The lockdown that began in March 2020 was followed by a lull in professional interactions as we all waited to find out what was next. As it became clear we were not going to travel or meet in person anytime soon, professional societies regrouped, Zoom ramped up, and the Year of Virtual Conferences began. I attended several, including the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), the American Society of Overseas Research (ASOR), and the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), among others. The societies did a remarkable job with the last-minute shift to all-virtual sessions, even managing to organize social events and poster sessions. Others have discussed the past year of virtual conferencing (here and here), and this post shares some of my own particular experiences.
With concerns over Zoom fatigue, many conferences in 2020 decreased the amount of time everyone would have to spend on their computers by pre-recording talks and committing the “in person” time to Q&A and panel discussions. This was a welcome change! In-person conferences tend to be tightly scheduled, leaving time only for the presentations and no open Q&A. Audience members are expected to catch up with the presenters after the session and talk to them one-on-one. In the virtual sessions, discussions involved all attendees, bringing in more perspectives and offering opportunities for people to join in who might have not found the opportunity in a busy in-person conference.
Another welcome difference in virtual conferences is that they eliminate the stresses caused by parallel sessions. Since most virtual papers are recorded and made available after-the-fact, conference attendees may view all the presentations they missed in their own time, from the comfort of their own homes. This benefits the presenters, as well, because their talks reach many more people over time.
The virtual conferences I attended also seemed more diverse, with people from around the world and more young scholars than usual. This surely had to do with the fact that the virtual conferences are more affordable since attendees don’t have to fly to them or stay for several nights.
It is important to recognize, also, that conversations at in-person conferences frequently take place at the hotel bar. While this can be fun and relaxing, it also excludes and intimidates many people, especially younger scholars who may not have an “in” on those social circles. The involvement of alcohol and alcohol-related behavior can make interactions complicated and sometimes dangerous. Online sessions offer a more welcoming and inclusive space for attendees to engage in discussions by asking questions and writing comments in the chat box. Because everyone’s name shows up with their video, the virtual setting can also be helpful for networking without having to search for people at the bar. Oddly, Zoom is almost more personal than an in-person session. Since you can see everyone’s faces and names, you can “get to know” others more than you would in a room full of people who listen to a talk and then run off to the next session.
What Didn’t Work
Sadly, our virtual exhibit booth at the Society for American Archaeology conference was a bust (it is located here but is only accessible to conference registrants). Visitors could browse around the exhibitors’ booths and start a chat or request a video call with the exhibitors. Perhaps people wandered into our virtual booth, but only one person chose to use the chat box and nobody requested a video call. I have been thinking about what went wrong. Maybe we didn’t advertise enough. Maybe we should have tweeted more. But I don’t think it was just us. I clicked around the virtual exhibit hall and noticed that most (all?) “booths” had few to no visitors. This makes sense. After all, why do you visit the exhibit hall? Mostly, you want to wander around, browse the book tables, pick up some free swag, and run into other colleagues who are also wandering around doing the same thing. In doing that, you end up standing in front of a booth and sometimes chatting with the exhibitor. The serendipitous discovery and casual chit-chat that occurs in an in-person exhibit hall could not be replicated online, at least in this case. I am curious to hear if anyone has had a good online exhibit hall experience—if so, what worked?
Many professional societies have recognized the benefits of virtual offerings and are working on hybrid meetings, at least in the near future (for example, ASOR 2021 is offering a combination of in-person and virtual sessions, with some sessions doing both). Although nothing can replace the spontaneity and serendipity of face-to-face meetings, virtual conferences can be far more inclusive while also reducing travel, helping many people with their commitment to decreasing their carbon footprint.
Conferences have traditionally played an important part of professional development. The travel, hotel stays, and intense, focused time with a community of colleagues make conference participation a special time in a researcher’s career. This focused and dedicated time helps scholars establish collaborations, make plans, and participate in a research community without many of the normal distractions and divided attention that comes with staying at home. In fact, the act of traveling and distancing oneself from everyday concerns seems important. I’ve actually felt more exhausted and less engaged in conferences that take place in my home town because I didn’t feel like I could put normal life on hold!
So how can we carve out this “special time” to devote to participating in our research community, but do it in a way that burns less carbon and is more inclusive and more accessible? As we move forward, we’ll need to find better ways to combine some of the best of both in-person and virtual conference formats to better reconnect and broaden participation in our research communities.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Eric Kansa for some discussion and thoughtful contributions to this piece!