Everyone I know on Twitter was at a conference last week, or will be at one this week. Everyone. Men, women, children. I even saw dogs at the POD conference. Swimming dogs. Like I said, everyone.
I've been wondering about conferences for a while. I love conferences. I really do. And, I think that perhaps we're arriving at a crossroads where it's time to reimagine conferences. Here are some questions I've been pondering:
1. AFFORDABILITY: I remember a time when I could get a gallon of gas for 99 cents and conferences seemed affordable, or at least more affordable than they are now. I was talking to one of my professors recently, and she said that many of her graduate students are getting priced out of higher ed conferences. I scoped out a spring 2020 conference, and my best estimate is that it will cost $2000 when all is said and done. That's bananas.
Who can afford to attend conferences? Who can't? My sense is that a lot of decisions are made at conferences. A lot of programs are designed and developed. People carry ideas back home to their campuses that they've generated at conferences. Whose voices are included in developing those ideas? Whose are left out? I was reading recently about double digit enrollment drops at some Massachusetts community colleges. I worked at a community college during single digit enrollment drops. People are fighting to keep their jobs, living through furloughs, and wondering about their futures. That's not the best time to ask for $2000 to attend a conference. Of course, add adjuncts and other independents to the mix. Are their voices included?
2. ACCESSIBILITY: Long-distance travel over several days is either not an option, or an extreme challenge for many people. I'm thinking of disabled folks, moms, caregivers, and people of color who we know have a ton of demands on their time in navigating the academy, leading diversity initiatives, providing emotional labor, and mentoring students. Even if people can afford it financially, is conference travel a realistic option for everyone in higher education? Again, I think a lot of voices aren't at the table. They should be.
3. LOTS OF FUEL: If you haven't heard, the world is on fire. Members of the Society for Neuroscience recently started a petition to start reducing their carbon footprint by considering the impact of their conference travel and offering virtual attendance and participation options. It would seem that higher education and its related conferences have an opportunity to do some good work in this area. How can we all reduce our carbon footprint?
4. HIERARCHIES: In the middle of thinking this all of this through, Tressie McMillan Cottom was tweeting about #DATUM2019, a recent unconference.
So where do we go from here?
In addition to Dr. Cottom's suggestions, I'm curious about the possibility of more remote conference options. When I started in higher education in 2002, online education for college students was just starting to take off. We've obviously seen tremendous growth in our online course offerings for students, but it seems to me that our higher education conferences haven't caught up. I see tons of other online conferences for business development, psychology, yoga, wellness, etc. Why aren't there more online higher education conferences?
How can we recognize the value of sharing space and of being social, while also making conferences more equitable and accessible? How do we mitigate our negative impact on the environment? How can we make sure that all voices are included at conferences?
What if we threw out the existing models and started from scratch, based on who and where we are today? What would that look like?
How can we reimagine conferences?
I say this about online education a lot: I critique it because I love it, and I want it to be better. The same goes for conferences. I love the idea of getting people out of their daily routines in order to share, celebrate, and ideate. I critique them because I love them, and I see a world of opportunity ahead of us if we're willing to challenge each other to see things differently.
I write about higher education.