The Trouble with Conferences Part 1

2020 Visions for Environmental History

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This is the first post in a series on “2020 Visions for Environmental History” being published jointly by NiCHE’s blog The Otter ~ La loutre and the Rachel Carson Center’s blog Seeing the Woods , with posts by  Lisa Mighetto,  Alan MacEachern,  Arielle Helmick, and  Claudia Leal. The series is intended to promote discussion at a session of the same name at the  World Congress for Environmental History in late July.

If you are an environmental history scholar, chances are you have attended academic conferences to advance your career. If you are a student or new professional it is likely that you have been strongly encouraged to participate. At some point, you may be asked to organize a scholarly meeting. So important are conferences in the United States that the American Council of Learned Societies requires its member organizations to hold these events annually. Conferences foster the networks and intellectual cross-pollination that result in publications, projects, workshops, and other scholarly activities. A conference that occurs annually demonstrates a field’s credibility (critical mass), continuity (the idea that it will build on previous work and gain momentum for the future), and maturity (it will stand the test of time). The conference is a manifestation of the scholarly community – an indication that there is a cohesive group that goes beyond individual institutions and, in many cases, national borders.

Enthusiastic support for conferences can be found throughout the blogs and publications associated with higher education. “To say that conferences have shaped every part of my life is no exaggeration,” observed one scholar in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Conferences can be some of the most socially sustaining, intellectually stimulating, and career-enriching experiences in academe.”[1]

Accordingly, the meetings of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) have doubled in attendance since the year 2000, and the meetings of the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH), Association for East Asian Environmental History, and La Sociedad Latinoamericana y Caribeña de Historia Ambiental (SOLCHA) have similarly expanded in size and scope. Book exhibits have increased in numbers and significance, as publishers look to conferences for meeting potential authors, while attendees learn about the latest titles by reviewing the displays. The world congresses of the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO), held every five years, further demonstrate that the field has reached a level of sophistication that would have been hard to imagine 40 years ago when environmental history emerged as a field. In fact, the primary activity of the ICEHO to date has been the site selection and organization of the world congress. As a conference organizer, I found it very satisfying to witness this general increase in attendance as well as the birth of subfields at meetings, fueled by experimental sessions and lively discussions sustained over time.

And yet conferences and the professional organizations and institutions that organize them currently are facing several serious challenges. While these affect higher education generally, environmental history and the environmental humanities will need to address them specifically and adapt their formats for building networks and sharing research.

First, there are environmental concerns about the carbon impact of thousands of people flying around the world for in-person meetings. Academic travel at many universities has come under scrutiny because it is not sustainable. A recent article in The Huffington Post, for instance, condemned “The Climate Change Hypocrisy of Jet-Setting Academics,” praising the formation of the University Climate Change Coalition and the Climate Leadership Network, which require higher education officials to commit to carbon neutral practices.[2] Another recent blog post on academic travel called for a “carbon sobriety” test for all academic institutions.[3] The University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) recently determined that one-third of its carbon footprint is the result of travel to conferences and meetings. “Put bluntly,” a white paper generated by its Environmental Humanities Initiative reported recently, “air travel is, environmentally, academia’s biggest dirty little secret.”[4] In my view, carbon credits offer an imperfect remedy, serving as modern-day indulgences (can I really buy my way out of my sins?). Environmental historians especially have an obligation to consider this issue and its potential solutions – and their professional organizations have a responsibility to adjust and lead the way.

Second, there are economic concerns. Conferences are expensive and funding has become scarce. How can we ensure that opportunities to participate are equitable? Many academic observers have complained about the unfairness of the annual conference – how it shuts out people and excludes many voices. One recent article commented, “Academic travel culture is not only bad for the planet, it is also bad for the diversity and equity of research.”[5] Another article in Inside Higher Ed titled “The Great Conference Con” charged that academic meetings “exude economic privilege.”[6] Similarly, Karen Kelsky, who runs the blog “The Professor is In” suggested that conferences are part of the “feudalization of academia, where those at the top occupy a more and more isolated enclave of privilege and opportunity hoarding, at the expense of everyone else.”[7] Academic conferences are condemned as neoliberal commodities – intellectual work products that produce haves and have-nots.[8] Environmental historians have a responsibility to address economic privilege and how it affects access to opportunities for professional advancement. This disparity damages the field as well as individuals.

Third, there are political concerns. The United States, for instance, has made it difficult for scholars from several countries to obtain visas and gain entrance to present their research – and a travel ban affecting Syria, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Venezuela, and North Korea prevents scholars from these countries from crossing the border for an American environmental history conference. And I know from talking to directors of several professional societies that the US is not the only nation that impedes international travel for scholars. In any case, conference attendees sometimes do not want to travel to a country or region owing to political issues and human rights issues. As an administrator, I have personally experienced a boycott of a conference I helped organize. How can we bridge the distance between scholars that do not want or cannot travel to conference sites for political or humanitarian reasons?

The simplest answer is to allow remote connections at conferences – typically Skype, which is free. But how well is this working so far? Recently I conducted an informal poll among environmental history professional societies – and it seems the practice of connecting conference attendees remotely is inconsistent and poorly executed. Anecdotally, I have witnessed conference sessions in the U.S., Europe, and South America that attempted to patch in someone from the outside – and it seems very difficult to do well, in a way that allows presenters to convey ideas in a timely fashion and participate in a meaningful discussion (with a minimum of fumbling from tech support and well-meaning onlookers). Throughout the years I have read many conference evaluations that complain that Skype presentations are a waste of everyone’s time.

Part of the problem with Skype presentations is that conferences are about more than just reading papers and answering a few static questions – they are about meeting other people face-to-face and interacting in person. Some people call this “networking.” As one blog recently commented, “I think that [the Skype solution] fundamentally misunderstands what the conferences do. They are not about the research but about the networks…Staying in one’s office and chatting on Skype does not build a network” – or, one might add, a community.[9] Going to a conference does not “mean attending 25 sessions — it means positioning yourself to meet people,” advised another academic. “Networking really is the whole point.”[10] I have heard repeatedly that the “real” conference can be found at the hotel bar – or in conversations in the hallway.

Some environmentally conscious conference organizers seem willing to sacrifice the networking or social aspect. “Let’s be honest,” the UCSB White Paper on carbon-neutral conferences concedes, “it is unlikely that an online conference experience will ever replicate face-to-face interaction.”[11] To them, the heavy environmental cost of bringing far-flung scholars together outweighs the benefits of in-person gatherings. But I suggest that solutions that do not place interpersonal interaction at the forefront will fail in the long run, as they will not meet the need that conferences currently address.

It may be time for conference organizers to expand their vision of how Skype and other technologies can be deployed – a point brought home to me by a recent experience on a conference organizing committee. Located on different continents, members at first coordinated mostly through email and chat. Then my co-chair and I began interacting on Skype. For all its shortcomings (freezing screens and spotty connections), something remarkable began happening, as interactions with her on screen provided a clearer sense of her personality as well as her scholarly work. As we discussed our tasks, I watched her cat sneaking through her papers behind her and her daughter waving in the background, both of which were endearing. I always looked for the imposing mountain that loomed over her office, visible through the window next to her desk. One day she looked especially cheerful and told me she was off to see the film “Bohemian Rhapsody,” prompting us to bond over the music of our youth.

Occasionally she looked weary and when I asked she described her workload, providing a glimpse of life at a university outside my country. I could see her concern when I suggested that we take an easy route to the evaluation of sessions, which led to taking her approach and forming a stronger program. In short, brought together by our academic and administrative work, we are now friends as well as closer colleagues – a direct result of the format that we used to communicate. True, it was not the exactly same as meeting in person but it was close. We are now collaborating on a journal project – something I never would have predicted when I first encountered her through email. To date, Skype sessions at environmental history sessions do not allow much time for interaction and they provide little opportunity for follow-up and sustained contact, which explains in part why they remain ineffective.

In summary, the question is not simply how to connect people in a technological sense, it is how do we continue to develop our community using digital and online resources, building on the advantages that in-person conferences have provided? How do we reach new people and provide meaningful interaction that fosters the development of new ideas?

We could question why we continue holding academic conferences at all. Workshops, seminars, websites, blogs, and other activities can connect scholars. What conferences provide that is unique, however, is a gathering of people with shared interests that is large enough to incorporate a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Scholars with specific interests such as water history may present their research to a small group of colleagues at a conference – and they may also attend sessions on topics they had not previously known to exist. They may witness and participate in subfields forming. Similarly, they may be exposed to new topics in the book exhibit, where they could meet the authors. But is it truly essential that all contact and exposure to new ideas occur in person? Reimagining the structure of conferences and how interactions occur could render them more diverse and inclusive, reinvigorating the field.

Conferences in environmental history and the environmental humanities are already experimenting with digital formats. Graduate students at the ASEH, for instance, have conducted a Twitter conference in connection with the annual conference for several years, and the ESEH is organizing similar Twitter events. ASEH’s 2019 meeting in Columbus included an entire session that remotely connected all speakers and the moderator using Zoom. Audience members interacted in real time – and the session is now posted on YouTube.[12] The Environmental Humanities Initiative at UCSB helped organize online conferences in 2016 and 2018.[13] Research centers and teaching programs have been developing online, interactive resources for many years.

The idea here is to not to eradicate in-person meetings, but to incorporate additional remote conversations at conferences, drawing from and building on these examples.

This topic will be discussed at the world congress in Brazil in late July – and a subsequent blog post will propose solutions and a plan of action (including the issues of funding, the social aspect of online exchange, the credibility of online participation, and the role of professional societies).

You can read the second post in this series by Alan MacEachern here, and the third post by Arielle Hemlick here.

[1] Devoney Looser, Arizona State University. “Why I Love Academic Conferences: How to Get the Most out of a Scholarly Meeting.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2015.
[2] Nives Dolšak and Aseem Prakash. “The Climate Change Hypocrisy of Jet-Setting Academics.” Opinion, The HuffPost, March 31, 2018.
[3] Alan Shusterman, Reed College. “The Carbon Footprint of Academic Travel.” The First Day of Spring. March 13, 2019.
[4] Ken Hiltner, University of California-Santa Barbara. White Paper, A Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference Model.
[5] Race MoChridhe, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Academic Travel Culture is Not Only Bad for the Planet, it is also Bad for the Diversity and Equity of Research.” The London School of Economics and Political Science Impact Blog. March 3, 2019.
[6] Colleen Flaherty. “The Great Conference Con?” Inside Higher Ed. July 25, 2017.
[7] Karen Kelsky, quoted in Flaherty. “The Great Conference Con?”
[8] Donald J. Nicolson, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities. UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 2017.
[9] Brian Lucey, commentor on Jürgen Gerhards, “’Greetings from Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing’ – Should we Call Time on International Academic Travel?“ The London School of Economics and Political Science Impact Blog. March 2, 2019.
[10] Manya Whitaker, Colorado College. “How to Get the Most Out of a Conference.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Early-Career Scholar. March 26, 2018.
[11] Hiltner.
[12] Sean Kheraj, York University, et al. “Remote Roundtable: Building Environmental History Networks Around the World,” American Society for Environmental History Annual Conference, April 12, 2019. Posted on YouTube by the Network in Canadian History and Environment,
[13] Hiltner.

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Lisa Mighetto

I am a historian living in Seattle.

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