Virtual is the way to go for (most) academic conferences


I like flying and I like academic conferences. I like the invigorating change of scenery; the excitement of face-to-face intellectual exchanges; the professional opportunities; the cultural experiences; the sheer magic of sitting comfortably in a chair at 30,000 feet.

At the last count, I have participated in 22 academic conferences. Only seven did not require me to fly. Of the other 15, six were short-haul and nine were long-haul. And, if I’m honest, I would like to continue to fly. But academic flying is unsustainable. A single long-haul flight emits, per passenger, roughly a tenth of all the annual carbon dioxide generated by an average person in a country such as the UK. And that is only one of the ways that flying contributes to climate change.

Until we have figured out a viable way to fly sustainably, we must come to terms with this reality. If we’re serious about saving the environment and bringing about some measure of social justice, we simply have to change our ways.

It is here that the global pandemic comes in, with its lesson that virtual conferences can work perfectly well. It is a lesson that we must all learn – including the globe-trotting, masters-of-the-universe types.

As a result of a really good year for my research, I was going to fly to four international conferences this year. However, I am based in the Middle East and three of the conferences were due to be held in Europe, with the other in the US. Two of them, flagships in my field, have been pushed back to 2021. However, the other two, geared towards narrower fields of expertise, were moved online, and I decided to attend them both.

The lessons so far are as simple as they are powerful: while the face-to-face element is missing and we’re all tired of sheltering in place, the available technology is more than adequate. In fact, the technology makes it possible to do things you just can’t do at a traditional conference, such as listening to talks at any time and pressing a button to “leave”, instead of awkwardly moving along a row of chairs while everyone is watching.

At both the virtual conferences I have attended, I simply prepared PowerPoint presentations, recorded Google Meet videos and posted handouts on GoogleDocs. I then participated in Zoom panels and Q&A sessions, while also managing to see my former advisor’s keynote presentation; to engage with a variety of people I agree and disagree with; and to put my work out there. I may have even made some new friends – I have certainly gained Twitter followers.

There is evidence that virtual conferences can be nearly carbon neutral, as well as low cost. The academic side works just as well. While there is no single model to follow, there are plenty of formats available and we can continue to experiment. Judging by the comments from participants at the two I attended, virtual conferences can be a resounding success. People like to be able to watch the presentations ahead of panels and Q&A sessions and the extra time for discussion that this way of doing things affords us.

Obviously, videos can be made available for a while after the conference – and, thus, be made accessible to people who would have been unable to attend for financial or other reasons (something even face-to-face conferences now need to consider). Interestingly, virtual conferences also feel like more of a level playing field, with less emphasis on professional hierarchy and more on the actual exchange of ideas. There are also small conveniences such as not having to worry about which room to go to next.

Yes, the unmediated human contact was missing and that’s not ideal. But the pandemic will be over at some point and at least some of our options will return. The plain fact is that not all conferences and conference talks are equally consequential or worthwhile even if we’re there in person. So let’s get our priorities straight and save our flying for essential and exceptional events, while doing our everyday business online at minimal cost to the environment.

Author Bio: Adnan Ajšić is Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Sharjah.