Conference water-cooler moments are not accessible to everyone

Yes, in-person interaction has benefits, but ending online accessibility will close the door again on those unable to travel, says Alexandra Ridgway

August 17, 2022
Two big bottles of water with a baby inside each to illustrate Conference water-cooler moments are not accessible to everyone
Source: Getty/istock montage

It is 2019 and my twins are three months old. After much sleep deprivation, I have somehow submitted my dissertation, having straddled the tightrope of breastfeeding twins alongside paragraph creation and management of an unwieldy referencing system.

Even after sending the thesis off, though, I am not ready to let go of the interviewer, the writer, the thinker in me. Motherhood is all-consuming, but I hold tightly on to what I have spent so many years becoming: a scholar.

Not long after submission, I learn that an expert in my field is presenting her new findings at a university on the other side of the city, so I email the organisers: “I am wondering if the seminar is recorded or can be accessed via teleconference?” And I explain the challenges of travelling with two babies.

“These options will not be possible,” they tell me. “Apologies that we cannot accommodate you on this occasion.”

Although I can barely dress myself to take the twins to the shops, I decide to bundle all of us into the car and make the trip. “It is worth it,” I tell the anxiety that tugs at me. A friend offers to come and help with the twins.

Despite leaving early, it takes us more than two and a half hours to get to the university. As I circle around the car park looking desperately for a free spot, the minutes tick by, the babies become increasingly unsettled, and I end up leaving the car illegally in one of the staff parking bays. I pull out the pram, snap the capsules into place and hand it to my friend before racing across the campus.  

When I enter the room, 20 minutes into a one-hour presentation, all eyes turn to me, observing me coolly, the inconvenient latecomer. There are no spare seats, so I stand in a corner among stacks of unused chairs and tables, and try to focus. Through the window I can see my friend on the grass below as she rocks the capsules back and forth, my babies’ mouths open wide, crying for me.

The drive home goes from bad to worse, taking three hours as the babies scream in the back seat and my friend, wedged between them, tries her best to console them with nursery rhymes. When we arrive home, we are all hot and flustered and I race inside, stripping off mine and the twins’ clothes in a mad dash for the breastfeeding pillow. The babies latch and immediately soothe but I collapse, tears streaming down my face.  

There it goes, I think. There goes my scholarly self, disappearing from view.

Six months later, the world has been overturned by the pandemic. Melbourne enters a strict lockdown and, suddenly, the technology that was unavailable the previous year is in common usage. The very same research group who could not facilitate my attendance the previous year now proudly writes in its newsletter about upcoming Zoom presentations.

In what feels like an instant, my life is altered. I listen to academics as I walk with the pram. I present my own work while my husband cares for the twins in his lunch breaks. And I participate in international conferences late in the night when they sleep.

But the opportunities do not stop there. My work is read by those who I never would have met pre-pandemic and I am invited to contribute chapters to two edited collections, both based in Europe. I take on paid academic projects from three universities, none of which are within commuting distance from my home, now in rural Victoria. I fulfil them successfully, mostly working in the evenings or weekends. 

This is radical. Perhaps this is the revolution of university life we were destined to have, I wonder. Deep down, however, I fear that the opportunities I have been afforded will vanish when life returns to “normal”.

Now, as Covid becomes a more accepted feature of social life, I already see that starting to happen. Even as universities and academics preach the importance of inclusion and accessibility, conferences and forums are increasingly being advertised as in-person only. We are sold the benefits of chats around the water cooler or during the conference tea breaks. Yes – but what about the pressures such mandates impose on those who find attendance difficult, if not beyond reach?

The academic voices excluded by decisions to reduce online options are also those that were more likely to be silenced to begin with. It is not only those with caring responsibilities and those who live in remote and rural areas, but also those with disabilities and chronic illnesses – not least, long Covid.

I am not saying that purely online models should continue to dominate. There has, after all, been evidence that returning to physical university spaces has benefits, especially for those who thrive in such settings. However, removing the option to participate remotely will not encourage the marginalised on to campus. Rather, it will re-erect the barriers that have, for much too long, stopped individuals from different walks of life from participating in university life.

Alexandra Ridgway is a socio-legal scholar who completed her PhD through the department of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, graduating in 2020.

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Reader's comments (1)

The two years I spent working from home during the Covid pandemic have been the most productive period of my life so far and I have never felt more useful or had a better work-life balance. We cannot and should not put the genie of remote working back into the bottle, nor should we underestimate the environmental benefits of our not constantly flying around the world to attend every other academic conference and seminar.


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