[A couple weeks back, NeMLA held our 52nd annual—and first entirely virtual—convention. So this week I’ve highlighted a handful of the convention’s stand-out remote events, leading up to these broader reflections on virtual conferences.]
On what a virtual conference can’t quite do, what it can, and what the combination might mean moving forward.
I’ve written many times before, most clearly in this post, on all that NeMLA has meant and continues to mean to me. As I hope that post illustrates, if I were to sum that decade-plus of connections to NeMLA up in a single word, it would be “community,” with all that the term connotes in the most practical and the most idealized senses. If any organization could convey such communal warmth and solidarity in an all-virtual setting, it would be NeMLA, and I definitely felt that community at various moments throughout the conference, particularly in conversations before and around events (such as Grace Sanders Johnson’s Special Event as I highlighted in Tuesday’s post). But what can’t really happen at a virtual conference is the more spontaneous expressions of that community—running into folks in the exhibit hall, seeing an old friend at a panel, the receptions after such Special Events, and so on. I missed those a lot, and very much hope to return to them in 2022 in Baltimore.
At the same time, NeMLA 2021 felt accessible in ways that none of those decade-plus prior conferences had. One of my panelists took part in our session from his home in Kuwait; I chatted with a CV clinic mentee who was in India at the time; both speakers and audience members spoke of being able to come to sessions right after parenting or teaching or fulfilling other parts of our lives and obligations; and so on. As I understand it, this conference had significantly more attendees than we have ever had before (at least in recent memory), and there’s no doubt in my mind that it was the virtual format which made it possible for many of those folks to join us, to add their voices and work to our NeMLA community. Given that expanding that community has been one of my most consistent goals in my work on the NeMLA Board, from my time on the presidency track through my now-concluded service as the American Area Director, I have to admit that I love the thought that, even amidst everything happening here in 2021, we were able to add so many folks to our NeMLA family (while, from what I can tell, keeping many of the folks who have been part of prior conferences in the fold).
I’m not on the Board any more, so my thoughts about future conferences are just that: thoughts, the perspective of someone who plans to stay connected to the organization and conference but will have no direct say in their directions moving forward. But speaking for myself, I’ll say that I very much hope NeMLA 2022 will be in-person but can still feature virtual/remote options for attendees as well, to keep building on those accessibility advances for those who need them, while returning for as many folks as possible to the communal experience in its fullest form. To be honest, that feels to me like the future of academic conferences: a hybrid, multi-layered event that can be different things to different people, bringing folks together both in-person and virtually. I know that balance might not be easy, and again I can’t say for sure what NeMLA will do; but it feels to me like a great goal through which to incorporate these positive developments while still doing all that NeMLA has done so well for so long.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Thoughts on either NeMLA 2021 or virtual conferences overall?