Accessibility and the Post-Pandemic Conference

It’s July, which means that academic conferences are in full swing—and for the first time in three years, largely happening as in-person events. My home organization, SHEAR, meets this weekend in New Orleans. I won’t be there. In my case, it’s a combination of the expense of getting and staying there combined with anxiety about the current state of the pandemic. We won’t know final numbers until afterwards, but based on the anecdotal commentary on my social media feeds, I’m not the only one who’s staying home, I’m not the only one anxious—and some in that group still feel compelled to attend.

After two years of virtual events, SHEAR made the decision this year to return to an in-person-only affair. [NB: I’m a SHEARite and it’s this week so I’m discussing that group specifically, but much of this applies to other institutions.] Actually that’s not quite true. SHEAR is accommodating presenters who cannot make it to New Orleans by facilitating Zoom sessions for their panels. That’s a good step. But in Year 3 of the pandemic that won’t quit, with economic and environmental turmoil in the nation and the world, it seems insufficient to the moment. Or to put it another way, after the past three years, I had hoped we would have learned more.

But what should we learn? At the outset, it’s important to acknowledge that we should have been more attentive to accessibility for a long time. By that I mean both myself (and many other individuals) who haven’t thought broadly or regularly enough about accessibility, and the institutions and organizations of which we all are a part. We have taken up the language of accommodations, which helps, but offers narrow solutions and places burden on those who think they need something to advocate for themselves.

There are two big issues at play: the ethics of community-building and the budget.

To frame the ethics of community-building for an organization like SHEAR, we would probably want to start with a two-part question: who is part of the community and who should be able to be part of the community? I suspect if you ask most SHEAR members—from the Executive Board and Advisory Council through the membership, new and longstanding—you would come up with a variety of answers that tend towards a broad-based community of people interested in the history of the early American republic. One of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to SHEAR is that even fifteen years ago its answer to the question was broader than many other organizations with which I could be (and sometimes am) affiliated. And the window has shifted in the past five years for SHEAR with its efforts to devote time, attention, and resources to diversity and inclusion efforts. That work has not been perfect, but SHEAR is very different now from the organization I first joined in the mid-2000s.

So as a general matter most SHEARites want to build an inclusive community. In practice, however, we usually answer the question backwards, defining the community based on physical proximity. Until 2019, and now this year again, much of SHEAR’s energy goes to staging an annual conference, which as a consequence means that the “SHEAR community” is whoever is able to make it to the conference site on the designated weekend. In most years, that community therefore comprised tenure-line faculty, especially those from resource-rich institutions, graduate students who felt they have to present in order to advance their careers (again with a bias towards those at resource-rich institutions), and others who could afford the expense. It excluded anyone who could not afford to travel, anyone with health conditions that make travel more difficult, anyone with care obligations that could not be adjusted, and so on.

And here’s the thing: over the course of a career, everyone will have that happen at some point or another. Even if you’re fortunate enough to avoid chronic health conditions, at some point kids will get sick, or the particular travel destination will be impossible from your current home base (as a scholar based on the Pacific coast how they feel about coming east of the Mississippi and across two or three time zones every year), or you can’t get time off from work to attend, or … any number of things. In the pre-pandemic model, that was just a cost of doing business: not everyone would be at every annual conference. And it was an unspoken assumption that over the course of time things would balance out. If everyone makes it to, say, seven out of every decade’s meetings, that’s enough.

Except then we had to go remote. We couldn’t get together in person, and we adapted. Zoom is painful and has all sorts of drawbacks. But for SHEAR last year, I was able to chair a panel with scholars at several career stages, in multiple US time zones, and on two different continents, and we had a great discussion that could not have happened otherwise under the then conditions of the world. Do we really want to return to a model that excludes the possibility of that conversation?

We were always going to come back in person. Even with anxiety, I have found it so comforting to see people again over the past few months at the events I’ve been able to attend. But I want us to learn from the experience of the past two years. And because I’m practical, that means it’s time to turn to the second issue, the budget.

Virtual is expensive. Not just “it’s not free”—it’s expensive. I’m not in SHEAR leadership, but I’ve been involved in the money conversation with other organizations, and Zoom costs a lot of money once you scale up beyond an individual account for meetings with a few other people. On top of that you need to ensure high-speed internet access, good camera and microphone options for participants, security measures … it adds up. And those are on top of the costs of running an in-person conference, much of which is set in stone years in advance by contracts with the hotels and other sites. (I’m all but certain SHEAR signed on for New Orleans before the pandemic started. We as SHEAR owed that hotel money whether we showed up or not.) What’s even more, the SHEAR budget doesn’t cover anywhere close to all of the costs because each individual conference participant is responsible for paying their own transportation, lodging, and food costs. (SHEAR offers scholarships, which is again very helpful, but I don’t think anyone believes they completely solve the problem of cost.)

My point, my exhortation, is that twenty-nine months into the pandemic, virtual options—or any other ways of thinking about building community—need to be part of the ethical and budgetary conversations for SHEAR and other organizations. If we want an inclusive community we need to build and plan financially for one. We’re in a new era, and the “return to normal”—while comforting and joyful when we’re able to participate—is not what we should be creating. We should experiment. We should keep virtual as an option. We should think about how to use our full budget effectively to build the community we want, wherever it makes the most sense to construct it.

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