Let’s use in-person conferences for interaction, not presentation

Annual meetings should be reimagined as spaces that enable connections – including with practitioners and the media, says Noam Schimmel

October 7, 2023
People standing and talking at a conference
Source: iStock

The pandemic had many negative impacts on academia. But, just for a moment, it cracked open the possibility of a different and altogether better kind of academic conference.

As conferences transitioned initially to an exclusively online format and then to hybrid arrangements, they were suddenly opened up to all sorts of people who are typically unable to attend big, expensive set-pieces, such as those with family responsibilities or disabilities, or those from lower-income countries. Ironically, lockdowns allowed the scholarship, commentary and visions of those from Africa, Asia and Latin America to became more globally visible than they had ever been previously.

There is no doubt that there is value to giving papers in person in many cases. But we have also learned that presenting papers via Zoom need not detract significantly from effective sharing and discussion of scholarship. Understandably, not everyone felt positively about Zoom presentations, but a substantial number were comfortable with it.

Yet, post-pandemic, we have quickly returned to mostly in-person formats. For instance, while my own disciplinary body, the American Political Science Association (APSA), has added some new formats for paper presentations at its annual conference, traditional paper panel presentations still predominate at this and most similar events. This seems like a missed opportunity, not only for equity and inclusion but also for scholarly exchange and impact.

Having attended 15 or so academic conferences over the past decade, I tend to find that although panels are, of course, a central part of the experience and sometimes allow for meaningful discussion, they do not reflect the kind of learning and exchange that characterise dynamic learning experiences. They are largely frontal and passive.

There’s also a substantial portion of what’s meaningful and consequential about conferences that take place outside those structured and formal spaces. Currently, those chance interactions that can lead to something significant occur during meals, receptions and circulatory spaces. But my sense is that if we gave them structure and put them at the heart of conferences, rather than the margins, there would be greatly expanded possibilities for more creative engagement among conference participants.

In the case of political studies, as well as other social sciences, we could also build in opportunities for academics to engage with figures from government, civil society and the media. Indeed, such individuals and organisations could be invited to present, too – but not in the form of academic papers. Rather, they would share reflections and ideas on aspects of political science as they play out in their particular areas of practice.

I am a member of APSA’s human rights section. This is an example of a field whose scholarship would derive particular value from engagement with NGOs and government agencies working in development, humanitarian aid, human rights and social care. We would also value opportunities for sharing our knowledge and scholarship with journalists and the media.

The way to make space for all that would be to shift many of the traditional conference presentations on to Zoom. Or we could dispense with some of them entirely: after all, many academic associations, including APSA, already require papers to be uploaded in advance of annual meetings, so any registered delegates can read them. Consequently, there is an unnecessary element of duplication in then having the papers read – either in person or online. Some presenters might be content merely to upload their papers and invite feedback by email or through a digital platform.

Encouragingly, APSA will be hosting its first all-virtual research meeting next February, which could provide a potential model for incorporating into the in-person annual meeting, enabling more creative and interactive programming.

Conferences need to be reimagined and reinvigorated as spaces that enable connections and communications that enrich and transcend academia rather than reinforcing its more insular tendencies. Rather than taking three or four days to present papers, surely it is better to use more of that time for endeavours that really make the most of physically being in the same place together.

Reorienting the annual conference around interactions rather than paper presentations will increase opportunities for academic research to affecdt policy, practice and popular understanding – and to be enriched by them in a dialogical and mutually beneficial way.

Noam Schimmel is an associate fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism in the McGill Faculty of Law and also lecturer in international and area studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles