A year on from my reflections on what will happen to conferences and international travel as a result of the pandemic, it is time to summarise my assessment of the world of online academic interactions. Maybe it will help me get back into blogging!
The 2021 Spalding Symposium happened over the weekend on Zoom, and I was able to listen to a range of fascinating papers, including from graduate students. It was still a completely different experience from a “real” conference, however, missing the coffee breaks and discussions around the edges of the papers. The way I engaged with it was also different: to avoid screen fatigue and enable some other weekend activities I was quite selective about what to attend. Rather than being challenged and surprised by papers on unfamiliar topics, as I would at a physical event, I simply missed them. The intensity of a physical event was not there, and it was not so enriching for the same reason.
The advantages over having no conference are clear, however, and I was very impressed by the smooth running of the event. It was also great to have people participating from all over the world, although amusing to see that the same core Spalding crowd still maintained a sense of ownership over the gathering. It was also amazing to go from Spalding Symposium papers to a Cornell Buddhist Studies presentation (by a scholar from Portland) on Friday evening. In a few weeks I’ll be giving my own talk to an audience at UCLA, all from my living room. It is pretty amazing in terms of opening up the world.
The downsides are nonetheless difficult. Conferencing has always been one of the exceptions to my “weekends off” rule, but attending a conference normally involves a journey, a night or two away, eating out, hanging around with different people. In other words it is a sort of break, albeit often a very intense and exhausting one. Tuning in to conference papers on top of a usual week of work, from my little laptop where I’ve already spent all week, just feels strange. Maybe it is more interesting to learn about some aspect of Buddhist scholarship than to watch Gardeners’ World on TV, but the Mahavamsa is a funny sort of bedtime story, and Indian philosophy doesn’t help keep the house clean. I am so grateful for the opportunities that come from online papers, but find it increasingly hard to know where to draw the lines between the work and non-work parts of my life.
I also find I struggle, in all honesty, with maintaining concentration through full papers online, in a way that I don’t in person. As a result of that, the events I have enjoyed the most have been panel-discussion and academic conversation formats, or else peer-review formats with papers circulated in advance. Smaller audiences are also easier, with conversation flowing better if people already know one another; online maintenance of relationships is okay, I think, but the creation of new relationships is much trickier.
This general impression has fed into how we, at Edinburgh Buddhist Studies, have chosen to structure the UKABS conference that we’re hosting online in July. We’ve built the programme around short papers and panel discussions, and are trialling posters for PhD students. We’re also exploring the use of GatherTown as a way to try to recreate some of the informal edges of the conference. It’s all an experiment, so we’ll see what happens!