This blog post - written by Jeffrey Reger, Ph.D., Executive Director of Middle East Studies Association of North America - is part of a series that reflects on the experiences of scholarly society leaders who participated in the "Future of Scholarly Meetings" cohort. The Future of Scholarly Meetings was a collaboration between Ithaka S+R and JSTOR Labs.
The MESA Annual Meeting remains a defining annual event for our field of Middle East studies, and the principal work of our organization. Behind the scenes, there is an immense amount of invisible labor, starting with the Secretariat staff, which spends most of the year preparing and organizing. There is no doubt that we all increasingly feel the pressure to justify a conference annually. There is the cost-benefit analysis of traveling. The intangibles of meeting are also truly priceless. However, not all of us have the same access to resources, and not all of us have the same ability to travel. MESA recognizes that some activities, such as catching up with former colleagues and old friends, are best done in person. We also recognize that some activities are simply more efficiently done online. (It’s staggering how much it costs to travel, both financially and —more importantly for our future — ecologically.)
To best meet the needs of our members, MESA has decided to experiment with holding purposefully designed virtual meetings on an occasional basis. Our 2023 Annual Meeting will be an exclusively in-person in Montréal, Canada this November. Our 2024 Annual Meeting will be held mostly online. The 2024 Annual Meeting is a forward-looking experiment, building upon the successful experiences of the 2020 and 2021 meetings. We plan to hold some special (plenary) events in person, as well as social networking and other less formal gatherings, in a centralized location, and possibly at satellite events in a hub-and-spoke meeting model. Nearly all program sessions (panels and roundtables) will be online. If this experiment in alternating conference formats is successful, we will consider if it makes sense to continue holding virtual meetings every third year, or perhaps more or less frequently, based on attendance and interest.
What are the advantages of regular virtual meetings? For MESA, these can be summed up in three broad areas of equal importance: climate impact; accessibility; and costs.
Climate: Climate change is an existential crisis for us all. We have an obligation to do what we can. We must recognize that we can change our behaviors to benefit the planet and to reduce carbon emissions. Reducing optional air travel, as one of the most significant contributors of carbon per person, would make a major impact.
Furthermore, it is likely in the not-too-distant future that many of our institutions will discourage conference travel as the externalities and environmental costs of travel become more and more apparent. Some academic institutions may reduce or eliminate travel funding for in-person meetings accordingly. We understand these needs, and we want to do everything we can for both the present and the future.
Accessibility: While we are the Middle East Studies Association of North America, both in name and in geographic location, we have members across the globe. We seek equitability in terms of both access to the meeting and of knowledge production. We are keenly aware of the challenges to securing visas and entering the United States, which have grown in recent years due both to bureaucratic factors and political decisions. Accessibility also of course applies to our many disabled members. Some disabilities are visible, but many are not. Travel is hard on everyone, but some more than others.
Furthermore, MESA members continue to express deep concerns about the continuously evolving dynamics of COVID-19. The pandemic, which lingers with us, has not only laid bare the health vulnerabilities of all of us—some of whom remain vulnerable—but also introduced new vulnerabilities. Returning to “normal” is not an option for everyone.
We take these concerns seriously, and we want to ensure that they are not barriers to participating in the annual meeting.
Costs to attendees: Travel costs are by far the largest burden to members. The cost of attending academic conferences has increased, while at the same time, many colleges and universities have decreased or eliminated faculty (and graduate student) conference travel budgets. When combined with rising employment precarity in academia, in-person annual meetings are increasingly financially burdensome to attendees, and thus fewer members may be able to attend.
Costs to organizers: An in-person annual meeting typically costs just under half of MESA’s total annual budget. A good Annual Meeting for MESA has historically meant breaking even; however, we expect costs to continue to rise. A virtual meeting is significantly cheaper for us to mount logistically, allowing us to offer registration discounts. It is also worth noting that a periodic virtual meeting could make it more financially feasible for MESA to subsidize attendance when we do meet in person, thanks to the cost savings of virtual meetings.
During the virtual meeting, we intend to incorporate some in-person events, to compensate for the inability to socialize and network virtually in any meaningful way. In addition to special events in a centralized location, we will encourage satellite in-person gathering in a hub model.
Looking to the future: the 2025 MESA Annual Meeting will be held in person. The Board and Secretariat remain committed to in-person meetings remaining a regular occurrence. We will consider both the structural and contingent factors affecting the experiences of the Annual Meetings over the next few years, to assess what makes the most sense in terms of the financial viability of the organization, accessibility of the annual meeting to our entire membership, and the ethical and existential concerns shared by all of us.
This might mean alternating between virtual and in-person meetings on an annual basis. Alternatively, it might mean meeting virtually every third year, or less frequently. We won’t know until we try.
What we do know now is we need to be proactive and forward-looking as an organization given the prevailing structural trends affecting membership and meeting attendance—many of which precede the COVID-19 pandemic—and to experiment a little bit while we can, to make as informed a decision as possible, and to ensure the MESA community continues to thrive.
We have learned a lot over the past few years, and we will continue to learn and grow with our members and with our peer associations through initiatives like the Future of Meetings Project.
Thank you for this opportunity to share what we have learned, and to continue to learn from our colleagues.
– Jeffrey Reger, Ph.D., Executive Director of Middle East Studies Association of North America