In-person conferencing benefits are not open to everyone

It’s 2019 and my twins are three months old. After much sleep deprivation, I somehow submitted my thesis, having straddled the tightrope of breastfeeding twins alongside creating paragraphs and managing a heavy SEO system.

Even after submitting the thesis, however, I am not ready to let go of the interviewer, the writer, the thinker in me. Motherhood is all-consuming, but I hold fast to what I’ve spent so many years becoming: a scholar.

Shortly after submitting, I learned that an expert in my field was presenting her new findings at a university across town, so I emailed the organizers: “I wonder if the seminar is recorded or available via teleconference? And I explain the challenges of traveling with two babies.

“These options will not be possible,” they tell me. “Apologies that we cannot accommodate you on this occasion.”

Although I can barely dress to take the twins to the shops, I decide to get us all in the car and make the trip. “It’s worth it,” I say to the anxiety that tugs at me. A friend offers to come and help with the twins.

Despite an early departure, it takes us more than two and a half hours to reach the university. As I drive around the parking lot desperately looking for a free spot, the minutes pass, the babies become more and more unsettled, and I end up leaving the car illegally in one of the staff parking areas. . I pull out the pram, put the capsules in place, and hand them to my friend before running across campus.

When I walk into the room, 20 minutes after an hour-long presentation, all eyes turn to me, staring coldly at me, the awkward latecomer. There are no spare seats, so I stand in a corner among piles of unused chairs and tables, trying to concentrate. Through the window, I can see my friend on the grass below as she rocks the capsules back and forth, my babies mouths hanging open, crying for me.

The drive back goes from bad to worse, taking three hours as the babies scream in the backseat and my friend, wedged between them, does her best to console them with nursery rhymes. When we get home, we’re all hot and restless and I rush inside, stripping off mine and the twins’ clothes in a mad dash for the nursing pillow. The babies latch on and calm down immediately but I collapse, tears streaming down my face.

Here it is, I think. There’s my erudite self, disappearing from sight.

Six months later, the world is turned upside down by the pandemic. Melbourne enters a strict lockdown and suddenly technology that was unavailable the year before is in common use. The same research group that couldn’t facilitate my attendance the year before now proudly writes in its newsletter about upcoming Zoom presentations.

In what feels like a moment, my life is changed. I listen to academics while I walk with the pram. I present my own work while my husband takes care of the twins during his lunch breaks. And I attend international conferences late at night when they sleep.

But the opportunities don’t stop there. My work is read by those I would never have met before the pandemic and I am invited to contribute chapters to two edited collections, both based in Europe. I undertake paid academic projects at three universities, none of which are within commuting distance of my home now in rural Victoria. I fulfill them successfully, working mostly evenings or weekends.

It’s radical. Maybe this is the revolution in college life we ​​were destined for, I wonder. Deep down, however, I fear that the opportunities I have been given will disappear when life returns to ‘normal’.

Now, as Covid becomes a more accepted feature of social life, I can already see that starting to happen. Even as universities and scholars preach the importance of inclusion and accessibility, conferences and forums are increasingly advertised as being in-person only. We are sold the benefits of chatting around the water fountain or during conference tea breaks. Yes – but what about the pressures such mandates place on those who find attendance difficult or even out of reach?

Academic voices excluded by decisions to reduce online options are also those most likely to be silenced to begin with. It is not only those with family responsibilities and those who live in remote and rural areas, but also those who have disabled and chronic diseases – notably the long Covid.

I’m not saying that purely online models should continue to dominate. There was, after all, evidence that returning to physical university spaces has benefits, especially for those who thrive in such settings. However, removing the remote participation option will not encourage the marginalized to come to campus. On the contrary, it will re-erect the barriers that have, for too long, prevented people from different backgrounds from participating in university life.

Alexandra Ridgway is a socio-legal researcher who obtained her PhD from the Department of Sociology at the University of Hong Kong, graduating in 2020.

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