As the pandemic dragged on, and we all got better at on-line events, I kept wondering if virtual conferences would one day replace the traditional face to face events. Were we witnessing the death of the traditional conference?

But suddenly in-person conferences are back and their value is being sensed by all those who are again coming together at these meetings. I predict that many conferences will simply snap back to their pre-COVID formats.

It’s because conferences were never just about sharing information. When I came to think about it, I realised conferences are not even necessary if all you want to do is share information – books, journals, pre-print servers, or morning emails can do that. Having become addicted to the new knowledge generated by universities, I had overlooked the fact that conferences are not only about new knowledge, they are about forming teams committed to common and evolving purposes.

That is a big and important task and the features of in-person conferences provide several magic ingredients.

The first ingredient is timing. In-person conferences only exist in one point in time, so you tend to look forward to them. They are anchored in time and gradually loom up on a shared horizon.

Next comes the journey to the conference. People typically come from different places to gather together. Travelling is important. It demonstrates effort and commitment to a cause. Everyone has to plan and prioritise. Throughout human history pilgrimages have proved far more popular than many may have expected. I feel there is some deep magic in travelling and coming together in a chosen place and time for a defined purpose.

Then there is sharing food together. I’m no anthropologist but I am a biologist, so I know food is important in many ways. Many animals fight over food. I believe doing the opposite and sharing food (and drink) has a special magic. It builds trust. I think those who enjoy business lunches have worked that out. It’s also obviously important in terms of establishing friendships and partnerships – relationships.

Looking people in the eye, sensing body language, and exchanging jokes, while eating or while discussing work is another ingredient. Jokes do occur in virtual events but it’s harder to sustain a chain of banter long enough to engage all members of the team. Put simply it’s not the same.

And of course there is the effective sharing of information. Everyone will have been working away since the last conference. Now is the moment to share new information and ideas. For the audience the information comes in waves as each presenter tells their story. I find it easier to concentrate, absorb, and remember talks if I see them live and know I’ll miss them if I nod off. I also value the informal discussions during breaks in the conference programme.

Then all too soon the conference is over and it’s time to depart. Again, there is a certain magic about separating and saying “see you next time,” while being just slightly unsure how the future will unfold and whether you will see your new and long standing friends again, or whether perhaps they, or you, will move on to other things.

Conferences help establish communities with a shared commitment to long term projects. The “pre-work” is done by inspired individuals toiling away in isolation. But knowing a team will form helps people stay on track through difficult times, and teams are essential when it comes to celebrating the good times – it’s much less fun celebrating alone!

So, I’m sure in-person conferences will continue and that jet-lagged Australians will drag themselves across the globe, or will gather locally in different corners of our country, to share information, food, and jokes.

I think fully in-person conferences will co-exist with new forms of on-line and hybrid meetings. Virtual meetings have the advantage that one can include people who are less able to travel. Virtual conferences will continue to improve as we learn the best approaches to maximising engagement. There will also be hybrid meetings or meetings that are designed to be face to face but are recorded so that others can livestream or watch them later. This involves extra work, but we’ll gradually figure out what structures are most cost effective.I remember once seeing an amateur opera – depicting a tragedy – where the lead singer seemed to be repeating endlessly “I’m dying, dying, dying, dying, dying…soon”. Such seems to be the situation with the lecture, with the conference, and indeed with opera itself! But perhaps instead of one new species of human activity evolving and driving the last one to extinction the ecosystem is expanding and creating wondrous diversity. I guess the same thing happens in the biosphere and I look forward to learning about and discussing the new intellectual engagement lifeforms that evolve in future meetings.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic



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