Covid-19

Online conferences: opening opportunities or reproducing inequality?

By Catherine Oliver, University of Cambridge, Uk

During the pandemic, national lockdowns, border closures, and the switch to online work for at least part of our time has seen drastic changes to how we are (or are not) teaching, researching, working, and networking. Working from home has led to lower rates of publication for women, and conversations about the wider heightened issues of managing remote working and caring. The boundaries between spaces of home and work have blurred, which for some has meant balancing caring, working, and household responsibilities. For others, the pandemic has been a period of social and physical isolation and an epidemic of loneliness, already prevalent in academia.

Simultaneously, hiring freezes, redundancies, and non-renewal of fixed-term contracts are devastating the livelihoods and careers of thousands of precarious academics. Furthermore, the awarding of none of UKRI’s £4.3million grants for research into the impact of Covid-19 on Black, Asian and minority ethnic people has been met with calls for review by black women working in academia and healthcare. This is just the most recent example of the structural exclusion of black academics and their work from funding, institutions, and decision-making. As such, it is increasingly becoming evident that the pivot to online has not seen a shift to equitable academic relationships but rather has demonstrated the ease with which exclusionary politics are reproduced.

Within this landscape, the online academic conference has been positioned as an opportunity for accessible, international, affordable, and sustainable conferences. But does the online conference have staying power? And are online conferences providing opportunities or reproducing higher education’s deep-seared inequalities? There is little doubt that online conferences are here to stay in some format. The delayed Royal Anthropological Institute—Royal Geographical Society conference is being held fully online this week; and the American Association of Geographers (AAG) conference will be hybridised, with attendees having virtual and in-person options for April 2021. The RGS-IBG Annual Conference for 2021 is also looking likely to follow this hybrid model. This hybrid model for disciplinary conferences now looks set to be the future of these events, raising questions about how the online space might simultaneously make accessible and reproduce the exclusions of academic conference spaces.

“it is increasingly becoming evident that the pivot to online has not seen a shift to equitable academic relationships but rather has demonstrated the ease with which exclusionary politics are reproduced.”

Traditional academic conferences have long been critiqued for their detrimental impact on the environment and inequalities of who uses regular and mass long-haul flights; and for the glorification of conferences as ‘academic tourism’. Academic conferences are also sites of racial and gendered exclusion that can reproduce academic hierarchies by making demands on researchers to learn and perform outdated academic norms. In our paper ‘(dis-)belonging bodies’, published in Gender, Place and Culture earlier this year, Amelia Morris, (University of Law) and I contended that academic conferences are spaces that centre masculinity and whiteness, meaning that ‘outsiders’ must work harder to ‘break into’ these spaces.

The academic conference space is exceptional to the everyday work of academia, yet participating is a central demand, especially for early-career researchers navigating precarity, CV-building, and networking. This makes it an important, but under-researched, site of the reproduction of the exclusionary and neoliberal university. Heightened self-surveillance of bodily performances at academic conferences leads to anxiety over belonging and the tangible effects of this on career prospects. For disabled academics, the exclusions of academic conferences are physical and mental: in architectures and infrastructures of inaccessibility; in bodily exhaustion, chronic pain, or lack of mobility; and in being hypervisible, or what one academic we interviewed called ‘on show.’

There have long been demands by scholars to open up academic conferences online for those who, for physical, financial, or other reasons, cannot attend in person and the online conference space, when curated with care and attention to accessibility, can provide this. However, the last few months have seen heated debates over what by some is perceived as opportunistic publishing and the reproduction of neoliberal competition, and the same inequalities are now playing out in the academic conference sphere.

Online conferences as sites of tension

Some of the critical issues we found in researching academic conferences were not related to the physical space, but to the self-disciplinary practices scholars develop to navigate the anxiety and tension of conferences. Moving to online spaces doesn’t end these processes, but rather re-locates them in the home which is, as Katherine Brickell writes, ‘a crisis-affected and crisis-prone space.’ Where the home becomes a workspace, inequality is made visible between those who can perform the aesthetics of ‘professionalism’ and those who cannot.

The well-recognised gendered demands of academic performance have also not been magically ended by a shift to online work but have instead re-manifested in the online space. The online conference makes new demands on the kinds of body and beauty work academics have to undertake to appear ‘professional,’ for example, with think pieces abound on how to make a good impression through ‘grooming tips’ such as giving yourself dimensionthrough specific uses of make-up, dressing appropriately and practicing good etiquette such as making eye contact. Some have even framed children interrupting online meetings as a feminist success story

Online conferences during Covid-19 have been focused on providing space for academics, especially early career researchers and PhD students, to present and share research as a key CV-building initiative. At academic conferences, there is often pressure for precarious ECRs to be ‘entrepreneurial’ in their networking and make efforts to break into elite spaces, by ‘selling themselves’  to ‘create’ opportunities with senior scholars and ‘higher-ups.’ This requirement to be entrepreneurial infiltrates in the language of networking as a neoliberal project of self-advancement. However, as well as being spaces of pressure for precarious academics, informal conference spaces are important sites for surviving these same neoliberal pressures in an increasingly atomized higher education landscape by building solidarities with peers. While online conferences have found a way to reproduce presenting and the Q&A, the informal sites of the conference that produce solidarities and networks are yet to be effectively reproduced.

While the video conferencing market is predicted to grow in value by almost 20% by 2026, it is difficult not to set this against the inequalities and systemic failures of higher education. For disabled academics and PhD students, the pandemic has heightened issues of access to assistive software and facilities and having been busy trying to adapt, which have been described by PhD student Zara Bain as being left behind by UKRI funding bodies who misunderstand their circumstances. In an open letter regarding reasonable adjustments for disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent PhD students, the parity of these students who lost access to their existing reasonable adjustment plans detail the barriers Covid-19 has either created or worsened. Amongst these is the ‘public commitment to maintaining widespread and non-exceptional remote, digital or other distance access to university resources, spaces, events and personnel which enables disabled, chronically ill and neurodivergent students (and staff) to participate in teaching and learning as standard (rather than through retro-fitted reasonable adjustment measures).’ The pivot to online in Covid-19 is already revealing a reproduction and increase of these inequalities, demanding ‘dis-belonging’ academics do more work to resist this discrimination from already marginalised positions.

But…

Online conferences do offer space for intervention, innovation, and resistance. The production of academia in online networks has been increasingly important in recent years, not only because of the positive correlation between tweeting publications and citations, but also in forming bonds of solidarity and organizing across academic hierarchies and institutions. Online conferences, when integrated with Twitter and live-tweeting, offer opportunities for scholars to connect and maintain contact over greater distances and to stay in touch for longer. This spatio-temporal openness is an exciting space for (inter-)disciplinary dialogue beyond the confines of the conference itself.

This openness of online conferences also has implications for the possibility of lessening (although not erasing) financial and travel barriers to conferences. Between expensive conference fees, restrictive visas, and racist travel bans, conferences have always been confined to an elite and privileged group within academia. But, with a move to online, these barriers are slightly smaller. The challenge remains, then, how this will be incorporated or maintained as we return to our pre-pandemic lives. If we are interested in equity and accessibility, the online conference cannot be contained to our lockdown lives but must be a permanent and funded alternative to all academic events.

The same care and attention owed to ‘in-person’ events need to be paid to the organisation of online academic conferences if they are to be fertile spaces for doing academia differently. As we face uncertain futures, now is not the time to abandon precarious academics but to radically reimagine our knowledge production and communication spaces with accessibility, transparency, and openness at the centre.


About the author: Dr. Catherine Oliver is a postdoctoral researcher, currently working on the ERC-funded project Urban Ecologies at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. She completed her PhD on veganism in Britain and beyond-human geographies at the University of Birmingham in 2020. She can be found on twitter at @katiecmoliver.

Suggested further reading

Oliver C & Morris A (2020) (dis-)Belonging bodies: negotiating outsider-ness at academic conferences, Gender, Place & Culture https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369X.2019.1609913

Hodge, N. (2014). Unruly bodies at conference. Disability and Society., https://doi.org/10.1080/09687599.2014.894749

Horton, J. (2020). For diffident geographies and modest activisms: Questioning the ANYTHING-BUT-GENTLE academy. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12610

And for perspectives from longer ago…

Bonnett, A. (2006), The need for sustainable conferences. Area. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4762.2006.00710.x

Hall, E. (2007), Alternative futures for academic conferences: a response to Bonnett. Area, doi:10.1111/j.1475-4762.2007.00732.x

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