Does hybrid conferencing “degrade” the conference experience?




I am grateful to the APA for their decision to implement (at least as a test) the proposal that Philosophers for Sustainability launched to have one of the divisional conferences go virtual. They agreed to implement our proposal starting 2025.

I think this is a step in the right direction. Academic flying culture excludes many people from conference participation and is also harmful for the environment. Our individual actions alone will not solve the climate crisis, but can mitigate it. 

So it was with some disappointment that I saw the letter for the CFP for the APA Pacific divisional conference in San Francisco next year which says up front that videoconferencing and remote participation won’t be available. Note that between that time and the implementation of 2+1 there will be two years that people will not be able to attend an APA remotely, except for a few exemptions. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Up front: Videoconferencing and remote participation are not available

While it might seem easy in theory to offer remote presentation to anyone who requests it, the technological logistics of doing so would be complex and costly for a number of reasons. Meeting rooms would have to be equipped with extensive A/V packages and hard-wired internet connections that are not standard in most hotel meeting rooms, which would cost tens of thousands of dollars at a minimum. Moreover, if too many participants present remotely, not only will the overall in-person meeting experience be degraded, but also the APA will incur large financial penalties for failing to meet its contractual obligations to the meeting hotel. As a result, offering remote presentation on a large scale would make the entire meeting unviable.

For these reasons, remote presentation will be offered in only two situations: government travel restrictions and accessibility accommodations. More details may be found on the .

This very much signals a return to previous “normal.”  Indeed, as the APA website further clarifies

The APA division meetings are first and foremost in-person events. As such, providing a high-quality experience for those physically attending the meeting is a top priority.

and in the letter above we read that overall the “in-person meeting experience will be degraded.”  

Now, this seems to me an empirical claim and requires empirical evidence. Is it the case that a meeting experience is degraded through a hybrid format? I see no evidence for the claim.

Quite to the contrary. 

I recently organized my first in-person workshop in three years. We gave our participants the option to participate via Zoom. They had to specify their intended mode of participation (Zoom, in person). Specifying this did not affect their chance of acceptance, but was for organizational purposes. Closer to the event, two participants were sick with Covid and switched their modality. They could still participate fully, which would not have been possible if we had opted solely in-person. About 40% of our participants were remote. 

I loved the experience, and heard much positive both from our Zoom and in-person participants. It was a small group, it was fun, intensive, intimate and allowed people who would otherwise not have been able to participate, for instance, contingent faculty who could not afford the airfare. As an in-person participant, it was still fun to eat, have coffee, and chat with the other in-person participants and with fewer overall participants our conversations could go deeper, and were enriching and interesting. 

I am not saying it was without challenges. Getting the microphones to project well, organizing Q and As so Zoom participants were fully participant required significant logistics on our part (one of the organizers was on Zoom so that the Zoom group could be monitored, any issues reported etc).

This is important, as I’ve participated in a few conferences on Zoom where it seems hybrid was an afterthought. On two occasions the Zoom participants were forgotten, one conference they moved the room but again forgot the Zoom participants, I remember chatting with the other person on Zoom, someone I know and had not seen for a long time. It was lovely, but sad to miss out on the conference experience. I’m not saying that hybrid is always the best option. Precisely because of the challenges the APA highlights in this letter (the cost, the hotel deals etc),  Philosophers for Sustainability advocated for an entirely virtual option per year.

But… I still feel that the APA should not, in their leadership position, say without any evidence that the “in-person meeting experience will be degraded” due to hybrid participation.

I worry that presenting hybrid as intrinsically onerous  gives a bad signal. If people in positions of leadership say that something sensible is onerous, it will be harder for people to make decisions such as attending a conference virtually. 

There are well documented phenomena such as eco-anxiety and a sense of despair because of the climate situation. With wildfires in many places in the world, electric grids overburdened, floods and other phenomena, there’s really no reason for academics to wait to change their behavior until it gets even worse.

One reason it is so hard for us to change is that we’re complicit and responsible, as frequent flyers.  Making decisions to fly less come with sacrifices and if we’re unwilling to make those, then it seems that we cannot change course, we think climate change needs to be addressed, but then we think of how we have e.g., SUVs and fly frequently or have not cut down on meat, and it seems a hard thing to make a change, and even if we do, it’s a drop in the ocean.

However, our decisions to fly are not solely informed by personal taste or circumstance but also by institutional structures. Our institutional structures need reform and we need to think together on how to make our academic lives more sustainable. 

For these reasons, organizations such as the APA really should not signal that hybrid would be a degrading or worse experiences. There are things about hybrid that are challenging, but in the face of all our other challenges, I believe it is worth trying to implement this (or alternatively, a good virtual and a good in-person option as viable alternatives, as will happen in 2025). I understand there are other challenges for the APA to implement a hybrid option between now and 2025, but we need to underscore the gravity of the situation, and we need to be open to change. 

A small note on whether this makes a difference: our actions to fly less as academics, like other actions only a very small impact on the overall climate picture. This is true, but holding our institutions to account is not the same as individualizing climate decisions. It is making institutional changes that are structural, though small scale. By having more sustainable academic practices, we’ll also feel emboldened to take wider action and to think about how we can advocate for climate sustainability more broadly, in our unique position as philosophers. 



Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More