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!
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).
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?
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.