Hello again

“Are you ready for our next panellist, people!?”

At the risk of being too Eeyore-ish about it all, the announcements this week about aiming to end all Covid restrictions in England by the middle of June feels ambitious. Experience so far in this pandemic should at least make us cautious about any kind of planning for a ‘return to normality’.

So we have instead to plan for a lack of normality and even – and perhaps more pertinently – the desirability of a new normality, where we can take some constructive points out of our rushed shift to lockdown living/working for the future.

I’ll come back to the classroom aspects of this another time, but today I’ve been thinking about conferences.

Much like last year, we’re seeing all the key events announce that they are going fully online, at least through to the September round. But it’ll invite us to consider what might happen thereafter.

Narrowly, we have a situation where it might be a couple of years before global vaccine uptake (not to mention travel restrictions) is enough that colleagues from across the world can meet up without significant limitations, so we have a considerable period to cover in any case.

But the benefits of online events are also becoming clearer. The ability to bring together people who might not be able to meet in person; the removal of significant costs in time and money for travel and accommodation; the capacity to create more lasting records of our discussions. The coffee being almost always better.

All these things matter and shouldn’t be lost in any rush to get back to the good old days.

And what was good about them in any case?

Yes, I miss getting to see colleagues in person, and to discovering a bit of a new city, but it’s also easy to end up idealising what was often a less-than-perfect experience. You have your bad conference story and I have mine, so we can spare the blushes of those involved, other than to say that an escape to a heavy metal bar shouldn’t be the highpoint of an international conference.

Especially if you don’t really like heavy metal.

Any way, back to the main thought, namely the need to use this moment to consider how we can bring together the best bits of all these things into something new and improved.

Various colleagues do now tell me about different ways of running online events that work much better than the original stick-it-on-Zoom approaches, with more thought about scheduling and technology to make the most of these things. But it’s still the lack of in-person interaction that chafes.

And that’s a major problem, especially for those newer to the profession. I’m lucky/old; two and a half decades of conferences and workshops has left me with a big network of colleagues who can chat away with online, drawing on that prior interaction. For someone who hasn’t had that, their way into creating and sustaining a community is much tighter.

Put it this way, even though our work has been almost entirely conducted online for a decade, the ALPS Blog only happened because we got to spend four nights in Albuquerque. (Good conference BTW).

Maybe we have to find other ways to allow colleagues to get out of their institutions and make connections that don’t require them to travel hundreds of miles and to spend piles of money.

The half-thought is that we could something more intermediate: local gatherings.

Most of work/live near another HE institution, so why not have periodic meetings for people in our area? Maybe to talk work, but mainly just to make connections and put faces to names. You could connect it to big conferences, so there’s a reason and a focus to talk, maybe even chuck in a speaker/roundtable, but mainly it’d be the coffee break/sampling of local delicacies bit of a conference, the stuff that you remember.

It’s not a problem-free idea: some won’t be close to anyone; others will find it hard to justify to bosses/partners that a social is ‘work’; you’re not going to meet that person from another continent who’d be just right for your new project. But it’s a start and something might come from it.

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