With the coming academic year, I am hopeful, looking forward to connecting with colleagues again through conferences. I enjoyed reading Kim’s essay on “Conference Travel Hesitancy,” which did give me some pause as I thought said travels. As I’ve come to expect in Kim’s writing, the focus was not just on a single event or what is happening in the moment; rather, that was used to probe our thinking about the future.
One line in particular stood out to me: “But small meetings with close colleagues from other institutions on Zoom are sort of okay.” This fell within the context of hesitancy to travel and the possibility of deciding not to attend in-person conferences for this coming year (which, of course, might extend indefinitely should conditions persist). Aside from all the practical concerns, my mind jumped to those starting their career.
The primary benefit of conferences – at least to me and others I regularly talk to – isn’t the “new” information you gain there. Most of what you hear in a session has been or will soon be published. The primary benefits of conferences instead seems to be the networking (and for the person just getting started, initiation into a network of peers). If leading scholars and practitioners choose not to attend, those benefits evaporate. Having an established network might well make attending such small Zoom gatherings perfectly reasonable, feasible, and perhaps even better. However, if you have not yet developed your network, then what? My first two years of conferences as an assistant professor were, honestly, the most important things to my academic career to this point because of the networking I was able to do.
Getting to my point here, I am making a plea to those senior scholars and highly regarded practitioners in the higher education sphere: remember your impact. The decisions you make next year will affect what decisions conference organizers make the following year, which can easily snowball. Then if you hold small gatherings of colleagues, don’t just invite those who you are already close to. Perhaps everyone agrees to bring one junior scholar/practitioner and introduce them to this small network. That could, genuinely, be the difference between their career flourishing or languishing.
–Phillip A. Olt
Assistant professor of higher education student affairs
Fort Hays State University