• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Missing In-Person Conferences

The hallway conversations were half the fun …

January 25, 2022
 
 

I’m lucky to be able to consider this a problem. In the context of the last couple of years, it’s trivial. That said, the loss is real.

I was a relatively late convert to recognizing the value of academic conferences. In graduate school, the annual trek to the APSA was mostly just expensive and demoralizing. (Our “travel support” was typically enough to cover about half of airfare; after that, we were on our own.) Its only real utility, as far as I could tell, was spending time catching up with friends. Beyond that, it just seemed like a stress festival.

Admittedly, part of that was a reflection of job market anxiety, compounded by the shameless name tag ranking that dictated whether people would talk to you. (When my name tag said “Rutgers,” I could get into conversations. When it said “DeVry,” you’d think from people’s reactions that I was contagious.) When Frances Fox Piven commented at one that the conference was “a mechanism for the production and distribution of prestige,” her observation rang true. The whole thing just felt unclean. I kept my distance from conferences for some years thereafter, especially when the kids were young and extended travel would strain the home front.

After several years in administration, I went to my first League for Innovation conference. It was disorienting, but mostly in a good way. It didn’t have the same toxic feel that APSA had. Yes, there was networking, and some people were clearly angling for advancement, but it felt a lot less predatory. What struck me most was how commonplace many of the issues were at campuses around the country, and, relatedly, how differently different colleges addressed them.

The culture of the organization was different. Instead of “look at me being smarter than all of you,” it was “here’s something that might help.” There were egos, of course, and some ideas were better than others, but there was a noticeable premium on usefulness. That appealed to the pragmatist in me. I also found that playing “roving correspondent” at conferences was a blast, since the material pretty much fell in my lap and I could just comment on it. I always got a kick out of that.

Over time, as I got to know more people in the industry, in-person conferences like the League or the AACC also brought the “catch up with old friends” component. In the last few years prior to COVID, the major conferences were great fun.

Virtual conferences have their merits, but they’re just not the same. They’re physically safer, of course, which is why they exist. They’re cheaper, which is nice. And they’re perfectly fine for, say, watching (and taking notes on) keynote addresses. But the serendipitous hallway conversations really don’t happen. Catching up with old friends is limited to side chat, which isn’t much. The experience of seeing new cities falls away. Conferences are the only occasions on which I’ve been to Denver, Phoenix, Dallas and Charlotte, for instance. And although smartphones have reduced the sense of being sequestered from campus, it’s still true that being hundreds of miles away for a few days makes it easier to shift perspective. When you’re Zooming in from the office, with the phone ringing and people popping in with various issues, it’s hard to get that sense of separation. What used to be a whole experience instead starts to feel like a series of Zoom meetings to intersperse among other commitments.

For a while, the sheer novelty of virtual conferences held some fascination. That’s less true now.

I still attend, to the extent that I can, to get what I can out of it. Presentations can be valuable. But it’s been a couple of years now, and I’m really starting to feel the loss. Those hallway conversations meant more than I realized at the time.

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