By John Coward, University of Tulsa (Emeritus)
Let me start with a straightforward proclamation: I’m Old School (read: old enough to remember typewriters, pica sticks and proportion wheels), and I don’t like Zoom conferences. Or Zoom teaching. Or Zoom family reunions. Or Zoom anything, for that matter.
On the other hand, I realize that the COVID-19 threat is real and dangerous and that we need Zoom and other screen technologies to do our jobs and carry on with our professional and personal lives.
So I’m not blind to the advantages of Zoom meetings and virtual conferences. In the throes of a deadly pandemic, we need such fixes. And, truth be told, virtual meetings can be interesting and productive. It’s great to see and hear from colleagues, even when the pictures are fuzzy and the sound is tinny.
I acknowledge, too, that virtual conventions save money—no need for airline tickets, hotel rooms, Uber rides, meals, bar tabs and the like. (Deans and budget officers will approve.) Virtual meetings also benefit the environment for the same reasons, an advantage that should not be overlooked.
On the individual level, virtual conferences are easier on the mind and body. I expect every AJHA or AEJMC veteran has come to the end of a convention bone tired, too exhausted to appreciate yet another paper session in yet another bland, windowless meeting room. Zoom conferences avoid this sort of wear and tear.
But that convenience cuts both ways, of course. Since you can opt out of meetings with the click of a button, you can easily disengage. My own limited experience with Zoom conferences over the past few months has been mixed. Sometimes I’m attentive and inspired by the presentations. Other times I’m distracted by my environment. The cat jumps on the keyboard, the Amazon delivery guy rings the doorbell (Hey! My new flannel shirt!), the kitchen timer dings… well, you get the idea.
Even when I’m fully engaged in Zoom presentations, I always feel the distance between myself and the speakers. To put it another way, even when the technology works well—not always a given—and the presentation is effective, the virtual experience is still remote, still an arm’s length away. Even at its best, a screen presence is not the same as an in-person, flesh-and-blood experience.
Virtual conferences also eliminate the pleasures of the host city. There’s no technological means to check out the regional cuisine and bend an elbow with a local brew. I’m surely not the only one who wants to explore the streets and shops of Salt Lake City or any of the other cities where AJHA has met in recent years.
In addition, AJHA has a long tradition of Friday afternoon field trips to historic sites in the host city. These are often significant, even moving, as when we toured Little Rock’s Central High School or the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas. I was looking forward last year to eating barbecue in Memphis and touring the National Civil Rights Museum. Obviously, no teleconference can replicate the experience of being in the place where history happened.
If the pandemic continues and personal safety requires it, I’ll happily participate in future Zoom meetings. It’s much better than no conference at all, and, as I’ve said, virtual conferences can be productive even when we’re stuck in those little Zoom boxes on a small screen.
I’m also open to hybrid meetings, where some participants convene in person and others link up via the screen. These could be a solution, though I don’t have experience with any hybrid conferences and I can’t speak to their strengths or weaknesses.
Meanwhile, many of us remain isolated, cut off from family, friends, students and colleagues. Given the continuing threats of the pandemic, Zoom is about all we have and we should probably make the best to it.