After a year and a half of attending everything via Zoom/WebEx/Google Meets/Teams, etc., I have just spent four days attending two in-person conferences. That they were back to back was a bit of a juggle for me, but the distance between them was not too daunting and off I went. Both conferences asked for proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test; Both conferences asked for masks in the scheduled sessions. One had the clever idea of indicating on our name tags our comfort level with hand shaking and such, which was nice. I’m pretty sure that information got totally lost in the joy felt with seeing friends and colleagues in person. There was a lot of hugging.
Now I have to play catch-up with my schedule today because of the luxurious time spent paying attention to in-person conversations (and not my phone). Nevertheless, I want to mention a few things this morning that I think are important for all of us as we navigate our post-pandemic environment. So here goes.
In-person conferences are more engaging than virtual conferences.
Our virtual platforms have been incredibly important to our survival of this pandemic, but they do not offer anything like the experience of an in-person conference. Zoom and its equivalents are great options for meetings that are focused on particular tasks. If the meeting is too large, it isn’t great, but the capacity to move through a defined agenda is fully there. We have been able to sustain our governance on campus nicely with these tools, and I think it is probably a good idea to keep some of that in place moving forward. The opportunity for small break out groups can also be effective, when appropriate, allowing a committee and subcommittee structure to work through a specific issue. This ease of attendance (folks don’t have to drive to campus or rush between our two campuses, for example) makes this a good option.
But when we are looking for the free exchange of ideas that are less agenda driven and more exploratory, in-person is still better. We miss too many cues in Zoom. It is hard to see reactions and we can’t hear them at all, because to function well folks must be muted. So, even though we are “called on” in the in-person session, which is imitated with the raised hand features on Zoom-like platforms, the rest of the nonverbal messages are missing and the speaker(s) never know how their ideas or comments have landed in the room. The virtual experience just doesn’t compare to the live one. Ultimately, they are just a bit boring for lack of the response experience.
Physical co-presence creates better conditions for focused attention.
Let’s face it, most people are multi-tasking when they attend meetings and conferences virtually. It is just too easy to look like one is paying attention while still answering email. Our screens are places where we jump from thing to thing, often with sense of urgency that is in the medium but not the messages we consume. This means that we are necessarily giving less than our full attention to the conversation at hand.
I am not naive. Folks do this in in-person meetings as well. I mean, why else have there been so many conversations about how to manage students and their phones in class? I’ll add that I see the same problem with faculty, staff, and administrators who can’t seem to disconnect for a meeting. It is actually a pet-peeve of mine because I do put my phone away to engage in the meeting fully. Despite this, the simple fact is that it is harder to check one’s phone in the room than it is online. We have to do it surreptitiously because we know it is rude and disruptive. That feeling that we need to hide this activity encourages us to give the speaker more of our attention.
It is attention, without distractions, that can help us understand the issues and ideas important to the people present. With that attention, we might develop a thoughtful response to what we are hearing. Without that attention, we tend to miss the finer points of a debate or presentation as we move between screens. It is the meeting equivalent of skimming, and that is only good for summaries, not rich understanding.
The conversations outside the meetings are the real benefit of the in-person conference.
Although it is entirely possible for me to pop into a particular panel of interest to me at a virtual conference and learn something, what is missing most of all from these online experiences is the conversation that follows the session. Those spontaneous interactions as we pass through the halls, processing what we have heard just don’t happen in Zoom. The realization that you and a person you have just met have a shared interest in a topic, or that you and a colleague are facing a similarly complex scenario, is just harder to discover in the sequestered spaces of a virtual meeting. It is those conversations that restore our energy and re-engage our enthusiasm for our discipline, the work we do, and our colleagues.
As I catch up with the many tasks I ignored while I enjoyed those conversations with new acquaintances and long-time friends, I know I have benefitted from the time away from my desks at home and at work. I have a few new ideas, to be sure, but I also have that restored sense of community that always follows the opportunity to connect with peers in informal ways. It encourages me to think more carefully about what we are doing online and what we should bring back to campus as the year progresses. It isn’t just a set of decisions about classes, it is really everything that we do.
So, let’s not default to virtual conferences post-pandemic. It may be less expensive, and perhaps we should be selective about how often we go, but we need the away time and those great or silly conversations to inspire ideas and rekindle our spirits. And let’s not opt for Zoom meetings for everything on campus either. The efficiency of the online meeting comes at the cost of the spontaneous conversations that help us connect with each other. We can be selective about our in person experiences, but we need to gather even if it just to remind us that we are a community.