Make the Conference Come to You

October 10, 2008

I took a taxi to the airport. I flew to another city. I took another taxi to a hotel. Three days later, I reversed the process. In between were hundreds of bottles of water, takeout cups of coffee, handouts, programs, business cards, and swag.

I am a walking environmental disaster. I am an academic at a conference.

I know all the justifications for these events, and I have even learned and benefited from conferences — sometimes. But in today's environmentally aware climate, I see the traditional academic conference in a new light. Many people travel great distances and use vast amounts of resources to stand in front of other energy consumers and read a paper aloud. We don't even call it giving a talk anymore; it's giving a paper.

A recent panel I was on had three other presenters. My colleague and I were the only "paper" that was presented as a conversation. We were in classroom-dynamics mode, teaching and listening, exchanging ideas with each other and those in attendance. The other panelists stayed seated while they read their papers; some had prepared PowerPoint presentations to accompany their words. A few of those presenters even handed out printed packets of the same PowerPoint material.

The printed program for this particular conference exceeded 600 pages. Everyone who registered received a tote bag (OK, that's good) filled with that thick program, a plastic travel mug, a key chain, a dozen fliers for related conferences and products, and other giveaways.

When it was all said and done, I was heard by the 15 people who were in the audience that morning. We had a few good exchanges, but I don't know if the experience would have been qualitatively different if I hadn't flown 3,000 miles. I went to a half-dozen other talks, but I could easily have stayed home and read their papers online. The Q&A seemed an afterthought, with time for only the briefest of exchanges. Break-time chat tended to focus on where to eat lunch or dinner and what sights to see in the host city.

It was not a successful conference.

When I got home, I found several colleagues who had also just attended conferences. One or two had similar experiences to mine; we all felt we could have phoned in our talks. But others felt energized by their experiences and defended the whole phenomenon of conferences.

What makes a conference successful and worth attending? And how can we maximize their productivity without gobbling up unnecessary resources? I quizzed my colleagues on their positive experiences and thought back to conferences I felt were valuable. And I came up with some suggestions for "greening" our academic conferences and making them worth the effort.

We should first think: Is this experience worth traveling for? Or could we benefit equally or more so from our home bases? With today's technology, we might not actually need to be in the same room to hear someone read a paper and respond. We could set up online conferencing using Web sites, podcasts, and video links. Such technology is usually far cheaper than holding a conference at a brick-and-mortar venue.

Let's say the conference is worth traveling to and the technology has been maximized, but people are still acting like fossil-fuel monsters. There are ways that both planners and attendees can help make a conference green. The organization sponsoring the event should print programs and handouts on recycled paper and place recycling bins throughout the venue. It should purchase carbon offsets, hold the conference at a green-certified location, and make a donation for the purchase and planting of trees. Conference planners should stop handing out wasteful bottled water, swag, and paper and Styrofoam cups. Let's use those travel mugs we've been given.

And while not ostensibly eco-related, conference planners should require that presentations be highly interactive and involve the attendees in the room. Minimizing paper-reading and maximizing conversation are good places to start. The time allotted to the paper should be short, and the Q&A session should be long. Presentations should relate to our teaching and scholarship. In other words, we should learn something we can use in our work. If those attributes are lacking, we should stay home and use technology.

Finally, we will probably learn more from discussions of the papers and exchanges among panelists than from the papers themselves. Let's bring what we learn to our colleagues who did not travel to the conference. My institution, Marymount Manhattan College, offers faculty venues to share scholarship and pedagogy. Why can't "What I Learned at My Last Conference" be a common brown-bag luncheon event on college campuses?

Conference organizers are already experimenting with some of those eco-friendly ideas. But in general, greening challenges the very nature of the traditional academic conference: We get on planes and drive cars just to sit in the same room with one another.

If we in higher education rethink how we exchange ideas, and we devise green alternatives to the traditional conference, then we must also rethink how we count such scholarship. Many tenure-and-promotion committees look for regular conference participation. Let's consider posting papers online that will count toward our scholarship records. And online forums, too, need organization and staff — let's maximize our energies using the latest in technology, both low tech and high. Those and other challenges are worth confronting in an age of dwindling resources.

Susan J. Behrens is a professor of communication sciences and disorders at Marymount Manhattan College.