Sunday, July 20, 2014

Letters-to-the-editor idiocy knows no nation

I'm sure that many of my readers, like me, received as an extra punch to the gut the news that the plane shot down over Ukraine was carrying more than 100 HIV/AIDS researchers. This doesn't make the story worse, exactly--298 lives lost is a tragedy, whoever they are, and the geopolitical crisis doesn't care whether they're vacationers, bankers, or scholars. But it's a loss on top of those losses to think of how this affects an urgently important field of research.

(And I bet I'm not the only one who's occasionally looked around the plane en route to a conference and thought, "damn: if this goes down, there goes half of Donne studies.")

So I wasn't surprised, on my flight back to the States yesterday, to see that one of the letters to the editor of the Guardian was also thinking about the relationship of the MH17 crash to the future of scholarship. I was, however, TOTALLY surprised by what he considered the tragedy an occasion to opine on.

Here's the letter in its entirety:

The overall loss of life in the Malaysia Airlines disaster (Report, 18 July) is the primary concern, but a separate issue is raised. Around 100 were scientists going to a conference in Australia. Is it not time to ask why such trips are necessary? The advent of large-screen TVs and rapid transmission of data and the spoken word mean it is no longer necessary to send thousands of people around the world at great expense and at major environmental cost. Now we have lost a very large number of people expert in the science of Aids. What cost will this be to those suffering from the disease?

Dr Simon Harris

Clearly, if there were no academic conferences, the public would be better off.


Contingent Cassandra said...

I've seen invitations to buy carbon offsets in conjunction with conference fees, and, yes, some environmental (and financial) arguments for virtual conferences. And I've participated in the joking when the MLA meets in San Francisco: "hey; if the big one hits, there might just be some tenure-track job openings" (a bad-for-decades job market does breed a certain amount of dark humor). But this is a new one (and anyone making an argument that is, at base, mathematical ought to realize that this was, statistically, an extremely improbably event).

I think what all of the above leave out are the efficiencies of travel-to-attend conferences. Anyone who has attended a conference in his/her own home town (a privilege limited mostly to those of us who live in major metropolitan areas, I realize) can attest that it's hard to get as much out of the conference with the regular demands of day to day life still right at hand. I suspect it would be hard to concentrate as well on a virtual conference. And chance/informal meetings would be harder (one can only communicate so much on twitter). Of course, the more people bring gizmos that connect them to the ordinary demands of daily life (including virtual conversations not about the conference, as well as those about), the more we're likely to be distracted even at face to face conferences. The solution to that, however, is almost certainly less (or at least more selective) engagement in virtual exchanges, not more.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Are you sure about that figure?

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I've had some random/chance meetings at conferences that changed my scholarly life. I think that in-person conferencing majorly trumps webinars and the like. I haven't studied it or anything, but in my anecdotal experience, conferencing really advances scholarship and is an important way to see what's happening in your field. Being able to talk to a presenter after they give their paper is so useful, too. You couldn't do much of that while watching the panel online.

Flavia said...


Yes on all counts, but especially to the efficiencies of conferences--like MOOCs, an electronic version could only be a poor substitute.

Dame Eleanor:

I'm repeating what I read in Friday and Saturday (morning)'s press coverage, where the widely-reported figure was approximately 100 conference-goers. (At one point I saw the figure 108, I think in the NYT).

If the passenger manifests now show that it was only six, that's a relief, though it doesn't change the fact that the loss of a few key researches can still affect the course of scholarship (though obviously not as greatly, especially in a big and collaborative field).

droyles said...

I wrote my dissertation (and now am working on a book manuscript) on African American AIDS activism, including the turn toward advocacy for low-cost treatment in sub-Saharan Africa, and I can say that these conferences have played an important role in fostering the connections between activists in the global North and their counterparts in the global South. The Internet has also played an important role to this end, but without people gathering from around the world at the International AIDS Conference in particular, I don't think we would have seen the kind of grassroots mobilization for global treatment access that we did, when did, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

droyles said...

And then I wrote a short blog post about this letter:

Flavia said...

Thanks for this, droyles--it's a useful reminder that some kinds of work (maybe especially this kind of work, which requires people with really different experiences and expertises) doesn't just benefit from personal interactions, but maybe depends on it.

Susan said...

Often the more important conversations at conferences come at meals, at coffee, or in the bar. or even just informally after the session has ended. Our technology is actually *not* good enough to enable those things, as anyone who has done a group skype can attest.

Susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janice said...

As others have commented, much of the real impact of a conference comes outside the sessions which could be streamed or conducted online.

That said, as someone who's faced personal issues that led to this summer being a "no fly" season, you can find a way around that when you can't travel. There are ten times as many conferences in a given year that I want to attend as I can actually attend. It might behoove us to think of more ways to enhance the online modes of connection given how many more could benefit from being dialed into the networks this way.

Withywindle said...

It doesn't matter whether he's right or not; a decent respect for the dead implies waiting some time before trying to make use of their death. Opinions vary as to the length of that time; but I would say, at a minimum, wait until they're buried.