Don’t delete me from science just because conferences suck.
In my piece “What is the future of conferences? And what should be?” I discussed many concerns that I have with the current model of meetings (virtual and in-person) in academia. But, as I mentioned in passing in that piece, with every virtual or hybrid meeting that fails — from deadnaming attendees, to crumbling meeting architecture with a million links, un-clickable sections of websites, and obscure procedures — the benefits with which we are flirting in virtual (and hybrid) meetings feel like they’re slipping away.
This is not a simple two-sided argument, but rather a defense of what the format should be. For disabled researchers the issue is very fraught; while most people are arguing about virtual vs. in-person, we have to consider how virtual meetings overwhelmingly lack basic access measures such as (reliable and closed) captioning, sign language interpretation, and, importantly for many whether disabled or not, accessible user experience. Similarly, online events have the potential for broadening global access, particularly during a climate crisis and global pandemic, but events overly rely on Western assumptions for how meetings are set up, and almost never have any translation services or multi-timezone support.
As I wrote in my previous piece, I don’t actually think that societies have seen virtual and hybrid meetings as opportunities for broadening participation, but have rather rushed — whether organized in spring 2020 or autumn 2021 — to try to replicate the in-person experience which is necessarily incredibly exclusive in the virtual realm. But of course this doesn’t work; when you change the modes of communication and interaction, the rules have to change, as do the structures of the event.
This is exactly where the concept of “access” becomes very vague; access is really about everyone, about accommodating the needs of people to best participate in life. Virtual meetings leave behind people who are less versed about tools like Zoom and PowerPoint; virtual events do not necessarily provide more time to carers and often eat into their time even more. Do early career researchers have greater voice if they are not deliberately prioritized? Can we rely on the increased participation of women at virtual meetings by default rather than looking at the specific avenues that enabled these increases — and enhance them even further?
A huge part of this issue is the underestimation of what goes into planning and all the sites of information exchange and exclusion. The first part concerns the fact that UX is an entire profession, as is access expertise; there are important cost-benefit analyses and goalposts concerning web design, how Q&A functions, how tools are communicated to people, what kinds of information exchange must be prioritized and how, the personnel necessary for supporting needs and their respective roles, attendee-organizer interactions. Everything from your code of conduct to how an attendee logs into the system can be planned meticulously in a way to promote the user/attendee experience and this takes work. There is a whole field’s worth of literature on best practice for captioning.
The second part is a bigger problem in the world: this idea that “diversity and inclusion” is a concept that can be tagged onto an existing project, whereas structural power differentials (ableism, white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy) of course are baked into any architectures we establish. What assumptions are made in how Q&A is run? What burdens does a flipped classroom model exacerbate, enable, or eliminate, depending on how it’s executed?
My personal experience of conferences is one of a lot of pain, literally. I have chronic pain and fatigue as well as other conditions, including ones that cause dietary restrictions. My first conference was the AGU Fall Meeting in 2014. There, I fell in love with conferences; I was at a ripe time for roaming the oral sessions and taking in as much information I could pack into my brain. But that was about one year into developing my chronic illness and I wasn’t prepared to be exhausted and in pain constantly. There was nowhere to sit outside the venue to wait for a taxi and so I sat on a curb in the rain.
Into my Ph.D., I was much more savvy, stocking snacks in my bag and knowing how to find food I could eat outside of venues to keep in my accommodation. But I also learned that the lack of seats wasn’t uncommon. EGU in Vienna in 2018 was often a fight to get any sort of seat and I ended up taking a day off from the conference to rest. My first day at EPSC in Berlin in 2018, I became extremely nauseous and dizzy and needed to put my head down; the very few seats available were hard wood chairs with no backs. I came down with a virus that week and had to remain in my AirBnB most of the conference, wasting both my registration and the travel award that I had won to lie in bed and wait for it to pass.
I luckily haven’t since been “ill” in this way at conferences but thereafter my lack of participation became modal. At a Royal Society meeting in London in 2020, the social event was standing-only, and so I left, even though it was only two days and I was attending to scope out job opportunities (it was here, by the way, that I realized that an easy way to improve access when filling seats is to leave aisle seats free; I stood during this whole meeting but there were free seats in the middles of rows that I couldn’t get to). Even during team meetings at my own department I would leave to sit in my office and eat my meal separate from everyone else in another building, because everyone ate and socialized standing up. Conferences would force me to take days off or work from home for days afterwards because the over-exertion, having no other options but to stand and walk and simply go without food, would trigger flares. There is usually a complicated calculus for disabled people at conferences (something oft-discussed by Gabi Serrato-Marks, who wrote this excellent guide on conference accessibility).
But it’s not just my illness — I noticed that if I did put my body at risk to attend social meetings, or to roam the halls, I would get stared at, doors shut in my face, or no interaction, or sometimes harassment (I am not, let’s say, the modal face of science). I often had to avoid harassers in the halls. A senior scientist yelled at me after my very first talk in 2014. I progressively felt my love for the learning environment falter.
All of these experiences fed into Space Science in Context, the conference I co-organize with Dr. Ellie Armstrong and which we planned pre-pandemic. Access and equity were built into our budget, ethos, codes of conduct, emails; everything. It was the first virtual conference during the pandemic that I would attend, and I was eager to model it on the successes of Ableism in Academia 2019, which was a very deliberate and meticulously planned and cultivated hybrid conference at UCL (yes, these have existed for a while). We expected 60 attendees but the novelty of the format drew 450. It was a steep learning curve, a magical experience, a hard lesson wrapped into one; we definitely had failures but we also managed to have a very specific, deliberate space that we can only hope to replicate in future. 24% of SSiC attendees were disabled/neurodivergent, compared with < 4% in academia and about 20% in the U.S.; almost 70% were LGBTQ. While these are relative wins we have to consider where we failed (global access, captioning, and more) as well as what specific provisions led to this diversity; we certainly can’t say “it was it being virtual.”
Coming out of the first SSiC, I became a virtual conference and access consultant, aiding in everything from writing codes of conduct to recruiting speakers, chairing, and managing funds. Through all of these experiences I did research into best practices and studies on inclusivity in meetings, having already done research into pathways of exclusion in academia for various diversity committees. This is when I realized that meetings simply fail. It became clear why I and people like me are failed at conferences.
It has been truly eye-opening to be going through a flare, which can often force me to be largely bedbound, but to be able to attend a whole conference. I can eat what I’d like and take a nap between sessions; I can type notes on my laptop and view content, if a flipped format, in keeping with my own schedule. It was an entirely different world and it hit me all at once how much in-person meetings had hurt my body. I realized that I will never attend an in-person conference again, if I can help it.
But on the other side, d/Deaf and HoH academics have been raising the issue of access — as they have since well before the pandemic, about in-person events. Older participants who may struggle with technology, carers for whom the flipped model may overburden them, anyone who tires of screens, people with poor Internet access, and basically the general population of researchers having to become A/V amateurs to produce content they pay to present have all raised the access issues of virtual conferences. Sometimes meetings have hostile codes of conduct that require eye contact, sitting up straight, and other silly things that assume not just physical capabilities and often class access to a private streaming space, but also an ownership of your behaviors.
However, as mentioned, to accept these issues, from web design to how an event is chaired and the code of conduct, to captioning provisions and how many seats you have in a hall, as about access and to accept that primarily disability model of viewing bodymind diversity is to also accept a structural view of the world. I don’t think that’s an easy ask of particularly institutionally-entrenched academic societies or universities who use diversity as a legal term more than anything (this is a great piece by Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein on diversity as a racket).
So, as I’ve said, it’s not black and white. It’s not “virtual vs. in-person,” because you’re naming both a class of format and a class of experiences. There are hundreds of virtual formats and hundreds of in-person formats and hundreds of hybrid formats. The experiences that we have are important, different, and are directly shaped by how organizers approach the format.
It’s exhausting that after every virtual conference I hear the many valid complaints about the event, and that they’re understandably extrapolated to the format. It just sounds like my (personal and problematic) access to conferences is slipping away, even as these conferences are extremely inaccessible in other ways and I am highly critical of the ways societies are structuring these formats.
The advice is simple: hire people who know what they’re doing, and respect your attendees, including your speakers. Consider paying your speakers. (Consider unmaking the entire model of research as a money machine for publishers.) But, again, I don’t think that societies are necessarily seeking out ways to maximize the benefits that they’re starting to interpret from the gains they’ve made in registrations, nor connecting these with the general push for academia to do better by anyone (although, as alluded above, I am skeptical of any institution signing on to D&I for a host of reasons).
To be fair, I’ve seen and consulted for small societies really committing to using this time to reflect on how meetings are done and identifying and eliminating barriers ahead of time (as I reflect on in my previous piece). Societies like AGU and AAS/DPS have offered free registration for students from minority institutions and historically excluded countries, which is commendable, of course, and needs to be happening across STEM. Moving forward, how is equity being baked into the ways meetings are structured? What is our field learning from conferences with unusable interfaces, deadnaming trans attendees and misprinting non-Western names, auto-captions a.k.a. craptions (look! this is an old term)? Are we going to move forward? Or are we going to continue to off-load these problems onto attendees who then call for the end of virtual formats?
I am just hoping that the byproduct of these failures isn’t that I and people like me get deleted from science.