Socially-Distanced Conferences

A tale of two JMM. One hotel room in 2014. One apartment in 2021. Same. Costume. Same. Circus.

COVID has changed a lot about our profession. Clearly, it’s changed how we conference—there’s no more travel. Not sure about you, but I have actually been able to attend more conferences since quarantine. And it’s so easy. No paperwork to fill out regarding reimbursement. I don’t waste entire days in airports and shuttles and cabs. I’m never jet lagged. Yes, I don’t get to chit-chat with people before the talks drinking hotel coffee and eating Sam’s Club mini muffins; yes, I don’t get to stand idly after the last morning talk until a group way too large to split a check starts wandering in a zombie-like state to lunch; yes, I don’t have to wait in a hotel lobby for people to go to dinner, only to find out two of the people we’ve been waiting for forgot the meeting location and just went straight to the restaurant.

Conservatively, I estimate I’ve saved my college and/or self close to $4000 since lockdown started “going” to conferences. Not to mention the time or the inches from my waist. And I’m not the only one benefitting from the online movement. A lot of smaller conferences especially are winning right now; due to everything being online they are able to get plenaries they normally couldn’t afford. I have heard more talks in the last six months from mathematicians currently living in Europe than I have in my entire career up to the last six months.

And who knows? Some of these changes might be permanent. Money is tight—how likely is it that we will continue to have massive grants for hosting conferences? How likely is it that we’ll be allotted money for travel by our colleges and universities (at least, to the extent we’ve had)? Why not have a plenary Zoom in to give a talk once this is all over?

Still, there is ONE thing it seems COVID has not changed: how we talk to each other about math. And this is completely illogical. These conferences that now are online have the exact same schedule as they would have had were they in person. Why? We talk ad nauseam about how tired we are after a day of teaching online and looking at screens; we see how our students and our own children (when applicable) suffer from Zoom fatigue. So why are we subjecting ourselves to 8AM to 5 or 6PM days of presentations just like the “good old days”? The JMM was a perfect example of this; what seems like 15 talks all scheduled at the same time, and with no apparent rhyme or reason to the booking (for instance, on day one two number theory sessions were hosted concurrently…and it’s not like there were number theory sessions every day of the conference). While quite a few people I regularly see did not attend this year, those that did had to take at least one conference day “off” because of the sheer exhaustion of the all-day online setup. And this isn’t to pick on the JMM. VERY few of the conferences I’ve attended have changed their schedule from “normal times”; I’m even co-organizing a conference right now, and one of the recurring and unresolved items of discussion is whether or not we need to have fewer talks because of screen fatigue.

And it’s not just the schedule that’s illogical, but the talks themselves make no sense either. We babble about how we need to flip our classrooms, find ways to make our online classrooms more interactive. Many of us don’t just lecture anymore and have completely restructured our pedagogical setups. So why are most of us still giving the same slideshows? The ones that, even if we were in person, are covered in way too many equations and text? Why?

Having said that, going back to this e-conference I’m co-organizing, a potential plenary turned us down with the following comment:

I think there are too many talks now, and people are suffering from Zoom fatigue. Also, preparing a talk is a lot of work…I know that people do give the same talk in multiple venues, but I don’t think that makes a lot of sense now, when people can see the talk online. I think the community needs to rethink the best ways to use Zoom, and I don’t think we’re there yet.”

They have some fair points. Why do we go so far, only to stop so short? Why have we failed to recognize our own Zoom endurance, or lack thereof? What is the point now that things are online in giving the same talk at multiple places [I mean…I can come up with reasons. First, conferences are probably never going to turn into watch parties of pre-recorded material. Second, both audience and speaker alike could actually get something out of questions during/after the talk. ]?

A packed house.

What seems abundantly clear is that a math conference is not about (primarily, at least) the math. Instead it actually is more about those zombie-walks to meals. It is about networking, about meeting new people. People give the same talk at multiple venues, because the audience differs from venue to venue. I’ll be interested to know how many attended the online JMM (unlike other years, the website doesn’t brag about the number). Again, from my perspective, fewer people went. And you know what one part of the normal JMM schedule was significantly cut back? The reunions and banquets. Many of the reunions I attend (or crash with friends as a +1) did not happen even online this year.

The lack of emphasis on the math also explains the talks and why they really haven’t changed despite an online setting. Clearly for many, a math talk is not about making sure your audience groks your work. What matters more is that just giving the talk—regardless of how strong it is or how well it is received—provides another line on your C.V.. It provides you with another opportunity to get your name out. To network. I know some people who would attend conferences and give talks just for the comped dinner afterwards.

MAYBE two people in this photo look excited to be there.

And this is something for conference organizers to think about moving forward. Certainly it’s been on my mind as I try to plan an e-conference. Maybe online conferences should have fewer talks, and be more selective in who gets to speak because of Zoom fatigue. Maybe just like some conferences in the “before times” insisted on slides, online conferences should insist on a specific format. Maybe online conferences should have more breaks in the schedule. Maybe online conferences should try to find ways to maintain an emphasis on the social events, because that is actually why a lot of people attend in the first place. Maybe online conferences should think about recorded lectures and what place that should have, or what that could be replacing.

We can’t just go through the motions until things go back to the way they were. Even once travel is safe and permitted, it may not be a budget line item. We’ve had three semesters to try to make this work, have put it off because “eventually things will *have* to return to normal,” and we frankly need to remove our heads from the sand.

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