Academic conferences are getting some scrutiny about environmental impact of travel. Some.

While a valid concern, I think it’s the a misplaced one. Nor is it one of face to face versus online. Are we really doing the best we can for the convening to share practices and ideas? And while there is a privilege system at work (and I have been on that red carpet side of the travel ropes), another one less spoken of, for the self employed, is the cost of time.

I am deconferencing.

Da Planes! Da Planes!

Image by Josep Monter Martinez from Pixabay 

I’ve noticed (but apparently closed the tabs before bookmarking) a slight uptick in academics questioning the value of the grand tradition of flying off to attend conferences.

It’s wrapped up in a question I support, but also think misses the mark- the environmental impact of air travel. Bryan Alexander suggests a shift in his post Higher ed and climate change: the end of academic conferences as we know them.

We usually start with a basic idea.  Air travel emits a lot of carbon.  To the extent that faculty, staff, and some students fly across the world for national and international conferences, we are contributing in a small way to heating the planet.  Therefore we need to rethink this practice.

https://bryanalexander.org/climatechange/higher-ed-and-climate-change-the-end-of-academic-conferences-as-we-know-them/

As another self-employed consultant in higher education, Bryan is out on the road a lot. He did hint at trying to change this in a 2019 year end post suggesting his availability to provide online services.

Another long time edu-consultant, Will Richardson, also penned his desire for a change.

With all that said, I find myself in a period of transition. Not that I’m going to quit trying to make the case for real change to happen in schools. But I am going to think about other ways to do that. I want to keep working. I want to get off planes because until they become more healthy for the planet, we should all get off planes. (Zoom anyone?)

https://willrichardson.com/a-new-phase/

Planes healthy for the planet? Seriously? Like solar powered? Flying on fuel ethically distilled from lawn clippings?

But leave it to Stephen Downes to slice much deeper into the I am Saving the Planet By Flying Less campaign (heck academics do research on this, I bet there is even a conference devoted to it). Tonight Stephen put his half an hour (that’s about how long takes me to come up with a title and a featured image!) in his post Flying to Conferences:

I just want to take a few moments to consider Bryan Alexander’s comments about flying to conferences. As most readers know, I have flown to hundreds of academic conferences over the years. So I guess I would be considered a prime offender in this regard.

Except – I don’t see myself as an ‘offender’ per se. Flying to conferences is just one of the things I’ve done over the years. I’ve also lived in apartments and houses, I’ve also bought and eaten food, I’ve clothed myself, I’ve driven and taken the train, and even taken the ferry a few times, I’ve worked in various office buildings.

All of these things have created a climate impact.

https://halfanhour.blogspot.com/2020/02/flying-to-conferences.html

What Stephen does is break down the assertion Flying Conferences Bad For Environment by looking more broadly at all of his impacts (and attempts to mitigate them). But more so, he gets to a point of saying that all our individual efforts to be maybe more carbon neutral, while commendable and worthy, mean little when the real power is in the small hand of those “who try to undermine public services, penalize the poor, and extract maximum wealth from an unwilling population, no matter what the cost to the people or the environment.”

Neither Either OR

I am not here to lay a firm line down to say all conference travel and convening is bad. But most discussions of alternatives to conference travel always dwindles to the same points “Virtual is not as good an experience” and “the technology sucks” and yadda yadda let’s keep the status quo.

It’s not a question of doing away with convening in person. It’s also not a goal (at least of mine) to try to replicate what happens in convention halls to the screens. Or just make cheap seat options for the sad pathetic people who do not get to jet off to Slobobia for the next conf.

What I want to sat is that in the span of my career little has changed or advanced about the ways of academic conference activity. The very first one I attended in 1992 baffled me– a room full of people watching a speaker at a lectern read slides about the need to change the way teaching is gone (sage/stage/guide/side, please dim the lights and advance the slides) is really not too different in 2020.

There was also this weird realization in the mid 2000s at a large EDUCAUSE conference, watching a large room full of people on break all heads down in the laptop checking email (this was before smart phones crossed The Near Horizon). This is why we travel to conferences? Even now, I picture these large conference halls where most folks are there tweeting slides.

And you know what is rarely considered? What about people that are not comfortable in loud crowded venues? Don’t conferences favor the E end of the spectrum? That is not me. I find it draining, taxing, as are the requisite social gatherings in more loud places. I did it for a while, but have little desire for it now.

I am so out of the Conference Life Loop.

That’s not to say that there are no great online conferences (there are) and there are effectives changes on the edge (notably Virtually Connecting). But it seems like our mindset of how we network, share, connect is largely limited to… conference format. Presentations. 45 minute slots.

And while it’s so easy to snicker at those years of virtual convening in Second Life, there was something with more fidelity in the experience (put aside the fur and weirdness and abject fear of one’s avatar disrobing in public).

Henry Jenkins Rocks the House in RL/SL
Henry Jenkins Rocks the House in RL/SL flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

Still, can you see the parallel irony of what is happening in both worlds?

Especially when voice chat came into the platform, there was, for that era, a real sense of presence. But more than that, a striking observation from the virtual conferences we ran at NMC, was this phenomena that I almost never see at a webinar type online conference.

People stuck around between and after sessions to hangout, talk, fly around, etc.

This always struck me as significant.

But I am by no means suggesting a return to virtual worlds. But at least it changed up the way a conference could be.

Yet there’s more to this rant.

I Was In The Club

The number of people who have the means to attend these confluences are excruciatingly small compared to the number of educators in the world. It can sure look like a prestigious club. When you are not in it.

Or as one colleague referred to it– I was once “on the circuit.”

I got to fly all over the world, attend project meetings, eat tapas, complain about long flights, give keynotes and presentations, meet up with colleagues I knew only online. In one year my TripIt tracking showed I was gone 75% of the time. One trip was a full globe circuit.

And I did not pay for one bit of this.

It was for work. It was just part of the job. Even later, when going independent, others still paid my fares in exchange for presenting/workshopping. I earned it, right? And it felt, yes, a bit glamorous. And I was there to to tweet out all the foibles of travel woes, missed planes, rude TSA agents, bland food.

Never thinking about how that looked to someone who did not get such opportunities.

As a road warrior, I was so… justified.

Many things changed in my life 2 years ago with a move to live in Canada. I also, without fanfare… became Deconferenced.

This post has been in draft a long time, I think I mentioned this somewhere online as Alec Couros replied

Yeah, I mentioned it in a Virtually Connecting session with attendees of the 2019 Open Education Conference

Open Ed19 itself was an event that gave me even more pull to assert being de-conferenced, somehow a once a year conference that fell the sword after defining itself as The Community? (oops that’s another post).

This all peeled back to an earlier experience that gets at what I see as an unmentioned problem with conferences.

There is worthy attention to the slighting of adjunct faculty at academic conferences. but does anyone look at the even more fractured experience for those of us, like me, who try to work in the field of education being self-employed? I’m not talking about the high flying sherbet dip gorging edu-celebrity keynoters.

Earlier in the year, I was in a Zoom meeting of colleagues, all volunteers in an organization. And then someone joked about “hey let’s have cogdog build that for us.” It struck me, that yes, we were all volunteering time that day, but they were all going to collect their regular paychecks. My time there is time not earning income.

Even if you are on underwaged adjunct pay, you still get your measly earnings in regular timed doses (well sort of, in one place I have taught, adjuncts did not even get first check until like 6 weeks into teaching, and there is no pay for time before class planning).

Let me tell you what it’s like being self-employed. Just getting pay is a second full time job. Every small to medium sized contract I have comes with hours submitting paperwork, following up with HR departments, asking if they got the paperwork, and trying not too much to nag your client to check up on getting that payment. Or just shrugging and starting work in hopes of getting paid maybe within weeks of doing the work.

I had one where the contract had a 30 day payable due on invoices. I politely waited extra days before asking, and waited 3 more weeks to see my bank account clink. There’s the one where the paperwork was not processed because of a sick dog. And on another one, they were rather regular- for an invoice sent the 1st I saw payment by the 10th. The last one though was a no show. When I asked about it, I heard back, “Oh sorry, we were busy last week. I will see that it goes out soon.”

Sure, my bank is willing to take that from me as an excuse for overdue bills (“Sorry Electric Company, I was busy last week”), as I am calculating the impact of loading more living expenses on the credit card.

This is the norm. Payment time is quite variable.

So going to a conference, while it can increase the possibility of getting more work, costs way more than travel. That travel time I am losing income, while all my paychecked colleagues have their regular flow coming in. All while tweeting about how cold the hotel coffee is or how annoying the loud person is seated next to them on the plane.

But this has been my choice, so I savor the other side of the coin. Freedom, flexibility, and no office meetings.

So Now What?

Finding Nemo Fish GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
from https://giphy.com/gifs/L6EoLS78pcBag

I veered a bit off track. It happens. Hey, it’s my space.

I am not against the conference travel thing. And despite what Bryan suggests, I don’t see much of end of academic conferences as we know them. The Academic Conference Industrial Complex is well established. And yes, while it’s worth considering the earth impact of our travel, like Stephen laid out well, that’s too simple a rationale. We need to look at the larger picture.

It’s got to be happening somewhere. Surely. There must be more things we can do with our time together than presentations. This was me like 12 years ago (when the title was On Conferencing)

But I still maintain we need some more alternative formats to our mid and large sized professional gatherings than concurrent lectures. If I am listening, in person, to something I can read or hear online, what is the value? 

Bottom line, if you are telling me stuff I can on the web or from an electronic resource, we are wasting both of our time and energies. It is time… do be different in our professional communication. Maybe rather than just talking about things, we can create something. Get out of the academic power talk mode, and get your audiences involved. Or be provocative and stir up dissent or counter talk.

https://cogdogblog.com/2008/01/on-conferencing/

Insert French expression about “the more things change…”

Conference on… but I am deconferencing. I am looking for better ways to share knowledge, ideas that can include more people and less travel, but just plain… better.


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Boxes of Bags
Boxes of Bags flickr photo by cogdogblog shared into the public domain using Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication (CC0)

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at CogDogBlog.com on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.

Comments

  1. Alan,
    Excellent thinking circling around a theme I’ve heard you meditating on for decades.

    I have also deconferenced. Dialed online and distance conferencing back in favor of my Big Fat Analog Life.

    You don’t mention our mutual aging as a major factor in our disenchantment with the professional hustle. You know how it is: when you’re young and just getting on board a new profession, you fling yourself into the river of professional activities.

    This river has been flowing in one channel or another since way before any of the multiple current generations was born.

    We grow older, realize the river isn’t really going anywhere and paddle to the slow currents at the edge. Eventually, we just crawl out onto the muddy bank, look out at the river still sweeping by with a younger generation of earnest educators swimming for their lives, and ask ourselves, “What the hell was that all about?”

    As my 94 year old Mom would say, “It’s all about age and stage.”

    1. If I had the answer for that I’d be a sought after conference speaker ;-)

      My guess would be “do as much as you can and encourage others” but do not live in an idea that we have no impact or that it’s negligible / someone else’s problem.

  2. It occurs to me that one of the things that’s valuable about conferences is that they block out the time to listen to the same thing all together, and then to start processing it in the company of others. And it’s the part that I find lacking in most online professional development – the protection of time, and the social construction of learning. So how do we bring it to a deconferenced environment?

    I wonder if part of the answer might involve using deconference time as dedicated reading space. Would people go along if we said “for the next 20 minutes, we’re going to sit together and read the article silently, and then we’ll start the discussion”? Nobody reads their slides at me, but I’ve still blocked out the time for new information, and for the part where I actually work with the idea in a social context. (This is a model which is working for us in face-to-face faculty development, but will it translate to online?)

    We could imagine that as workshop time too – it’s more complicated on a lot of dimensions, but I remember you and Howard Rheingold doing “Blog Talk” for Connected Courses and I feel like that’s still a rich vein to explore. Again, reserving time for tinkering by advertising that other folks will be tinkering too… the demos/instructions are real real short and the point is to roll up our sleeves and get the work done.

    Frame it as a “coaching service” and people might even pay to get in…

    1. This is the kind of thinking I like to hear! Taking the idea from presentation to shared / social construction of meaning. I am not in a position to say yay/nay but it sounds like a worthy thing to explore.

      Thanks Joe. I should have mentioned in the post that Kenyon was willing to consider a different approach for workshops with the one we did last year.

  3. A good meditation, dog. I’m glad you brought up the glow around travel, esp. paid. A fun bit of Second Life memory. And I’m not surprised you disagree with me.

    There’s a lot going on here (and Downes hasn’t yet approved my comment on his post about this). There’s an argument about how best to allocate our resources (time, money, attention) in the climate crisis. There’s the feeling that academia is under siege from the right, from ignorance, from business, and that tamping down or transforming f2f conferences plays into such politics and attitudes. There’s also the question of inequality – which you touch on – in terms of *which* academics actually get to make such trips.

    The technology angle is fascinating. As you say, it’s not a new debate. I do wonder about new technologies (VR, AR, AI) but also new practices.

    Which brings me to the Future Trends Forum. Over 4 years I think we’ve established something good. Folks don’t present. They don’t read from slides. Instead they talk with each other, either en masse or 1:1. More than 3100 people have done this. It’s not the usual conference, and it works.

    Thank you for reading this post, dog. I hope you can follow my climate change research.

    1. Oh I am following, and in my sloppy writing I probably did not acknowledge that you are approaching this at a broad level too, not just saying “down with flying!”

      Sometimes I wonder if we are in that Far Side cartoon as the dinosaurs blissfully smoking cigarettes at one hour before the Cretaceous era ends.

  4. On a personal note: probably the biggest reason I’m trying to cut down on travel is time. A single gig in the US is about a 3 day commitment, depending on distance. 4-6 days, if abroad. I need one full day at home for each of those days just to catch up with missed work (emails, primarily, but also research, writing, calls, video). You describe well how insanely busy we are as independents. While’s it’s essential to get paid for travel, the time cost is one that must be paid by me.

    Thinking of Sandy’s comment up above, age plays out weirdly for me. I don’t think I feel physically more uncomfortable than I used to when being tormented with crappy seats, bad food, etc. That will come, I’m sure, as various somatic mishaps kick in. Mentally it’s about the same – although I might be more resigned to incompetence than I used to be.

    Now that I have excellent bandwidth I can do full multimedia from home. And I’m doing this, slowly but steadily, with about one paid virtual gig/month so far. I’m trying to grow it.

  5. Flying creates a huge carbon footprint, who would argue that? Offsetting C, it is great too.
    Or maybe it is after-all contrarian justification.

    It simply boils down to this; any travel will create a C footprint. That’s the problem.
    Some solutions have been discussed in the previous posts. Bryan mentions VR conferencing @BryanAlexander.
    It’s already happening. Maybe Higher Ed is late to the game in this arena, but better late than never.
    Although in it’s infancy, and soon to be a toddler, VR conferencing, I predict, will be a viable solution replacing some conferences or optimally inviting participants to join as virtual participants .

    I had to laugh outloud -LOL- about SL!
    “And while it’s so easy to snicker at those years of virtual convening in Second Life, there was something with more fidelity in the experience (put aside the fur and weirdness and abject fear of one’s avatar disrobing in public).”

    I participated in SL in my library tenure, only to see it morph into something only for those who could afford the technology and bandwidth to actually run the platform. It fizzled out in higher ed and then years later, video conferencing platforms e.g. Skype and Zoom became popular.

    VR conferencing platforms present interesting and challenging new opportunities for educators to try out with a global reach, optimally a zero CF. Maybe to the next gen academics Y, Z , it won’t be perceived as a deconferenced environment?

    1. Reducing the carbon footprint by less flying is a plus for sure. But that was part of Stephen Downes’s post– there are considerations for suggesting that video conference or VR is a neutral replacement or is carbon zero. Almost everything has a carbon cost. Carbon is burned for electricity (and that depends on how it is produced, coal vs hydro vs nuclear), as does the manufacturing of all of our equipment (a toxic process we ignore).

      I’m not saying we need to ditch it all, but consider more factors.

      I’ve heard about telepresence etc for long even before Virtual Reality. It’s not the technology that will solve things, but re-thinking our designs, approaches. I’ve been in dreadful video meetings and super dynamic ones, all in the same platform. I just think we look to much for the platform as an answer, rather than being better at using them.

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