What’s next for Conferences? A Perspective from Geography

What’s next for Conferences? A Perspective from Geography

This blog post 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.

Over the past year, JSTOR Labs and Ithaka S+R partnered with seventeen scholarly societies to explore the future of scholarly meetings in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced societies to rapidly reinvent their annual meetings as virtual or hybrid events. While often imperfect, the virtual and hybrid meetings of 2020 to 2023 proved the viability of conference formats that few societies or their members had previously experienced. Through co-learning, conversation, and design-informed activities, the Future of Scholarly Meetings cohort spent last year assessing the lessons learned from their experiments with new conference formats, weighing options, and developing concrete ideas about organizing conferences going forward.

The final report from The Future of Scholarly Meetings project will be published by Ithaka S+R this summer. To complement the final report we’ve invited several participants to reflect on what they’ve learned from the events of the past several years and from their experience in the cohort. Today’s blog post features excerpts (edited for clarity) from a conversation with Oscar Larson, Deputy Director for Meetings at the American Association of Geographers. We’ll publish more interviews in the coming weeks.

We are grateful for support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which made this project possible.

Can you tell us a bit about the American Association of Geographers and your annual meeting?

The AAG is a membership society. Our core membership is students that are studying geography and professors of geography, but also includes geographers that are outside of academia, doing professional work.

What’s maybe unique about our meeting is we don’t review any of the papers, so it’s very organically organized. Anybody can submit a paper to present. Anybody can also organize a session, so members themselves create their own tracks of sessions with the papers they want to see, and it’s pretty powerful. There’s something grassroots about it that’s really cool but there are some drawbacks to it, too. I think people who come to the meeting as a once-off may see things that might not be complete, or the presentations might not be polished because a lot of people use it to get a sense of whether or not they have a good idea to pursue, but that makes the meeting a really good place for people to network, start new projects, and test out ideas.

What was your experience as a meeting planner during Covid?

We were one of the first conferences affected. We had a meeting in March of 2020. It was supposed to be in Denver, and COVID kind of snuck up on everybody. We were very fortunate, going into virtual, in some ways. We’ve had a lot of pressure from members who wanted us to reduce our carbon footprint, and virtual and hybrid conferences can do that. We were planning on running a virtual/hybrid track at the meeting to start testing the concept, so we began there.

When COVID started, we ended up running some virtual sessions, so that was a test case, for better or worse. In 2021 some associations were coming back to in-person, but we were in Seattle, and Seattle still had restrictions on how many people could meet in one place. We were just outright prohibited from trying and the conference was canceled. Then in 2022, we were supposed to be in New York City in February, but the Omicron variant came out and our members just rebelled, like, “no, we’re not going”, so we had to cancel that one too. So we had 3 virtual cycles in a row.

What did you learn from participating in the Future of Scholarly Meetings project?

One thing I learned is that we’re all dealing with the same stuff. Which, you imagine that to be the case, but then when people started talking about their problems, I discovered things I hadn’t identified yet but that were shared problems.

Has participating prompted changes to your meeting format?

We tried a hub and node model for our 2023 meeting. We had three nodes, each organized by volunteers. It was a super cool experiment!

We had a node in Montreal organized by a consortium of 4 local universities that have geography departments, and they’re multilingual. They hosted 12 or 14 sessions locally that were also hosted in our virtual conference platform. We streamed two of those sessions in physical rooms at our conference. It was super challenging and we, internally, had a lot of questions about whether it would be worthwhile to do this, whether they would get adequate audiences to justify the expense. But people showed up, and that worked pretty well.

Anyway, the node in Montreal held multiple sessions at each of the universities. We’ve talked to them about their experience and I guess some people moved between universities, but not everybody did. They did not participate in the watch party aspect. They didn’t bring content, or if they did it was very little content. That is my understanding. So that node was very much hyper-local and presentation oriented. People appreciated the chance to network with people they rarely see, even though they work at the university down the road.

At Cal State Fullerton, we had another node built on a watch party model. They booked a couple of classrooms and streamed in virtual content from our meeting. They got some money from the geography department to get food and put up flyers and to do some advertising. They got 50 or so students to come, over spring break, on a weekend, the second weekend of spring break. Some said they were only coming for one day, but they came back for the food and they really had a good experience. The organizer there said this introduced our meeting to a bunch of people that would never come to our in-person meeting, but who got to feel like they had attended an AAG meeting in a certain way. The organizer at Cal State believes that the watch party model could be a really good tool for them to recruit students to the geography program, to show them what we do in geography.”

We loved the hub and node model and our goal for next year is to have 10 nodes. We’re trying to figure out how we can scale it and at what point we would need to get additional support and figure out how to structure conference fees.  

What is driving your commitment to continued experiments with more accessible meeting formats?

It’s absolutely the members. We exist to facilitate what they want. That’s how I see my role as a meeting organizer. We’re really open to change and I think our members are starting to realize that.