a very full day of research seminars, all supported by an active twitter back channel.

The conference organised the presenters into Continue reading