I’m Not Going to Ohio: How I Will Participate in ASEH 2019

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I am on the program for the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History, but I will not be traveling to Ohio. No flight. No hotel.

This year, I will participate on an experimental round-table session called “Building Environmental History Networks Around the World.” The session is experimental because none of the participants will be in Columbus for the conference. We will all appear by internet video conference from our respective home countries.

The round-table includes four environmental historians from four different parts of the world who have been involved in the development of scholarly networks for environmental history. I will be representing Canada and the work of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. I’ll be joined by Zhaoqing Han from Fudan University in Shanghai. Claudia Leal from Universidad de los Andes will reach us from Colombia. And Wilko Graf von Hardenberg of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science will join the session from Germany.

Four environmental historians from four different continents will present at ASEH 2019 via internet video conferencing about their experiences of scholarly networking and the development of environmental history in their respective regions of the world. If that doesn’t entice you to attend this 8:30am session, then come just to see if we can pull off this technical feat.

On the technical side of things, we will be using Zoom video conference software to present. Melissa Wiedenfeld from the program committee will moderate the session from Columbus while the round-table participants appear on screen. We will be able to talk to one another, pose questions, and respond. We will also take questions from the audience members who come to the session.

Setting up a session like this poses a number of technical challenges, but video conferencing is a skill that has become increasingly significant for academics. We use video conferencing for committee meetings, dissertation exams, and now conference presentations. The participants on this round-table have practiced ahead of time, running test calls to ensure that our internet connections are stable, our sound and video is clear, and we are all comfortable with the software. For those looking to improve their video conferencing skills, The Wirecutter published an excellent guide here.

Why are we doing this? In recent years scholars have been debating the value of academic conferences and the costs involved in conference travel. There are a lot of good reasons to start thinking about alternate forms of conference participation that don’t require one to travel. Within the past year, LSE Impact Blog has published several articles outlining some of the key issues:

  1. Air travel for numerous annual conferences can be a significant source of carbon emissions. Jürgen Gerhards wrote about this issue recently, asking why it is that academics fly so much. Alan MacEachern touched on this issue in his own reflection on his complicity in global warming. This problem is especially troubling for ASEH, a scholarly association whose members value environmental sustainability. For many years now, members have been able to purchase carbon offsets when they register for the annual meeting, but it may be time to take up Gerhards’s suggestions for reducing our air travel.
  2. Academic conferences are expensive and may exclude scholars from equity-seeking groups as a result. Race MoChridhe presented this argument in an article last month. He writes: “Many contingent faculty, librarians, and others end up frozen out of conference participation, just as they are out of gold open access, and the result is not just to inhibit academic careers, but to impair research.” Because women and people of colour make significant proportions of the contingent academic labour force, they are more likely to be excluded from conference participation due to financial burdens.
  3. Crossing borders has become more challenging (and outright impossible) for some scholars. Donald Nicolson wrote about this issue last year, highlighting the growing number of obstacles to international travel for academics. The US Muslim travel ban is the most egregious example that continues to block colleagues from the affected countries from participating in ASEH conferences. Next year the conference will be held in Canada. It will be the first time in three years that historians from Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Venezuela, and North Korea will be permitted to attend the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History.

This experimental round-table session is one small step we are taking to try to rethink participation in academic conferences. It is the start of a much longer conversation to address a range of problems associated with conference travel. It may work marvelously or it may fail utterly. Regardless of the outcome, we should keep trying.

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Sean Kheraj is the director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History at York University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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