When I think about a typical academic career, there are several metrics that can be applied by which it is measured out. One is the usual suspect: number and type of research publications. Another is teaching excellence. But one other is conferences attended and papers given. Conferences are at the heart of academia, but the fact is that they are remarkably little remarked upon.
Yet one could argue that the wheels of international higher education are oiled by international travel to conferences, workshops, and seminars. The conference –- or seminar or workshop — is a constant of academic life, all the way from special postgraduate sessions to keynote addresses. It is one of the shuttles that holds everything together, the means by which academic sociability and disciplinary coherence are simultaneously reproduced. And it encompasses some of the key academic experiences: checking out a star or an interesting newcomer, amplifying felt grievances, dismissing the old guard, retailing gossip, being in the bar late at night, and so on.
But now attendance is coming under pressure. First, even the least inclined to take note of climate change must worry about their carbon footprint. And if they don’t, their universities certainly are. Second, in many parts of the world this is an age of austerity. Travel budgets are bound to come under more pressure and it will be hard to resist entirely. Third, alternative technology is finally coming into its own. The new generation of telepresence suites have convinced me –- for the first time –- that there is something to take notice of and I am sure that they will have an impact on volume of academic travel.
Even so, I suspect that conferences will still stubbornly hold their own. A new book by Elliott and Urry, Mobile Lives, goes a good way to explaining why. The societies we live in are now premised on global mobility processes of many kinds which effect how daily life is structured and played out. People are driven by movement. For those who do not think this is the case, just consider how much academic life is validated by the geography of movement — from tracking the movement of a person from one university to another, to the instant check provided by knowing where someone works, from the flattering invitation to speak at a conference somewhere to the wistful feeling that you haven’t been invited anywhere for a while.
So I am not sounding the death knell for conference. But they will certainly have to be reworked. Already, remote keynote addresses are becoming more common. I can see a time when conferences begin to resemble multiplex cinemas with as many people beaming in as travelling to them. But one thing is sure: The need for interaction that fuels both intellect and social networks means that something like conferences will remain a constant, even though their exact geography may change.