Colleagues converse in a conference room. In-person events are often fruitful for researchers. (iStock)
Last month the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts noted the difficulty of trying to organize large in-person meetings during a pandemic: “Conferences for hundreds or thousands of people cannot be put together without a long lead time unless someone is trying to create a performance art homage to the Fyre Festival.” At the time, I was thinking about the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA), which will be held from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.
During an ordinary year, approximately 7,500 political scientists descend on APSA to present papers, walk around the book room, catch up with old grad school friends and colleagues, and network with colleagues who share common research interests. For a full professor like myself, APSA is an opportunity to see what the cutting edge of my discipline looks like up close and personal.
I was committed to attending in person in August, as I was on two panels. In the past week, however, the delta variant of the coronavirus and fears of it have altered the calculus of some colleagues. One of my panels appears to have switched to virtual-only, and a few of the panelists on my other panel are wobbling, too. According to Inside Higher Ed’s Colleen Flaherty, I am not the only one experiencing shifts from in-person panels to virtual ones. Only an estimated 2,500 political scientists are expected to attend APSA in person, with another 2,500 attending virtually. And APSA appears to be one of the few large conferences to even proceed with an in-person option. According to Flaherty, the American Sociological Association and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities decided to go fully virtual last month.
I get the caution of those who have backed out or opted for the virtual option. Despite the fact that mostly all attendees will be vaccinated, a large-scale, in-person, indoor meeting in which folks are traveling from all over seems tailor-made to produce a cluster of new infections. Some colleagues are older and at greater risk, if they were to get a breakthrough infection. Some are immunocompromised or have family in that position. And some have children too young to be vaccinated and do not under any circumstances want to put them at risk. Even though I might be flying to Seattle just to present my work in my hotel room at a Zoom meeting, I have decided that delta variant be damned, I am going. This is for several reasons. First, and most importantly, I’m fully vaccinated. The odds of me getting very sick are pretty small. My immediate family is fully vaccinated, too, so they face minimal risk from my attendance.
Second, just as teaching with a mask on was much more enjoyable than doing it remotely, I suspect the same will be true of attending in-person conference panels. I attended my first in-person conference since February 2020 late last week and enjoyed the experience of, you know, talking to colleagues about international politics and other subjects without having to make sure my computer camera was properly aligned.
Third, a big reason that in-person events are fruitful for researchers is that they allow for interactions beyond one’s own research silo.
A recent article published in the journal Nature looked at the effect of going remote on more than 61,000 Microsoft employees. With access to employee emails, calendars, instant messages, video/audio calls, and workweek hours, the paper’s authors concluded, “firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed, with fewer bridges between disparate parts. Furthermore, there was a decrease in synchronous communication and an increase in asynchronous communication.” I need to get out of my silo. Finally, conferences like APSA matter, even more, to graduate students and junior faculty than to an old fogey like myself. It is not just the line they can put on their résumé, it is their ability to network with senior colleagues. And as a friend pointed out to me recently, the pandemic privileged those of us who had long-standing networks over those new to the discipline. So it seems to me that those of us who are seniors should go out of our way to connect with junior colleagues.
I want to go to APSA to see old friends, but also to meet new colleagues. With the delta variant’s effects starting to plateau, my benefits far exceed my risks.