Where Should Academic Conferences Go From Here?

Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” but instead of a cadaver the students are all rapturously looking at various buffering meeting apps. The allusion made sense in my head, don’t judge.
  1. My perspective comes mostly from HCI and information visualization conferences (with a smattering of experience of other kinds of conferences), so a good chunk of my claims about other types of conference are based on secondhand knowledge and should not be trusted on that basis.
  2. I am extremely lucky with respect to conference participation: few barriers for participation (I’ve never had to self-fund a conference trip or juggle conference attendance and child-care or teaching, or fight for accommodations for my physical or cognitive impairments) and no real personal horror stories.
  3. I have a vested personal and professional interest in continuing to attend my usual conferences, and am periodically trusted to do organizational work for these conferences in a way that (appears to?) have professional benefits for me. I’m a captive audience in a sense here, and so this document is unlikely to conclude with “burn the whole system down” even if that seems like a necessary or sufficient solution.
  1. We still haven’t figured out how to make virtual conferences do many of the things that traditional conferences do.
  2. But it’s not like traditional conferences are perfect either.
  3. Therefore we should, in the future, work collaboratively to build better hybrid models for conference participation.

What Are In-Person Conferences Good For?

Publication Venue

Field Safari

Job Fair

Classroom

Oscar Night

Cohort Formation

Cocktail Shaker of Ideas

Vacation

Where Do Virtual Conferences Fail?

Isolation

Reinventing the Wheel

Conference/Life Balance

Where Do In-Person Conferences Fail?

Accessibility

Costs of Hosting

Insecurity and Danger

Hybrid Challenges

Streaming

History

Access

Wrap Up

  1. Conferences have important functions that are more than just a collection of talks, and virtual conferences often reduce down to just the technical content at the expense of the (in some cases more important) goals of building networks and solidarity and morale.
  2. Virtual conferences give us an opportunity to reform or replace the things that don’t work. We can make conferences that are safer, more accessible, and more influential. We can establish new norms right now, and that’s pretty cool.
  3. It is still very easy and likely that we will screw things up. We’ll be quick to discard the nice bits as no longer necessary in the post-pandemic world, chase perfect revolutionary technological solutions rather than evolutionarily improving on what we have, and ignore the people who have been advocating for change or access for decades.

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Michael Correll

Michael Correll

Information Visualization, Data Ethics, Graphical Perception.