COVID Conferences: Vulnerable Scholars Needn’t Apply

In scrapping remote options for conferences, academia has set out on a dangerous trajectory, Shira Lurie and Nicole Schroeder write.

October 6, 2022
A user's manicured hands rest on a laptop. The screen shows an ongoing remote conference meeting, with nine participants. A coffee cup sits next to the laptop.
(RawPixel)

In 2020, we all moved online. We worked, taught, researched and networked remotely. Educators redesigned their courses for remote access. Scholars from across the globe met over Zoom. Archives digitized more materials. For many, it was a new, more accessible world.

One of our field’s major organizations, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR), canceled its conference planned for Philadelphia and instead hosted a single session online—“Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump.” The panel featured a paper by Daniel Feller with comments by Jeanne and David Heidler, David Waldstreicher, and Harry Watson. It was an absolute disaster. Many viewers were outraged by Feller’s remarks, in which he downplayed Jackson’s genocidal policies. Feller disparaged the works of female scholars in the Q&A period and twice used a racial slur to describe Indigenous peoples.

The fallout was quick and furious. SHEAR faced a barrage of criticism for the content of the panel, the makeup of its panelists (the all-white, senior participants did not meet SHEAR’s own standards for panel diversity) and its decision to remove the online recording shortly afterward (it subsequently restored the video, but audience comments did not reappear). Early Americanists also took this incident as an opportunity to discuss larger issues of inclusion. Many accused SHEAR of being cliquey, elitist and old-fashioned. The panel wasn’t an isolated incident; it was emblematic of larger problems in the organization.

In response, SHEAR promised change. It created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and published a Statement of Values committing to “fostering a scholarly community in which all members feel a true sense of belonging.” It created a new DEI fellowship program to support scholarship on minoritized communities. In 2021, SHEAR held its annual meeting online and featured a panel on “Scholarly Organizations and Diversity” and a forum on navigating academia during the COVID-19 crisis. In many conversations over the course of the conference, participants discussed opportunities for access and inclusion created by online modalities. Remote access could promote diversity and expand membership.

We eagerly anticipated SHEAR 2022 with these supposed commitments towards inclusivity in mind. And so we were disappointed to learn that the conference would be held in person in New Orleans—a decision that ignored the success of the prior meeting’s online experience. In 2021, caregivers had been able to listen to sessions while maintaining their routines. Disabled people had been able to accommodate themselves. No one had paid excessive costs or endured travel difficulties and delays. There were no stressors about enduring long days, finding allergen-free food options or obtaining restful sleep in a hotel room. For once, our community was navigating the world in disabled ways of living. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.

Still, the call for papers encouraged scholars to apply for necessary accommodations. When we proposed our panel, we assumed that SHEAR 2022 would provide online access and an in-person option that featured evidence-based COVID protections. SHEAR offered neither. Instead, the 2022 conference plans looked like they were created in 2019. The final 84-page program barely mentioned COVID, and while attendees were encouraged to wear masks, the conference did not require them. There was no vaccine/booster mandate, testing requirement, contact-tracing plan, air-quality information or social distancing regulations.

And those unwilling or unable to attend such an event were unwelcome. Apart from a few pre- and postconference workshops held online, SHEAR offered no online access beyond Zooming into one’s own panel. Those not on the program would be unable to attend whatsoever.

Amid a persistent pandemic, climate emergency, inflation crisis and soaring travel costs and despite SHEAR’s Statement of Values forbidding discrimination on the basis of disability, the organization chose to bar all those without the privilege to attend in person. In an attempt to “return to normal,” the organization withdrew access from many scholars.

For our panel, SHEAR extended us “accommodations” that fell far short of inclusion. While we were allowed to join our panel via Zoom, we had to ensure that one of our in-person panelists would create the Zoom link, bring their own laptop and run the technology during the session. Due to this poor setup, we, as virtual presenters, were unable to see the audience during the session, which posed a number of challenges. SHEAR also forbade us from circulating the Zoom link, inviting other remote guests or attending other panels. An accommodation is not a half-hearted imitation—according to the ADA, reasonable accommodations should provide disabled individuals “equal benefits and privileges” to those of nondisabled individuals. Clearly our definitions did not align.

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When we proposed a range of possible access solutions, spanning different degrees of cost and commitment, organizers refused to implement any of them. They told us that providing online access for those unable to attend in New Orleans would harm the “conference energy,” be (somehow) inequitable and risk inaccurately representing the conference. They said it could only be achieved if “a generous sponsor” materialized to fund a virtual option and that the logistics were difficult to “figure out.” Instead of an openness to collaborating and learning about accessible practices, our suggestions were met with defensiveness and a doubling down on inaccessibility. SHEAR has also made the choice to host both the 2023 and 2024 meetings in person at conference hotels and has suggested it will likely be unable to provide hybrid access due to cost and technological considerations at the chosen venues.

These adamant defenses of in-person conferences feel especially pernicious after experiencing what the academy could be over the two past years. To be clear, disabled people have long advocated for remote access. And so, the start of the pandemic felt like a new beginning when we finally saw those demands met. Other scholars have echoed the same sentiment. As Toni Saia, Andrea Perkins Nerlich and Sara P. Johnston have written, “Because everyone needed these changes, the historical ‘hard no’s’ quickly turned into ‘we could make that happen,’ a sentiment disabled people have been waiting to hear most of their lives.” But as soon as people felt safe returning to in-person activities, organizers jumped at the chance to retract remote options.

Many saw a switch to remote modalities only as a loss. People claimed that remote conferencing “wasn’t the same” and that it felt “unnatural.” Organizers cited the same outdated excuses—too costly, too time-consuming and too logistically difficult. There was a lack of imagination. Instead of asking how we could build better remote options, organizers scrapped all progress.

In doing so, SHEAR, and academia as a whole, is setting itself on a dangerous trajectory. How much longer can we sustain a profession designed for people that no longer populate it, for a world that no longer exists? We are not solely made up anymore of tenured, able-bodied, married white men with large travel budgets, no caregiving responsibilities and American citizenship. Yet we still cling to methods designed by and for this demographic. Little wonder that the representation of marginalized people in academia is so low. Marginalized scholars only make up 12.9 percent of full-time faculty members nationwide, and while women account for 47 percent of full-time faculty members, women are disproportionately represented in non-tenure-track positions, according to data from the American Association of University Professors. We don’t even have decent data to assess disabled faculty in higher education, but estimates range from 1.5 to 4 percent. What kind of future are we building when these are our current diversity estimates? Certainly not an equitable one.

The shift to remote access offered an opportunity to do so much better. We have ample evidence that online and hybrid conferences help combat classism, racism and sexism. Virtual options help caregivers, scholars who are frequently denied visas, graduate students, contingent scholars and disabled individuals. Virtual options can also prevent incidents of sexual harassment and assault that are so pervasive at in-person events. And when academia is more accessible, it’s also more diverse. A 2022 study found that a switch to online formats for three large scientific conferences in 2020 increased female participation by 253 percent, queer scholar participation by 700 percent and attendance by students and postdocs by 344 percent. The move to virtual also dramatically reduced each conference’s carbon footprint.

How much richer would the academy be if we designed safe spaces for all kinds of scholars, not just the most privileged? But creating access requires more than a performative Statement of Values or the convening of another DEI committee. We need to acknowledge the harms we’ve perpetrated, commit to doing better and then actually carry out those commitments. In doing so, we might just save the academy. And make it worth saving, too.


EDITOR’S NOTE: In a written statement, SHEAR leaders largely declined to comment on specific claims but confirmed the general COVID policies as described on the association’s website were accurate. The statement, signed by SHEAR president Serena Zabin, immediate past president Joanne Freeman and president-elect Paul Erickson, noted that the association created a committee during the 2022 conference “that will consider these and related issues for future conferences.” SHEAR leaders added, “Maintaining accessibility is a challenge facing all scholarly organizations in the age of COVID and we (as representatives of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) look forward to being part of a wider conversation.”

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Shira Lurie is an assistant professor of U.S. history at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia. Nicole Schroeder is an Equity in Action Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow at Kean University in New Jersey.

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