• 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.


Virtual Conferences and Being ‘Away’

What Zoom can’t do.

August 2, 2021

Community college folks generally don’t get to go to as many conferences as our counterparts in the four-year sectors. That’s a function mostly of ever-thinner travel budgets, combined with either high teaching loads or jobs formed as combinations of former jobs through years of cutting by attrition. But in pre-COVID times, “fewer” didn’t mean “none.” I tried to go to at least one per year -- usually either AACC or the League for Innovation on my own, plus Middle States as part of a delegation. (Brookdale is accredited through Middle States.) Typically there would be half or more of a day devoted to travel, two to three days on-site, and a half or more of a day to return.

In the days before smartphones, conferences really meant being “away.” Other than the occasional phone call if something really drastic happened, you’d pretty much be out of the campus loop for several days. That changed about 10 years ago, with expectations of remote connection gradually (and without anyone explicitly saying so) increasing every year. Physical travel still took the time it took, but you were expected to keep up (mostly) with what was happening on your own campus in something close to real time.

That was a gain and a loss. The gain, obviously, was that things didn’t fester quite as long. The loss was more subtle at first, but over time it became harder to throw oneself entirely into the goings-on at a conference. In hallways, you’d see people bent over their phones, looking furrowed and intense as they sorted through the crises of the day. The effect of a change of scene was reduced by the continued presence of the campus via the phone. I discovered, for instance, that I preferred Sunday conference sessions to Monday sessions, because the emails mostly quieted on Sundays. I could actually pay attention to the conference on Sundays.

COVID pretty much shut down in-person conferences for a while. Now, just as organizers are starting to plan for the coming year, the Delta variant is on a rampage, raising the possibility that more conferences may have to be virtual. Combine a resurgent virus with widespread cuts to travel budgets, and the result is that we can likely expect many more conferences to be entirely or mostly online.

That’s a mixed blessing. It’s certainly cheaper to send people to conferences when they don’t involve airfare or hotel stays. Virtual conferences are more accessible to people with mobility issues, whether physical or financial. They’re easier for people with childcare or family obligations. And as long as COVID isn’t transmitted over the internet, there’s an obvious and important increase in safety.

But the losses are real. I can think of two that really matter, though there may be more.

The first is the loss of informal networking. Much of what made in-person conferences worthwhile was the chance to meet and connect with other people informally. Hallway conversations were often more important than scheduled panels. Social networks have picked up some of the slack, no pun intended, but the depth of interaction is not the same. Zoom works well for prescheduled forums, but the hallway conversations mostly fade away. Yes, there’s sometimes some back-channel snark in the chat, but that’s more about one-liners than extended conversations. The spontaneous conversations that germinate new ideas or connections tend not to happen over Zoom.

The second is the final collapse of the idea of “being away.” Now it’s difficult to avoid emails for even the length of a single panel, let alone a good chunk of a day. Even with smartphones, at least when you’re in a different city, there’s a palpable reality to your absence from campus. But if all you’re doing is Zooming into a discussion, then as far as everyone else is concerned, you’re available. And the old line often used in “away” email messages -- “with limited email access” -- is clearly false now. If you don’t have internet access, then you can’t Zoom in the first place.

Yes, travel costs are real. But as soon as the pandemic allows, I hope to see some conferences return to the in-person format. Stream the keynotes if you want; there’s a powerful argument for that. But the longer we go without those informal connections and opportunities to focus -- actually focus -- on other places, the more we’ll lose as an industry. You see your own campus differently after you’ve been away for a bit. The last thing we need now is to lose the awareness of other possibilities.

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Matt Reed

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