In this letter to the members, IAMCR's newly elected president, Nico Carpentier, reflects on IAMCR's 2020 conference and the opportunities and challenges raised by the events of 2020.
The IAMCR 2020 conference closed on 12 September 2020. Organising this conference was a difficult and challenging journey, and most of us only saw a small part of what was going on behind the screens. We started in Beijing, China, then moved the conference to Tampere, Finland, and then transformed the conference again, this time into an online event, with the continued support of the Tampere team. Less motivated organisers would have held up their hands in despair and would have given up. IAMCR has convincingly proven its resilience (not that we still had to prove anything, but nevertheless, it is reassuring to see IAMCR materially demonstrate its capacities).
As always, there are many people to be grateful to, for giving their precious time and energy, and for working for the collective good. Obviously, there was the (now partially former) IAMCR Executive Board (with Janet, Aimée, Graham, Gerard and Elske), working closely together with Bruce, our Executive Director and the entire Executive Secretariat. And then there was Team Kaarle, solid and invincible. The Sections and Working Groups put a marvellous programme together. All were working in difficult circumstances. Kudos to all!
But we should also thank you, our members. Those of you who submitted abstracts might have felt that you were on a rudderless vessel. Even if control was never lost, it was hard to keep a straight course when currents and winds were changing rapidly and constantly. But you, dear members, patiently stayed with us, and made this conference a success, by contributing papers to the online sessions, by presenting in the online discussion panels, and by providing feedback on your colleagues’ work. That support for IAMCR is precious, and everyone involved in the organisation of the conference was filled with some surprise, considerable respect for this demonstration of perseverance and collegiality, and –dare I say this—pride for what our community accomplished.
At times when many of us are mourning loved-ones who passed away, and when we are all confronted with the sickening death toll of COVID-19, and with the inabilities of our societies to limit the damage, organising an academic conference seems to be an insignificant detail. It is not. Our role as academics is to reflect, to analyse, to theorize, to understand and to communicate. We could and should not remain silent. We could have entered into hibernation, covering our heads with our hands until the threat had gone away. Instead we chose to speak. And we will continue to speak. I think that it is vital we spoke about the many communicative dimensions of COVID-19, but I also think that it is equally important that we not only spoke about COVID-19, but addressed many other issues, whose importance has not decreased.
As in any organic crisis, windows of opportunity open up. This is no different for IAMCR and the crisis allowed us to finally make the leap to a multimodal conference. We added the online paper sessions to our repertoire, creating platforms that allowed for (written) discussions. These online paper sessions worked—especially when moderators assisted in activating the participants and when the present-one/respond-to-one model was used. In some cases (but not always), we could see close readings taking place that could never occur in face-to-face (f2f) panels. Also the video discussion sessions, that some of the Sections and Working Groups organised, provided for fascinating and lively interactions. Finally, some of our members produced videos that were little treasures, and that articulated knowledge and aesthetics. These are formats we should keep.
At the same time, this organic crisis has made it abundantly clear how important f2f interaction is, for all of us, both in general and when it comes to knowledge production. As we are drowning in online teaching and meetings, we are now all too frequently reminded about the limitations of these technologies, the undesirability of the zoomification of (academic) life, and the need to better integrate the different modes of academic communication and knowledge sharing. We all long for the absent f2f discussions with our colleagues, and our future conferences should continue cherish them.
But we should not fetishize the f2f parts of our conferences. We should remember the many times that we were presenting with half of the audience sitting in the room answering their emails. We should not forget that conferences cost the environment dearly. We should not forget that while we were happily engaging in f2f conversations with our colleagues at an IAMCR conference, others could not attend, because the combined cost of flight, accommodation and registration fee was simply too high for them.
This challenge for future IAMCR conferences is very real, and there are no easy answers or perfect solutions. We will need to learn from IAMCR 2020, and develop novel ways of integrating different academic repertoires and modalities, so that we can better balance and reconcile them, in order to generate academic dialogues that will live up to the high expectations that we all have and should have.