Saturday, January 08, 2022

Random Bullets of MLA 2022

 It's become a (semi? quasi?) annual tradition to post from MLA, and although I skipped last year, here's what it looks like in this Year of Our Covid 2022.

  • MLA was not virtual for a long time, but then the MLA gods started seeing the same astronomical COVID omicron spikes as the rest of us and relented: in-person panels could go virtual if they announced this by December XX. When my panel chair announced this and asked us our opinion, it took me less than 4 minutes to blast a reply-all saying "Please, let's do virtual, I beg of you, because there is a major pandemic" or words to that effect. We went virtual, and hooray! 
  • I have been grateful about this every single day, and seeing 1700 to 2500 flights a day canceled because of terrible weather has increased my gratitude exponentially. I've spent enough time sitting on floors or scrabbling for outlets or eating stale sandwiches in SLC or MSP or DTW, or sitting on hold with airlines, in the best of times and felt I could skip that level of misery and anxiety this year once we went virtual.
  • Unofficially, I've heard that about 80% of the panels are now virtual. Some are in person, and some have chosen to defer their panels until next year.
  • What's the experience like? Fantastic! I'm attending lots of sessions, hearing smart people talk about interesting research, and really enjoying it. It's shaking up my brain, in a good way, and giving me lots to think about--and isn't that the point? And I'm buying more panelists' books now that I don't have to spend the money on travel--which Northern Clime doesn't reimburse.
  • Better still, since we're all used to Zoom now, we know enough to mute sound and video, to do the little applause hands at the end, to share screen, and all the rest. And with Zoom, I can get up and pace around the room rather than sitting in an overheated conference room pinching myself to stay awake; it's much easier to listen, learn, and take notes when you have freedom of movement. 
  • How can I say this? People are . . . better speakers, somehow, with Zoom. Everyone can hear the speaker--there's no harrumphing about being too good to need the microphone--and the transitions between speakers are really smooth, with no "my PowerPoint won't load" drama during which the audience kills time. And people are really prepared to keep within the time limits. Conversation is lively in the Q & A, and the rambling and posturing that sometimes mars sessions is kept to a minimum.
  • There's always a bit of performative mourning about not being in person, not being able to spill out into the hall and continue the conversation there. Yet those conversations aren't always as inclusive as the conversations in the sessions, since only a few would be invited to join those hallway conversations. You can find community at a conference, they say, but there's also the isolation of being excluded from a group, of eating that sad, overpriced room service salad at the end of the day if you couldn't find dinner companions. At home, that clubbiness isn't being played out before your eyes. 
  • At the end of the conference (tomorrow), there won't be a solid day of travel with the inevitable cold that I always catch; in 2022, that would come with added excitement--flight delays! omicron! swords and fisticuffs on planes!--that I can also do without. Instead, I can take a deep breath and get ready for spring semester.

We'll go back to in-person conferences, surely, so this little golden age of virtual conference attendance won't last. But for now, I'll enjoy virtual MLA to the fullest and try to look downcast as everyone laments the loss of the in-person version. 

Edited to add: 

  • There seems to be less session-hopping on Zoom, and people are on time—but if you’re a couple minutes late, you can still get into the Zoom room without fuss and embarrassment. There’s no knocking on a locked door, or turning up at a session only to find the room full so you can’t get in to hear the speaker. This happens especially at celebrity panels—there was an Adrienne Rich panel at which she appeared years ago where there was an impressive overflow into the hall and no way to hear her—but it happens at other ones, too.
  • I do like in-person conferences and being able to talk to people, go out to dinner, see the book exhibit, etc., but virtual is just fine, too.

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xykademiqz said...

I am also overjoyed about virtual meetings. I am much more comfortable attending and get more out of talks in this format (I have a harder time paying attention and fall asleep in the conference room).

Your point about being excluded from after-panel conversations is well taken. I have often been alone at a meeting and it's no fun, and neither is trying to attach to others. I have decent social skills, which is why I can get the hint that I am not wanted. The clubbiness is real.

And, honestly, the prices are just stupid. It takes 2.5 grand to go to some of big conferences in my field for three days. They are in expensive cities, hotel is 250+ per day, registration nearly a grand itself. It's all definitely not worth it to go give a talk in the flesh.

There is a small biannual conference I attend, and it moves between Europe, Asia, and North America. This past year we had 2x the number of attendees because it was virtual, and with some creative scheduling it was all in real time. It was a great atmosphere. Some people I hadn't seen in ages attended again. This romantic notion of great bonding times during in-person conferences disregards everyone who's not part of the in-crowd, which also includes serious scientists who have no money for a jet-setting lifestyle.

I really hope stuff moves online in perpetuity.

gwinne said...

So glad you’re having a good experience. Everything you say makes so much sense to me. I wasn’t presenting at MLA and almost registered for zoom version.....

But the reality for me is that virtual conferences suck in different ways than in person conferences suck. I really enjoy the occasional lecture/ reading but can’t do more than 2 hrs a day on zoom without major bodily consequences. I tune out. And if on weekend have interruptions by kid.

Best wishes on the new semester!

nicoleandmaggie said...

Sounds like MLA is being run better than ASSA. The larger webinar sessions are fine, but for the smaller webinar sessions, the conference people are supposed to give all the presenters and discussants co-host capability so they can share their slides but often that doesn't pan out (most conferences I go to allow the chair full hosting privileges, but ASSA doesn't trust them I guess). As I'm typing this, one of the discussants is having trouble with his slides.

I do like being able to go to a conference in my pajamas. (Usually I show my face at smaller virtual conferences, but I can't with webinars and I haven't wanted to put a nice shirt on for the single smaller session I've attended each day, plus there have been enough people that I haven't felt the need to be supportive of the speakers and the norm seems to be panel and discussants show faces and spectators stay blank screen.)

I have discovered that I can't handle being talked at on my computer for hours at a time. I've been watching a lot of conference slides with the sound off and that helps.

undine said...

xykademiqz--I am completely with you on all counts, especially this: "This romantic notion of great bonding times during in-person conferences disregards everyone who's not part of the in-crowd, which also includes serious scientists who have no money for a jet-setting lifestyle." What about people with physical limitations for whom travel is difficult or impossible? Your example shows that inclusivity is getting left behind in all this nostalgia for in-person conferences. There are a few voices saying this on Twitter, but there are a lot more of the "Sorry we couldn't get together at the Duke gathering this year, but see you next year!" in-crowd signalling. And the cost: $2K-2.5K is what it costs now, and I'm not getting reimbursed.

But so much this: it's about actually staying awake and listening and learning by moving around at home rather than performing listening and instead falling asleep because you're just too overstimulated and your body is trying to check you out of a conference session.

gwinne--Zoom time can be too much, and it must be hard with kids wanting attention. It's the turning off the camera and listening while moving around that makes a difference for me, but it's still Zoom.

nicoleandmaggie--the slides for our humanities presentations usually aren't as crucial as they are for scientists, so I have to stick with listening. I did try keeping the camera on some, but in some cases we've actually been asked to keep them off if we have an ASL interpreter, since it's less confusing.