I love academic conferences. I find that people are divided into conference-goers and conference-avoiders. I am an unashamed conference-goer. I love mixing with people to whom I do not have to explain my weird interest in subjects that other people find boring such as the Mesolithic or stone tools. I love listening to people present things that really fire them up. I love the intellectual parrying of question and answers as well as stream-of-consciousness thoughts among the audience. And I love settling down for the evening with some good food and wine, knowing that a few hours of interesting discussion lie ahead.
One of my favourite events is the Mesolithic in Europe conference which takes place every five years in a different centre of Mesolithic research. I have attended most of the meetings since 1975 and I can now look out for old friends as well as new colleagues, in addition to the intellectual stimulation of the week. 2020 should have seen a September gathering in Toulouse, France.
So, this year has not been easy in that respect.
Of course, it has been much harder for the organising committee than it has for me. Early on they had to take the decision to hold the conference online with a knock-on impact on conference organisation, attendees, papers, everything. Thankfully, I had nothing to do with the physical effort of getting everything online and making sure that the systems worked. But the impact of transferring a week of intellectual endeavour to the ether surprised me.
Throughout lockdown I have been giving, and listening to, online lectures roughly once a week. It has been an important way to connect with others and maintain some learning and thinking. I have enjoyed it. I feel that it worked, and many people found the lectures interesting (hopefully). A whole conference was something else altogether. Perhaps I was just naïve, but I was surprised at how tiring I found it to participate.
First of all, I had to devote most of the previous week to watching presentations. Even then I did not manage to see them all. There were just so many contributions! Thankfully, the conference organisers have taken the decision to leave material online for longer than the duration of the meeting. Watching recorded presentation after recorded presentation over a period of several hours becomes very intense. It allows you to get a fantastic overview, but it is exhausting.
Then there were the discussions. Discussion took place in real time, according to a strict timetable, allowing one to get a whiff of the atmosphere of a conference hall. It was easy to submit questions, and, though, as in any conference session there were more questions than could be asked, the system worked well. In some cases I felt I was earwigging a discussion between specialists, in other cases I wanted to (and did) join in. It was pretty all-embracing if you tried to take advantage of every session. Yet, after a while, a feeling of isolation crept in; I was alone – it felt quite lonely and I missed the banter of the coffee break (or whispered comment). My cats were appreciative but not forthcoming.
As a seasoned Mesolithic aficionado, I was both co-presenting and, in a different session, co-organsing material. That was a bit stressful, not least because the international version of Zoom proved to have quirks that I had not encountered before, resulting in my computer system crashing. At one point my co-organisers and I were reduced to our valiant PhD student colleague who held the fort admirably while we rebooted hardware. In the end I was able to take questions for my paper and I did manage to play my part in the discussion of our session. It was stressful, and all felt a bit curtailed without the usual pub discussion afterwards, but we did achieve a lot. And it will be published.
I’m glad to have taken part. And relieved that the organising team chose not to just cut and run. There are big advantages to virtual conferences. Your travel and subsistence bills are negligible, and conference attendance was free. Access was available around the world, enabling many who would not normally participate to join our Mesolithic fellowship – hopefully we have not put them off. there was a great variety of papers, and I got the opportunity to look at them all without running between venues and yet somehow missing the vital beginnings to papers. Everything will be published – not surprisingly in an on-line publication which will be openly available to all. That is brilliant (if you like the Mesolithic).
There are also disadvantages to going online… Quite apart from the stress, isolation, and exhaustion, I could not help feeling that many of the papers were very ‘safe’. Perhaps because this was the first online conference for most of us, it seemed that people tended to stick to overview presentations of existing research rather than cutting-edge coverage of future plans or new techniques. That is not to say that there were not some contentious papers and discussions, but there was, perhaps, a little less heightened opinion than one is used to.
Nevertheless, I learnt much, and thought even more. I am so glad that the conference went ahead, and we all owe a big thanks to the organisers who took on the unenviable task of altering plans and making sure that everything worked. It cannot have been easy. Overall, the experience was great, though I have to say that I prefer to attend my conferences in person. I have high hopes for the next – to be held in Italy in due course. Fingers crossed!
Meanwhile, there is another advantage to these themed conferences. The publications are fantastic, and most have appeared at regular intervals. They provide brilliant statements of the development of research over the years. I am much looking forward to the appearance of this one. Hold on – I need to write my own contribution first!