Being Present vs. Being a Presence

Zoom conferences have advantages, but when Robert Franciosi attended a small regional meeting in person, he reveled in the engagement, and the pandemic-shrouded world momentarily receded.

January 28, 2022
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The four southbound lanes of Lake Shore Drive were blocked for at least a mile as police and fire crews untangled a multicar collision. Fortunately, we were heading north, where only two of the notorious S-curves were jammed. Having taught a class that morning before jumping in the car for the four-hour trip to Northwestern University, I was happy for my wife to negotiate this mess.

I gazed from the chaos on the highway to the stately order of waves rolling in on Lake Michigan, and an insistent voice in my head intoned, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this?” In the midst of a busy semester, one not yet free of pandemic restrictions and fears, why are you traveling to an academic conference? Hadn’t Zoom made journeying physically to Evanston an unnecessary, even a silly, indulgence?

Zoom’s capabilities, we know, can not only change many aspects of the teaching life (farewell, glorious January snow days) but could modify future conference life in not wholly positive ways. The ability to “attend” from your home office certainly was a boon starting in March 2020, but, as Kai Ryssdal reminds me often on NPR’s Marketplace, all decisions have economic consequences—often unintended ones. Business travel may never recover to pre-pandemic levels. And if corporate bean counters are questioning the bottom-line value of traveling to meet clients, cash-strapped universities and colleges will also be wondering whether flying to academic meetings is absolutely necessary.

Newly minted academics in search of employment have always faced economic and psychological stressors attending professional conferences, so the advent of Zoom interviews is among the few blessings to emerge from these pandemic days. And who among the rest of us can deny the convenience of attending sessions and lectures from the comfort of home, where tweed jackets and uncomfortable shoes yield to sweatpants and slippers?

But when the Holocaust Education Foundation sponsored small worldwide regional meetings to avoid a four-year wait between its biennial Lessons and Legacies conference, I decided that it had become just too easy to stay home, that I had to propose a paper.

Since 1989, Lessons and Legacies has been a mainstay in Holocaust studies. First conceived by survivor Theodore “Zev” Weiss and his HEF, now housed at Northwestern University, the conference has gathered scholars from across the globe to reflect on the interdisciplinary nature of the field’s research and pedagogy. Its 2020 meeting set for Ottawa was rescheduled to 2021, then the lingering pandemic forced another postponement until November 2022.

Although the HEF had been hosting an invaluable series of virtual mentorships for graduate students and recent Ph.D.s, its farsighted leaders recognized that Zoom sessions could not substitute for the kind of engagement that occurs only around conference tables or over a glass or three of craft beer—and that the long delay had more generally exacerbated the need for the close-knit group of Holocaust scholars to confer in person, especially for those in the early stages of their careers.

The particular dilemma of young scholars struck me on the first evening when I walked with a student from CUNY to a local restaurant. She is beginning work on her dissertation, but lockdowns in New York had cut off access to archives and libraries. Her mentors were available only through Zoom, and, most damaging, she and her peers were holed up across the metropolitan area, denied the grad school conversations in coffee shops, bars and inexpensive restaurants that are the lifeblood of doctoral study.

As if working under these circumstances was not difficult enough, they have faced the added pressure of funding. What happens to graduate students with four years of support, for instance, when at least one of those years is lost to the pandemic? How do they make crucial professional connections without attending the academic conferences where they can be in the room where it happens?

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The worrying mood of this and other conversations, however, was quickly overwhelmed by the sheer energy and the intellectual delight that emerged during dinner and continued over the next two days. Under the astute guidance of director Sarah Cushman, the HEF had assembled a group of presenters who embodied the multidisciplinary nature of Holocaust studies, as well as the various stages of academic careers. Two panels on works in progress were especially valuable, not only providing introductions to the larger projects scholars were embarking upon but allowing the kind of sustained discussion that is seldom possible on Zoom or at larger conferences. Other papers focused on such diverse topics as Holocaust pedagogy, Yiddish memorial books, postwar trials, digital research and feminist approaches to the catastrophe.

Every session was plenary, and, to cite Robert Frost, that made all the difference. Large conferences too often devolve into ego-driven displays, with long-winded “questions” mostly about the asker, but over two full days I never had a glimpse of scholarly peacocking. No one missed papers by colleagues; in fact, conversation continued during the breaks and, most memorably, at a second dinner on the upper floor of a microbrewery.

Sitting among a smaller group of researchers whose disciplines ranged from history to German to geography and Italian, I was moved by the sense of genuine engagement, the affectionate esprit de corps, which also reflected our mood of liberation. We were in a restaurant face-to-face, talking about our research, our teaching, our lives away from the LCD screen! And for two hours the pandemic-shrouded world receded.

“I’m done with Zoom,” one new friend had declared early in the conference, and I understood what she meant. For two days we had left behind the anxieties of our campuses, yes, but we had also been reminded of the difference between being present and being a presence. I listened to fascinating papers, kept notes, asked questions, all without the multitasking distractions of a Zoom meeting. No yapping dogs in the background, no tolling doorbells announcing the latest Amazon drop, no emails popping up during a presentation, no muting to answer the latest urgent missive from a student, no snarky chat among select Zoomers, no embarrassing Jeffrey Toobin moments.

All these thoughts played in my head as we drove south on the glorious fall Sunday, easily gliding past the Art Institute, Grant Park and the Field Museum. When traffic began to slow, I realized that we had left an hour later than planned and were heading right by Soldier Field, where the Bears would soon be playing. Conference paradise would apparently carry a price higher than the stack of unread student papers on my lap.

But in the blink of an eye, the multicolored sea of cars and SUVs parted before us, joining congested lines to the stadium exit, and we breezed on homeward bound. This had to be a sign, I thought, a benediction of my weekend return to a world that over the past 23 months has seemed ever more elusive—close to lost.

Still, I had no illusions about the pandemic simply fading away. The worrisome Delta variant, continuing vaccine resistance and my recent booster shot all reminded me that our revels in Evanston could be viewed as illusory—as when one clicks “Leave Meeting” and the Zoom screen goes black. But despite the new and still continuing threat of the Omicron variant, the gorgeous fall colors through which we drove live in my memory, so much more vivid and palpable than virtual backgrounds. Even now, they affirm the rightness of that gathering. I may not be finished with Zoom for now, but by looking really hard, I can see into the future and imagine it receding in the rearview mirror.

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Robert Franciosi is a professor of English and honors at Grand Valley State University.


Robert Franciosi

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