Virtual conferences and the ‘tyranny of distance’


Blog / Monday, June 27th, 2022
Virtual conference essentials: green tea, tablet with conference paper script, Zoom, PowerPoint slides, Twitter

One of the positive things that has emerged from the pandemic is virtual conferences. In the last two years, I have been able to attend more talks and conferences than I normally would have if international travel was required. More importantly, virtual conferences have enabled me to maintain connection with my research network and peers who are mostly British, European and American-based.

However, at some point, academia needs to think about the sustainability of virtual conferences. Yes, it enables those of us further away to attend, and it is cost-effective but this year alone, both conferences I presented at were panels that were occurring at 3am in the Sarawak timezone. The downside of attending virtual conferences is that work would still expect me to have a full day at the office so I’m equally missing out on most panels (the keynote for this particular conference was happening at 5am, for example).

In essence, scholars who are not based in the Global North are still expected to put in extra hours, but without the perks of conference attendance such as ongoing scholarly conversations, networking and socials. In short, we are still subjected to the ‘tyranny of distance’ (Abidin, 2019, 79). We’re present, but not really there so our existence, and voices are therefore, an abstraction. 

Of course, I understand the practicalities of virtual conferences in the midst of a pandemic that is not yet over. It keeps those who are immune-compromised safe, and in all honesty, it has kept me connected (and sane) the last couple of years. One of the things that struck me when I attended my first virtual conference (also set within the American timezone) was how many female academics were juggling their home and work lives while still trying to engage in academic conversations, whether that is happening on Zoom or Discord, where a lot of post-conference conversations have extended to.

But we also can’t shy away from the discussion of who virtual and hybrid conferences privilege, and if we want to be engaging in conversations about diversity and inclusivity, we need to also consider how inclusive are we really being if conference attendees can only manage their paper presentation but have to catch up on the rest of the conference via recordings. And that is time and schedule permitting for some.

I am not complaining I have to present an academic paper at 3am because I made a choice to be there. But practically, how coherent and engaged can one be when the panel Q&A is taking place between 4-4:30am and I’ve had a full day of work while still being expected to be back at work in the next 4-5 hours. I have the privilege of working from home, but what happens to academics who don’t? 

References:

Abidin, C. (2019). Navigating Interdisciplinarity as a Precarious Early Career Researcher. Cultural Studies Review, 25(2). https://doi.org/10.5130/csr.v25i2.6880


I explore a bit more on the influence of the ‘tyranny of distance’ in relation to cultural and academic identity in the book chapter, “Exploring cultural identity through coffee: steps towards self-care” in Creating a Place for Self-Care and Wellbeing in Higher Education : Finding Meaning Across Academia, Narelle Lemon (ed.), 2021, Routledge.

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