Opening Remarks




Ken Hiltner

Academic Conferences 2.0

Ken Hiltner is a Professor of the environmental humanities at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). The Director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI), Hiltner has appointments in the English and Environmental Studies Departments. He has published five books, including Milton and Ecology, What Else is Pastoral?, Renaissance Ecology, and Ecocriticism: The Essential Reader, as well as a range of environmentally oriented articles. Prior to becoming a professor, for many years he made his living as a furniture maker

Q & A

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42 replies
  1. Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

    Hi Everyone,

    Many thanks for your interest in our admittedly unusual conference. As the conference coordinator, I am happy to field any questions in this Q&A session that relate to this event and its curious format.

    Regarding my opening remarks, I would very much appreciate your thoughts on what I had to say. Three issues in particular come to mind:

    1) The notion that open-access, online conferences like this one have the potential, in addition to being more environmentally sound, to also be more equitable and accessible than their traditional counterparts. As I note in the talk, the cost of airfare from anywhere in the developing world to anywhere in North America or Europe is often greater than the average annual income in these countries. This simple fact effectively bars an overwhelming majority of the planet’s population from taking part in international conferences, ensuring that they remain open to only a privileged few. In contrast, conferences such as this one allow nearly any scholar anywhere with a computer or mobile device and adequate internet access to equally take part in the conference.

    2) The direct role that the humanities and social sciences can play, when working with the natural sciences, in mitigating climate change. Without a range of computer and network technology that was cobbled together for the purpose, this conference would not have been possible to even imagine. Indeed, the limitations of the traditional conference only came into relief when online alternatives were considered. However, greener technology (in the form of the next generation of more efficient aircraft) without greener cultural practices (like a new generation of conferences that sidestep air travel altogether) is, as I argue in the talk, also clearly not enough by itself in this case. In short, what is needed is to think outside the box by way of an applied-science, applied-humanities approach. This is, I would argue, not only environmentally the case with air travel, but also with ground travel, housing, food systems, clothing, and so forth.

    3) The shortcomings of the traditional Q&A session. The difficulty is that a fifteen-minute Q&A session is a ridiculously short and awkward period of time for collaborative thinking. It does not, for example, allow either the individuals who are posing or answering the questions any meaningful time for reflection, let alone research. Moreover, as the name suggests, it is principally imagined as an exchange between the audience and presenters, rather than an open discussion between all participants that can follow many threads of thought, including tangential and even marginal ones. If scholars from across the planet were able, unhampered by time zones and given two or three weeks in which to do so, to contribute to a Q&A that followed many threads, it could – at least this is my hope – surpass its traditional counterpart.

    Finally, your general feedback is very welcome. For example, what do you see as the shortcomings of the conference? How might these be addressed? Alternately, what are its strengths? How can these be improved upon? What are we missing?

    Warmest wishes,


    • Danen, Dalhousie U says:

      Great opening, Ken! You’ve highlighted many solid reasons for doing this: thank you so much for leading the charge with this online conference. For years, I have been asking why we still fly to conferences, as physical cons have huge ecological and economic costs. Even when I don’t have to fly (like last week, when I presented in DCUTL 2016 at Dalhousie), I still find physical cons to be overly restricted by “real-time” contingencies. For example, in a traditional con, when two talks are presented simultaneously, I have to choose which talk to attend and sacrifice the other: with this con, I am looking forward to watching everyone’s talks over the upcoming weeks. I love that asynchronous viewing will enable more enduring and multivocal exchange via comment sections (and give me time to think before posting questions) than could be achieved by cramming 50+ talks into a 2-day conference. And it’s brilliantly open and non-exclusive, which just feels right, as far humanities scholarship is concerned! All the opportunities that you discuss in this video are really crucial things to be tapping into in this day and age, and I’m excited to see how this all develops.

      • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


        Many thanks for the words of encouragement and your comments.

        You have zoomed right in on one of my central points in the talk: that even without the environmental advantages, there are a range of additional reasons to rethink the traditional conference. Having to often choose between two or more talks being given at the same time is yet another great example.

        Yes, I too am “excited to see how this all develops”!


      • Dana Mount, Cape Breton University says:

        Dear Danen – I’m surprised and excited to find out that the first comment I read as part of my first-ever online conference is from down-the-road. I’m up here at CBU but I’m also adjunct at Dal. Nice to meet you virtually.

        As someone working at a university that is fairly remote, I love this opportunity to take-in research and dip into larger conversations about enviornmental studies while going about my work. Looking forward to ‘hearing’ the panels soon.

    • Peter Kalmus says:

      In regards to your second point. I couldn’t agree more that the sciences and humanities need to collaborate in regards to our ecological predicament. I think this interaction needs to go pretty deep, deeper than conference technology and software, which isn’t science per se so much as technology.

      Perhaps a main role of science in this collaboration, in regards to our predicament and at this late date, is to lay out and communicate the incontrovertible physical evidence of rapid, harmful change we are causing to Earth (i.e. to our own life support systems), which clearly implies the need for urgent change in how humanity interacts with the Earth. Humanists might be wise to roll up their sleeves and delve into the science a bit, as I think many of you are already doing, in order to accurately grasp this urgency and its scientific foundation and to develop a solid critical sense of what is known and unknown. But then, what to do with this urgency, how to bring it into the world? What systems, modes of thought need to change? What are the implications in terms of our economy, our ethics, our social structures, our spirituality, our art? This is clearly the domain of humanists. A cultural shift is called for, but scientists have no idea about cultural shifts. But we clearly do have a role in catalyzing such a shift.

      I struggle with these kinds of questions: should I speak out or shut up and stick to the science? And if I speak out, are there lines I shouldn’t cross? Just feeling like there are mysterious lines that shouldn’t be crossed, that anything I say will be analyzed by my colleagues and the general public (as well as by denialist trolls) and held against me, makes it scary to speak out. Scientists need help demystifying this cultural minefield; or at least this one does.

      • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


        I could not agree more.

        As I note in the talk, scientists cannot do this alone, nor should they be expected to. One of the things that fascinated me about your talk on Panel 1, as well as articles that you have recently published, is that you are also calling for a paradigm shift in the (strange) cultural practice of flying to conferences. As you noted in the talk when discussing your fascinating poll, some scientists are of the opinion that science alone will get us out of this mess. If that were true, we could all continue to drive, alone, cars that weighed 2 1/2 tons across endless miles of suburbia, but now propelled by renewable power – which is exactly the dream answered by the Tesla.

        I am of the opinion that the change has to be more radical. What makes it exciting is that we are in a position to rethink, in fundamental ways, our relationship to technology and its place in our lives. Cars and planes are a great example.

        Wouldn’t it be great if a room full of scientists and humanists sent down together to reconsider the question of transportation?


    • Joanna Nurmis, University of Maryland says:

      Dear Ken, thank you so much for organizing this conference. I am so glad to see that you have thought this through on so many levels. I must say that as a PhD candidate who is quite alone in my department in terms of interest in environmental communication, I felt particularly blessed last June to be able to attend the International Environmental Communication Association conference in Boulder. In fact, I had to spend over $700 of my own money (and my grad stipend is $600 per month) to be able to attend. It made it very difficult, and certainly would have been much easier to attend virtually. I want to point out that the IECA did offer every presenter the option of skyping in to the conference, and all the sessions were broadcast online. Many presenters from Germany and the Netherlands offered their talks live in this way. However, I also must say that I wanted to be there in person and I was glad that I did go. After one of the keynotes, I asked a question of Dr. Edward Maibach, the speaker. I was incredibly inspired by his talk. I came to talk to him in person and from that conversation came an offer to become an affiliated researcher with his Center at George Mason University, and he also subsequently joined my dissertation committee. I firmly believe this would not have happened had I not been there in person.

      Your talk reminded me of a great article by James Howard Kunstler in Orion magazine. You can read it here:

      He points out in this article that mass airline travel is not going to be with us in the long run.
      “For example, commercial airplanes are either going to run on cheap liquid hydrocarbon fuels or we’re not going to have commercial aviation as we have known it. No other energy source is concentrated enough by weight, affordable enough by volume, and abundant enough in supply to do the necessary work to overcome gravity in a loaded airplane, repeated thousands of times each day by airlines around the world. No other way of delivering that energy source besides refined liquid hydrocarbons will allow that commercial system to operate at the scale we are accustomed to. The only reason this system exists is that until now such fuels have been cheap and abundant. We are not going to replace the existing worldwide fleet of airplanes either, and besides, there is no other type of airplane we have yet devised that can work differently.”

      I can see both the advantages and the drawbacks of this format. I believe that friendship is an important part of the development of knowledge. We know of many discoveries and breakthroughs that were made because great minds met – not just on a theoretical level but in person – and befriended each other. An affinity of character often goes together with an affinity of thought. On the other hand, the figures you cited about how much CO2 is saved by this format is stunning.

      Thank you so much.

      • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


        Apologies for not getting to this important point sooner.

        You put a fine point on the issue of direct human contact, which has been taken up elsewhere in this Q&A session, by bringing up the question of how we build important and lasting academic relationships. For the most part participants here have (at least I think that they have) been referencing the rather casual and often topical discussions that take place at conferences, such as in hallways and at dinners. But the relationships to which you draw attention are different and more important. Incidentally, I met two of my three dissertation advisors first at conferences.

        When Brogan broached the lack of “direct human interaction” in this Q&A, I called it the 800-pound gorilla in the room. It still strikes me as alive and well as such. I doubt that any kind of virtual interchange can match it. I have had many different sorts of interactions with students, such as individual Skype-type talks, conference versions of these, phone calls, as well as written back-and-forth discussions in forums, emails, IM chats, etc. None of these replicates a face-to-face meeting, by a long shot. True, some have special advantages, such as the ability to pause, reflect, and even research a little in the middle of an email exchange. However, at the end of the day, none equals a flesh-and-blood conversation.

        Nonetheless, I found the example of your meeting Edward Maibach first at a conference interesting, as he is from your neck of the woods and hence the relationship that you formed was able to unfold, I imagine, largely face-to-face once you two were back to your respective – and fortuitously nearby – homes. I mention this as it strikes me as unfortunate that such crucial academic relationships still seem to often require direct proximity. “Unfortunate” because we academics tend to be a pretty specialized bunch. In fact, some might say that hyper specialization has become a cornerstone of academia. Yet, as graduate students we are often required to cobble dissertation committees out of whatever scholars are close at hand. True, you might have a primary advisor that shares your interest, but the rest of the committee may well not.

        Wouldn’t it be amazing if proximity were not an issue and if we could have committees composed of members from the world over with interests that intersected with ours? As a committee member, this would be appealing to me as well, as it would provide me with a wonderful opportunity to interact with like-interested colleagues.

        I mention this here as it strikes me as yet another reason for us to embrace opportunities to technologically revitalize cultural practices that are clearly limiting.

        Now, as to what sort of technology could be utilized here, I admittedly do not really know. However, I would draw attention to Kim Stanley Robinson’s keynote at this conference, which is a recorded Skype talk. With a good quality webcam and sufficient bandwidth, remote talks are getting much better. While I am aware that many folks would put their money on avatar interaction (such as Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson in their aforementioned Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution), I suspect that high definition video conversations are the way of the immediate future – and something to definitely think about incorporating into upcoming conferences of this sort, though I am aware that they can potentially have significant carbon footprints.


  2. Peter Kalmus says:

    This experiment is brilliant in my opinion, and I’m genuinely excited to have the opportunity to engage with the talks at my leisure. Another benefit of this format: it solves conference “burnout.” For me, typically sometime during day 3 of a 5-day conference, I realize I’ve crossed some line and the information just won’t flow into my brain. I become “dense.” I start skipping more and more talks and taking a larger percentage of the day to do my own thing. By Friday most people have done the airport thing and flown off, and the talks are sparsely attended, and I’d say there’s a tangible sense of exhaustion and tuning out. Poor Friday speakers….

    • Peter Kalmus says:

      So it turns out that in addition to being a benefit, this was also a challenge for me: I wasn’t able to set aside a few days where I did nothing else but attend this conference. Perhaps this is a great advantage of the traditional conference: all you do is focus on the conference. You are forced, both by the lack of other demands and also by social pressure, to absorb and interact! Unfortunately, because this is a humanities conference and I’m not a humanist, I’d need to spend precious vacation days in order to do this.

      I’m curious: did most other attendees set aside a day or two to focus on this conference, or did most listen to talks here and there, while washing dishes after supper, during lunch hours, etc.? Maybe in the long run the latter mode is just as useful, anyway. I plan to eventually watch many, perhaps most of the talks, but it looks like much of my watching will need to happen after the conference closes. My understanding is that the official comment spaces here will be closed, so I guess if I have questions or comments I’ll be e-mailing presenters directly. Maybe that’s as it should be.

  3. Kacey Stewart, University of Delaware says:

    What wonderful opening remarks, and what a great conference concept! This is definitely a step in the right direction to make academia, more equitable, accessible, and of course sustainable. Thinking back on some conferences that I have attended in the past, I really feel that I have not gotten everything out of them that I could have with it being impossible to sit in on every paper and every panel, and of course just not being able to digest and retain the vast quantities of information that I am hearing. I completely agree that conferences as we know them need to come to an end, and I hope that the future holds more conferences like this, but I would like to ask what should we do in the meantime? As a graduate student there is a lot of pressure to attend conferences regularly, so how can I both advance my career and hold my convictions as I wait for the culture of academic conferences to catch up? I suppose another way to think of this question is that it seems clear what conference organizers need to do, but what about someone like me?

    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      Such a great question.

      Incidentally, I often know that I have encountered a great question because no answer quickly comes to mind!

      At the risk of being self promoting, a start would be to make people aware of conferences like this and the flying less petition that Parke Wilde and Joe Nevins, both of whom are presenting at this conference, organized.

      Incidentally, Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist who is early in career, reflects on his decision to not attend conferences in his talk on Panel 1. This is, by the way, not only a challenge for folks just starting out. Peter Singer, one of the keynotes for this conference, noted to me that even though he is offering to give talks remotely more and more nowadays, “sometimes, but not often, that is accepted.” To be blunt, if a scholar of Peter Singer’s stature has such an offer turned down, the rest of us face a huge challenge.

      Here are some thoughts:

      1) Make conference organizers aware of how successful prerecorded talks can be. Since we have all had bad experience with Skype-type technology, many folks are not aware of how effective a pre-recorded talk can be. Even a simple talk like Chris Robertson’s on Panel 14 can look great. More ambitious approaches, such as the mini documentary that Brogan Bunt, Lucas Ihlein, and Kim Williams did for Panel 6, should cause us all to reconsider just what a conference talk can be.

      2) Consider coordinating a conference like this. Using a technology like WordPress makes it relatively simple. Because it can be done on a shoestring, it strikes me is a great option for graduate-student conferences.

      3) The gutsiest thing to do would probably be to wait until you have an abstract accepted for a conference and then offer to supply a pre-recorded talk instead. Actually, this may not be that gutsy – after all, what is the worst thing that can happen other than the conference coordinators declining the offer?

      Let me continue to think about this.

      In the meantime, it would be great to hear what other folks have to say about this issue!


  4. Parke Wilde, Tufts University says:

    Ken, what an inspiring conference! The more I watch these talks, the more impressed I become with the effectiveness of this format — pre-recorded talks, but with a time delimitation that still gives the conference the character of an “event” rather than just a “page”. Hearing the diversity of styles of conversation, from different disciplines, united by effort to do something important and good on this important issue of our times, fills me with a sense of appreciation and affection for all the people you have brought together.

  5. Brogan Bunt, University of Wollongong says:

    Many thanks, Ken, for your talk and the novel conference format.

    Great to be able to easily participate from Australia. The long, cash and carbon expensive flight would have made our participation unlikely otherwise.

    Agree with your points about the benefits of moving away from the traditional conference format as a means of reducing our environmental impact and improving aspects of social equity, public access and even the quality of participatory engagement.

    I guess the major worry relates to the lack of direct human interaction, but interaction is hardly guaranteed by physical proximity. All too often I have traveled halfway around the world to deliver a paper in one of multiple parallel conference sessions to just a handful of people. The experience feels more anonymous and alienating than social and engaged.

    The rise of various academic blog cultures attests to the value of emerging distributed, asynchronous and less strictly hierarchical forms of academic and public intellectual interaction. Not the only solution of course, but nice to see that this often works in tandem with fostering multiple local contexts of participation.


    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      Many thanks for introducing the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

      This conference is coordinated by UCSB’s Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI). When the EHI faculty advisory board met to decide on whether to conduct this conference experiment or not, one of the members, a colleague, friend, and committed environmentalist, felt strongly that we should not. The general concern was, as you succinctly phrase it, the lack of “direct human interaction.” This is a real and important issue.

      On the one hand, studies suggest that people take online relationships more seriously than we might suspect. In their fascinating book Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson note that “young adults consider their Facebook friends just as important as the people who live close enough to meet physically.” Consequently, I am curious to learn how participants feel about the relationships that this conference will hopefully foster. In fact, after the dust clears, we will be setting up a voluntary poll asking participants, among other things, how they feel about the loss of “direct human interaction.”

      On the other hand, I have to personally confess that I have little experience (and interest) in social media. I have a suspicion that I am not alone here. Consequently, to be perfectly honest, this conference experience feels a little odd to me. While I have also delivered papers to rooms filled with “just a handful of people,” it is often the casual and random meetings at dinner and in halls that are the most rewarding. I am not sure how to replicate these online, but I would love to hear suggestions for doing so – seriously, if anyone has ideas do post them here!

      Nonetheless, even if these personal interactions are lost, it still seems worth it to me, as the environmental costs of traditional, fly in conferences are staggering.

      In the fascinating future Blascovich and Bailenson outline in Infinite Reality, we will be able to interact at events like this by way of avatars. While that might be great, and there will no doubt be better ways of conducting a conference like this in the future, if we hope to meet the ambitious goals for climate change mitigation set late last year by the COP21 in Paris, we all need to immediately set about rethinking a range of activities that we often take for granted. In the case of scholars, conference travel may well be environmental enemy #1.


      • Jon Mills, Adler Graduate Professional School, Toronto says:

        Thank you Ken for spearheading this unique and important venue. I believe it will be the future of academic and scientific conferences where knowledge is disseminated globally without prejudice, politics, or financial restrictions, not to mention the main purpose of respecting the environment. Of course not having direct human interaction with the audience and colleagues is a limitation, but it is a small price to pay, almost inconsequential, when we look at the overall value of getting ideas distributed on a global scale, which certainly may have more impact on others than just a handful of people attending a talk, especially when it is archived and potentially available to viewers any time, as well as those who could not attend, or were disinclined to, nor could not afford to attend. Often, as in most conferences, most attendees have no desire to attend every talk, and if they do could not because of competing time frames for overlapping panels, so this capacity to selectively listen to talks at one’s own leisure and on their own time was even more appealing.

        I also favour the video format, even if is was a challenge to record and upload the video (not to mention all the work you and your staff had to do to make it available to the viewers). It is much better to see and hear a speaker than read a text (devoid of personality, affect, and context). It is also understandable that Q & A sessions would be text based, not in real time, for practical purposes. And I also see no problem or danger with having a permanent record of the conference, given that presentation topics were juried, videos were vetted, not to mention the speakers uploaded the talk and hence leant their approval and credibility to what they wanted others to hear, and Q & As could be thought out and edited by participants before submission. What could be a better way of getting ideas distributed in an academic forum next to a peer reviewed publication? Thank you for the privilege of being a part of this ground breaking venue, which is bound to be influential on future conference formats conceivably in all academic and scientific disciplines.


        • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

          Dear Jon,

          Many thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments.

          As the Q&A sessions will be closing in a few hours, this will be one of my last posts. Appropriate, I think, that it will be in response to your well-considered reflections.

          This and other Q&A sessions made clear that there are a range of issues that need to be taken into account as we transition away from the traditional, fly in conference, which I believe we must. In the process, it may mean, for example, that the line between the conference talk and the journal article may begin to blur, perhaps with some disturbing consequences in the bargain. It will certainly mean that the direct human interaction that we have come to expect at conferences will be lost. Perhaps some technological innovation will give us something as good or even better in its place. Personally, at least for the foreseeable future, I am doubtful.

          However, as you perceptively note, we need to weigh a variety of issues in the balance. Aside from the obvious (and urgent) environmental concerns, we are in a position, at the risk of putting too sharp an edge on it, to right a number of wrongs. For hundreds of years, academic conferences have largely been closed-door affairs, open only to a privileged few. The open-access, online conference promises to open things up to a broad range of individuals previously barred from attendance or full participation for a variety of reasons. While, at first glance, it may seem that this will merely benefit the previously disenfranchised, we all stand to gain by having scholars from across the planet join the conversation. This is a breathtaking proposition.

          Because only a privileged inner circle has historically been exposed to the emerging ideas introduced at conferences, the rest of the world has been left lagging behind with delayed access coming months and even years later when these ideas appear in journals and books – assuming that these publications can then be obtained. In contrast, the online conference and the archive that it leaves behind gives nearly anyone anywhere with relatively affordable technology instant and lasting access to all the material introduced there.

          Have we gotten everything right with this conference’s particular format? I am sure that we haven’t. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if history proves that we have gotten more wrong than right. However, my fondest hope is that events like this will draw attention to an academic practice that may be as culturally harmful as it is environmentally so – which is saying a lot.

          In short, we should all be more than a little embarrassed to take part in such a practice.


  6. Molly Hall, University of Rhode Island says:

    Hi Ken,

    Thank you so much again for organizing this conference! I believe many have been waiting for just such an experiment to manifest itself and I am glad you and UCSB decided to finally take it on. I must say that while I agree one of my initial concerns was the lack of direct interaction, I believe as yourself and those whom have already responded make clear, this platform seems more apt to amplify and enrich such interactions than limit them.

    I was thinking, if wide-scale implementation of such conferences emerged, one concern that might arise is a difference in a presenter’s approach, not to their presentation delivery (the obvious one), but to their content. Is there, I wonder, a possible danger that goes with the permanently archived nature of a digital conference platform? Whereas some young graduate student or not as yet tenured junior faculty member may want to test out some riskier ideas without standing permanently behind them (as one would in a publication), they may shy away from possibilities for innovation if the lasting risk of a recorded presentation seems too high. What if the future hiring committee or that colleague that is already gunning to shoot down your application for tenure googles you and finds your less than polished argument on merging quantum physics, cyberpunk fan lit, and Byron’s poetics? The internet often presents a field day for people looking to take things out of context and practice lazy research strategies (as many of us may have noted from our teaching of gen ed lit courses).

    Might this not, therefore, encourage intellectual timidity in some ways? Is there a way to counteract this, do you think? What might that look like?


    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      Another great question, centrally important.

      My initial response was to reflect on how our lives are now being played out in the public sphere. As I noted above when responding to Brogan, I am not very active on social media, but I am aware of what gets posted to places like Twitter and Instagram nowadays. I should also share that I was once on a hiring committee where questions came up regarding an applicant’s effectiveness as a teacher. Committee members surprised me by jumping in with what they had discovered while rummaging online, including YouTube talks and comments on However, no one brought up embarrassing photos that they found on Instagram, at least in the meeting that I attended…

      So, everything out there really does seem to be up for grabs – and, for better or worse, to potentially be taken into consideration in a variety of contexts. One good thing about prerecorded talks is that they allow you to control the presentation. In the abovementioned meeting, YouTube talks were brought up as a way of supposedly judging how charismatic and effective the applicant was in front of an audience (and hence, presumably in front of a classroom or lecture hall). Being able to carefully deliver a talk from a relaxed and familiar locale, rather than nervously and jetlagged in front of a room full of strangers, strikes me as a far better indicator of how a teacher will perform once comfortable with their class.

      But you asked specifically and perceptively about content and the “permanently archived nature of a digital conference platform.” In this sense, I think that a paradigm shift is taking place with talks of this sort. We are obviously not taking credit for this, as conference talks have been recorded in a variety of ways for some time now. Nonetheless, with our type of conference, this now becomes central and required.

      If you think about it, traditional conference talks are for the most part a sort of ephemera. Unlike journal articles, they do not usually have material existence in print (or anywhere else, for that matter, other than in the notes from which they are given). Consequently, just a few hours after they are given, talks begin to fade in the memory of the audience. Within a few months, all that may remain in the minds of most might be the core idea and perhaps a few other tidbits, if that, and if remembered correctly. Of course, an audience member can take notes, but I cannot recall ever coming across a book or article that cited a conference talk from notes. Though I am sure it has happened, it strikes me as a rarity.

      With recorded, archived talks this now changes. Arguably, they become more like journal articles than traditional conference talks on this count. True, they might not be written, but you can nonetheless quote from them with confidence and precision. Incidentally, I fully expect – hope really – that this will not only happen with some of the talks here, but perhaps with material from the Q&A sessions as well.

      And yet, as you rightly note, conference talks are different from journal articles in the important sense that we generally deliver them expecting that they are a sort of ephemera. Looking back on more than a few talks that I have given, my fondest hope is that they have been largely forgotten by everyone present. Not necessarily because I want to disown the ideas, but because I would rather that people became acquainted with them in a more mature form in an article. And yet, with respect to the conference experience, they often only reached that final written and archived form because of lively feedback that I received when first delivering them.

      So, how do we, as you concisely put it, “test out some riskier ideas without standing permanently behind them”? As conference coordinators, we could help facilitate this by taking a SnapChat approach, erasing the talks and Q&A sessions when the conference concludes. However, because there would be plenty of time (three weeks in the case of this conference) to pull quotes from the talks or copy Q&A comments, I doubt that this would be very effective.

      I also think that keeping the archive up is important – and important enough to risk any potential embarrassment – for a reason that has little to do with my primary motivation in conducting this conference experiment, which is environmental.

      A conference like this promises to give a range of previously excluded scholars access to the epicenter of exciting new ideas. In the process, such conferences could even help shift scholarly attention more toward a field’s leading edge. In a sense, academic articles and books often contain yesterday’s news insofar as the ideas in print were often first bandied about many months, even years before in conferences. Thus, if you want access to the leading edge of a field, it is far more likely to be found in conferences than books. Unfortunately, as only a privileged inner circle has historically had access to the conferences introducing these emerging ideas because of the high cost of travel, the rest of the world has been left lagging behind with spotty, delayed, and sometimes nonexistent access. A permanent archive opens the door to these ideas to nearly anyone anywhere in possession of what is increasingly becoming affordable technology.

      As I noted in the talk, I (like many others) am concerned that a range of scholars do not have access to books and articles because of the high cost of purchasing and subscribing to them, respectively, which can be beyond the ability of many institutions (and certainly individuals). The conference archive short circuits all this, giving us all access to ideas at the moment when they first publically saw the light of day.

      It occurs to me that we need to remember what we have always known: that conference talks contain inchoate ideas, which, when tested out on an audience, can prove to be incomplete and sometimes simply wrong. And one day perhaps prove embarrassing. These are core features/risks of the genre. However, it seems to me that the primary reason that this genre of intellectual discourse exists at all is so that ideas can be improved upon by way of a critical audience. It would be great to deliver a talk and receive nothing but praise (I am speaking hypothetically, as this has never happened to me), but, at the end of the day, it would substantively be a useless experience.

      OK, enough of my rambling! I am curious to hear what other folks think.


      • Ewan Kingston, Duke University says:

        First of all, I really appreciate the energy you’ve put into this great innovative conference. The issue of permanent archival raises some interesting questions.

        Like you, I think Molly’s worry is valid. I have a hunch that the ephemera model where talks are not permanently archived will be more attractive to many academics. You argue that archiving the talks allows a democritization of knowledge, which is important because of a) barriers to information in general and b) special restrictions to accessing the “leading edge” of academic work. But permanent archiving of conferences doesn’t help much with b: after a year or two, the talk itself will be superseded by the more mature forms of published work, or newer talks. With regards to a, the lack of access to quality information for people outside of the academy (or at institutions without good libraries) is a serious issue, but I wonder whether it is an issue best dealt with separately, rather than trying to make two revolutionary moves in one innovation. There also seems to be a reason in favour of the ephemeral approach – if a potential audience knows a talk will disappear in two weeks (say), they will be more likely to engage with it during the interactive phase of the conference. I think the potential costs of permanent archival outweigh the benefits.

        But perhaps the solution is to try both approaches. To have some conferences “permanently archived” and others “ephemeral” and see if there is a significant difference in the interest in each format.

        • Peter Kalmus says:

          Here are a few suggestions for possible middle paths.
          + Allow participants to delete / edit comments, at least until the end of the conference, if not indefinitely.
          + Keep the conference up for only some limited time, maybe a year.
          + Allow participants to repost talks. (Not sure many would have the time for this anyway, but in case of a real disaster….)
          + Do not open the conference to non-participants. This may seem draconian in light of your eagerness for openness and inclusivity, but this is how conventional conferences work anyway (I’ve never been to one that has been open to the public, and I certainly haven’t been to one that leaves a permanent, public archive), and the real inclusivity comes at the abstract submission and acceptance phase, anyway.

          I’d also like to point out that for some, pre-recording with a video camera won’t necessarily lead to a better talk. For example, I’m used to working off of slides (I didn’t have the time or the energy to figure out how to incorporate slides into my video this time), and I also find that having an actual audience energizes me in a very real way. Now that I’ve been through this once, I look forward to trying it again. I suspect this conference format will only get more useful with practice, and that the format itself will evolve. I hope you do it again.

          • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


            A thought regarding your last point. Many universities (even those like mine that seem perpetually strapped for cash) fund travel for faculty. Sometimes it is a lot, sometimes not so much. Nonetheless, wouldn’t it be great if these resources could be redirected to provide modest video production facilities? A room the size of a small classroom with one technician outfitted with a laptop and connected camera and microphone, perhaps with room for a small audience of interested friends, students, and colleagues (that could, as you note, help energize the talk), should do the trick.

            Inexpensive software would allow the presenters PowerPoint (or other presentation method) to be simultaneously recorded along with a video of the speaker. The technician could, in real-time, create a videoed talk that switched back and forth from speaker to presentation. A few minutes after it was filmed, it could already be uploaded to a server for streaming. Since some recent laptops (like Apple’s newest MacBook) consume less than 10 watts of electricity to run, this sort of setup should have a relatively tiny carbon footprint, likely much less than for lighting in the room.

            I bet that many universities have a “Travel Office” that could be repurposed for the job. They wouldn’t even have to change the name on the door.


        • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


          I definitely take your point about us attempting to make two “moves in one innovation” and that they need not be coupled.

          In certain fields, like the sciences, material often appears as “preprints” before it is actually published. One of the reasons for doing so is to get findings out, and accordingly receive comments back, quickly. What I am suggesting here is similar. However, as you rightly note, this need not be integral to this format.

          Perhaps there are simple things that could be done:

          We could give each speaker the option of having an emphatic “DO NOT CITE FROM THIS TALK” inserted under their talk. This would help to ensure that it does not show up later in print. We could even request that its ideas not be paraphrased.

          In order to make the video as much like a traditional conference talk (i.e ephemeral) as possible, it would be possible to log the IP address of the computer used to view it and not allow it to be watched more than once on that device. Of course, this could be subverted easily enough by doing a screen capture during the initial viewing or by going to another device for a second showing, but it would underscore that our intent was not to create an archive.

          Less extreme than the above option would be (as both you and Peter suggest here) to simply delete the conference webpages after a certain amount of time, acknowledging, to use your concise formulation, that “after a year or two, the talk itself will be superseded by the more mature forms of published work, or newer talks.” In practice, I imagine that this may happen anyway. Although JSTOR and similar services may be committed to keeping their archives up as long as they are in business, I am not sure that my dept is similarly committed to keeping this conference site up. I could certainly imagine our IT person sending me an email in five years or so asking if I still wanted to keep it archived.

          However, if conference talks of this sort do begin to become more like journal articles, perhaps JSTOR or a similar group may want to take on the responsibility of archiving them.


  7. Joseph Nevins says:


    Your talk is beautiful. I am very moved by it. So thank you very much for sharing your insights, hopes, and passions with us.

    I love the illuminating points you make about what is gained in a very practical sense by this type of conference. Yes, there are drawbacks, things we lose by foregoing in-person conferences, but you make a very persuasive case for how, in a number of ways, this type of conference is superior to the “brick and mortar” type.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and inspiring talk. I am very curious to hear your reflections after this is all said and done and you have received feedback from participants and audience members (especially those who “attend” with skepticism of the efficacy of such an endeavor).

  8. John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

    Dear Ken,

    What an inspirational talk on a visionary idea. Thanks very much. It’s a real pleasure to participate. A few points came to mind…

    Living in Thailand now, after 7.5 years in Australia, the issue of equity really resonates. Professors at Thai universities earn between $10-12,000 US per year, a high salary for Thailand. There also appear to be fewer research funds and conference travel support programs here. Attending an international conference, after the registration fee, flights, taxis, accommodation, and meals, could cost 1/10th of an academic’s annual wages. So an online asynchronous format has huge potential to remedy some of the issues of equity in the global academic environment while bringing important research from under-served regions such as SE Asia to an international audience.

    The second point that came to mind has to do with conference archives, which you and other delegates here have touched on. If a traditional conference has no proceedings, and many indeed don’t, then there might not be documentation of the conference talks other than the presenters’ personal files. Many times I’ve failed to jot something down during a presentation and then later wanted to recall what was said but couldn’t. Also, a lot of presenters spend time making aesthetically pleasing slide shows with images and video. Some of the images, for example, can be relevant to the spoken content. Again, this data can be lost after the presentation so having this kind of archive is invaluable. I’ve often thought about starting an online archive for conference slide shows (i.e. PowerPoint files). Maybe these could even count as publications for academic quantum required by university departments – at the moment they only serve a small audience, i.e. those who attend the talk.

    Speaking of attendance, many times at conferences I’ve been somewhat dismayed by the fact that my audience consists of me, the other presenters, and the panel chair – 6 or 7 attendees after thousands of miles of travel, pounds and pounds of carbon, and hundreds if not thousands of dollars in conference-related costs. What you said about open-access really makes sense: if journals and books are increasingly going that route, then why not conferences?

    Anyhow, thanks again for the stimulating opening comments 🙂

    All the best

    John Ryan in Chiang Mai, Thailand

    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      It is terrific to be able to have a conversation (albeit asynchronously) with you in Thailand. Many thanks for the kind words.

      Your point regarding conference archives, a subject that I touched on above in my reply to Molly, is so interesting. As I noted to Molly, recording and archiving conference presentations (which is by no means new with this conference) raises the question of whether they might have more in common with journal articles than traditional conference talks. A difference might seem to be that journal articles are carefully refereed. However, we (like most conference organizers) expended a great deal of effort jurying the talks at this conference. As with most journal editions or essay collections, an overwhelming majority of the submissions that we received were not accepted.

      Similarly, while conference presentations are often shorter than journal articles, this is certainly not always the case, as journal articles and chapters in essay collections vary widely in length. Consequently, when merit reviews are done at my institution, for example, we always look at the page length of publications that are offered in support of the promotion. Thus, even two- or three-page articles count.

      Regarding the question of genre, you rightfully draw attention to the fact that the genre of the conference talk has slowly been changing over the past decade or two, as PowerPoint, Prezi, and other multimedia presentations are becomingly increasingly common, even the norm in some fields. Consequently, putting together a book of essays that purports to constitute the conference proceedings really does not succeed at doing that, or, for that matter, at doing justice to multimedia presentations of this kind. This becomes even clearer with presentations like the one that Brogan Bunt, Lucas Ihlein, and Kim Williams did for Panel 6, which is really a mini documentary.

      Consequently, an online, multimedia archive not only seems to challenge the traditional printed book of conference proceedings, it arguably leapfrogs it with its multimedia and other capabilities. Thus, I agree with you that “maybe these could even count as publications for academic quantum required by university departments” (my emphasis). Why not?

      What do others think?


  9. Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

    HI All,

    I received an email from someone concerned that we should not be suggesting, as we do on our main webpage, that this conference has “a nearly nonexistent carbon footprint.” The concern is that streaming video, which is the technology powering all of our talks, has too large a carbon footprint for us to make such a claim. The email directed me to a 2015 Greenpeace publication, of which I was already aware, that outlines the problem. It concluded by suggesting that we should consider having a conference based around text rather than video.

    We owe a debt of thanks to the author of this email for introducing the second 800-pound gorilla into our virtual room. (The first, regarding the “lack of direct human interaction” at a conference like this, was introduced by Brogan Bunt up above.)

    Just to clarify, we are not claiming that this conference is carbon-free, just nearly so when compared to conventional ones. Consequently, our subtitle really has an implied second part, as this is “a nearly carbon-free conference (when compared to its traditional, fly in counterparts).”

    The fact is that a staggering amount of the energy that goes to running the Internet is used to send videos out to viewers. This is in large measure due to the fact that video takes much more bandwidth than, for example, text files. The average video file for one of our panel talks is around 1 gigabyte (note that some are 720p, some 1080p). In contrast, if a talk took the form of a text file, it could be less than 100 kilobytes – i.e. ten thousand times smaller! Consequently, I definitely take the point that a text-only conference would have a much smaller carbon footprint. Of course, if talk files included images, sounds, or videos, they would grow significantly. Nonetheless, I think that the point still stands.

    Just how much of the Internet is taken up by streaming video? According to the Washington Post, by 2020 “80 percent of the entire world’s Internet consumption will be dominated by video.” Netflix already accounts for “36.5 percent of all bandwidth consumed by North American Web users.” That’s a lot of movie and TV show watching (let’s be honest, that’s a lot of binge watching). Consequently, Greenpeace and other organizations and individuals should be applauded for drawing our attention to this issue, as well as for urging that renewable energy be used for as much of this traffic as possible.

    However, returning to our conference, we are using a relatively tiny amount of energy, mainly because our talks are not being viewed nearly as much as other online video content. I know this because we have been carefully monitoring how often the talk videos are being watched. Although we will not be able to do so with precision until after the conference is over, now that we are a third of the way in, we are in a position to provisionally assess its carbon footprint. Bear in mind that what follows are back-of-napkin calculations that will definitely need to be refined.

    For most panels, the talks are being viewed around 2-4 times per day each. Not a lot, but remember that the conference is open for 21 days. Thus, if we assume that the number of views remains an average of 3 per day for the duration of the conference, we are looking at 63 views or so per panel talk. Since we have just over 50 speakers and even more additional registered participants, this means that most people are not watching all of the talks. Because the conference talks speak to a variety of topics from a range of different disciplines, it is not too surprising that not everyone is watching every talk. Moreover, my guess is that our speakers will have a greater investment in the conference and hence on average view a greater percentage of the talks than other participants.

    In 2014, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) considered just how much energy is required to stream video to viewers. Including the streaming source, transmission pathway, access network, and equipment for playback and viewing, it is 7.9 megajoules (MJ) of energy per hour. In the process, 0.4 kg of CO2 is emitted per hour. Our average panel talk is around 15 minutes or so. Consequently, everything else being equal, each time a talk is viewed 0.1 kg of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Let’s assume that the above estimate of 63 views per talk is conservative (esp as people may continue to visit the website and view the talks after the conference is over) and increase it by 50% to round it off to 95 views, which would translate into 9.5 kg or 21 lbs of total CO2 for each panel talk.

    Now let’s consider what the carbon footprint would have been for each speaker had they flown to the conference. Since we know where each of our speakers would have needed to travel from to get to Santa Barbara, we were able to calculate that collectively they would have needed to fly just over 300,000 miles to get to and from our campus. Divide that by roughly 50 speakers and you have about 6,000 miles each. That’s a lot, the equivalent of a round-trip flight from Los Angeles to New York. But keep in mind that this is a truly international conference with speakers from Canada, England, Europe, and a contingent from Australia (round-trip from Sydney to Santa Barbara is a whopping 16,000 miles). As I noted in the opening talk and in some of my above comments, let’s hope that future conferences of this sort – assuming they occur at all – have an even more diverse global audience. In any event, a round-trip, 6,000-mile flight releases roughly the equivalent of 2,000 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere.

    Consequently, 95 views of a panel talk, which would cause 21 lbs of CO2 to be released into the atmosphere, has about 1% of the carbon footprint of flying the speaker in for the talk. As I said, these are back-of-napkin calculations. Once the conference is over and we have exact numbers, we should be able to sharpen our pencil and arrive at more accurate numbers. Still, even if there are factors that I am failing to take into account and my 1% figure needs to be doubled or tripled, it still amounts to a very small percentage of the carbon footprint of a traditional conference.

    True, there are other energy needs for a conference like this one, such as running this website and Q&A session. However, since this Q&A is text- rather than video-based, it is a rather small source of carbon emissions. But also consider that a traditional conference’s carbon footprint involves more than just air travel. Ground transportation to and from both the departing and arriving airport (four trips total) for each of the participants, catering, energy to heat and power the venue where the conference is taking place, as well as hotel rooms, and so forth all require CO2 to be released into the atmosphere. I am also only counting the speakers here. If all of the registered participants were to come to Santa Barbara, the total amount of CO2 released for air travel could more than double.

    We also need to consider where and how the electricity making these videos is sourced. If it is from renewable sources, that 21 lbs of total CO2 for each panel talk could be dramatically reduced. In fact, this is my goal for future conferences of this sort in the University of California (UC) system. Please allow me to elaborate.

    In November 2013, the UC pledged that its buildings and vehicle fleet would, with respect to greenhouse gases (GHGs), become emission-free by 2025. The UC terms these emissions from its buildings and vehicles either Scope 1 and 2 depending whether they are produced by way of its own co-generation (combined heat and power) plants or from energy sourced elsewhere, respectively. While this is a laudable goal – the UC was the first university system to ever make such a pledge – there is something missing from this timeline: a promise to also reduce the emissions from commuting and air travel (dubbed Scope 3), which constitute about 25 percent of the carbon footprint of the UC, by 2025. Because there is no quick technological fix for this issue on the horizon (something that I explore in the above talk), the UC has not committed to eliminate these Scope 3 emissions until 2050. Thus, if the UC achieves its goal of carbon neutrality for its buildings and vehicle fleet by 2025 (which it may well, or at least come close), it will also mean that travel to and from talks and conferences will then be one of its two largest GHG emission sources.

    However, switching to events of this sort could not only reduce the carbon footprint of the traditional academic conference to roughly 1/100th its current size, it would also convert the remaining 1% from a scope 3 GHG emissions problem to either Scope 1 or 2 (depending on where the electricity is sourced), which can be supplied by renewable sources. In fact, by 2025 our hope is that our Scope 1 emissions will be eliminated as energy supplied directly by the UC will come from renewables, such as the photovoltaic arrays we are installing on some of our campus buildings. Of course, the services that we use, such as Vimeo, will also need to make a commitment to renewables if we are to also drive Scope 2 emissions into the ground. If they do not, there are always other services.

    Apologies for this longwinded and somewhat technical explanation. Given the above facts and figures, I think that we can fairly call this “a nearly carbon-free conference (when compared to its traditional, fly in counterparts).” In time, 9 years in the case of the UC, I hope that a conference of this sort could reduce its emissions to a fraction of its already small level if powered by renewable sources. It may well be possible to reduce the above 1% figure by a factor of ten (i.e. a carbon footprint that is 1/1,000 of a traditional conference). At that point, I think that it would be fair to drop the “nearly” from the title.


    • Joanna Nurmis, University of Maryland says:

      Dear Ken,

      To be honest I can’t believe someone emailed you about that. Of course the claim is legitimate, but this conference represents a HUGE savings in CO2 emissions compared to a normal fly-in conference as you point out. Maybe sometime down the road we will be able to holoport ourselves to a conference venue – that would be even better than video (though consuming much more bandwidth…).

      I wanted to suggest that for the Q&A’s, you could implement Flipgrid (oh no! more video!). We used this in one online course taught by Dr. Mark Meisner at the IECA, and it was great. On Flipgrid, many respondents can record themselves asking a question or making a comment, and the advantage is the videos have to be kept short and everyone can watch the videos (they are displayed in a grid). It almost feel like people are in the same “room”. I found it very neat to be able to see and hear people’s questions and comments to a reading or lecture. I think this would be a nice addition to the Q&A function, as scrolling through dozens of text comments can get tedious.

      Thank you again.

      • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


        Many thanks for introducing me to Flipgrid. I just investigated it. Very interesting!

        Since even before the conference started, folks have been emailing with ideas for online conference technology, such as the CLAS (Collaborative Learning Annotation System) developed at the University of British Columbia.

        We also have the ability to embed videos directly into the Q&A sessions. Here are demos for both Flipgrid and CLAS to show you what I mean.

        All this raises the question (in fact, it was raised by the email that I received concerning our reliance on streaming video) of just how a conference such as this should work.

        When putting it together, we decided on a hybrid approach with videoed talks and text-based Q&A sessions. Our rationale was that it would feel more like a traditional conference if you could view the talks. Similarly, since online forums are common and allow multiple conversation threads to simultaneously take place, adapting one for the Q&A sessions seemed to make sense. Moreover, because we human beings generally read much faster than we speak, this also makes it quicker to scan through for questions of particular interest.

        However, other permutations would certainly be possible. As the email suggested, the talks could be text-based (with audio visual material embedded directly in the text). Alternately, as you proposed with the example of Flipgrid, the Q&A sessions could be largely video-based.

        I am curious, what do folks think would be the best approach?


        • Kian Mintz-Woo, University of Graz says:

          Dear Ken:

          My own vote is for the format you have used. I think that responding/commenting by text is more intuitive than responding by videos (for one thing, we can read faster than we can watch videos). While talks in streaming video makes sense–inter alia this makes presentations possible–responses in short texts seem to me much more efficient.



  10. Olivia Chen, Washington University in St. Louis says:

    Dear Ken,

    I’m so inspired by this wonderful opening remark. This didn’t occur to me before, but after watching your video I cannot help thinking about the privilege and power implicated in being an academic person. I’ve never done much travel before graduate school (only twice actually back in my home country). Yet after coming to the states for Ph.D. studies I cannot count how many flights I’ve taken in the past few years. Just think about it: it’s kind of ironic to be, on the one hand a fervent scholar in ecocriticism and believing myself caring so much about the future of the planet, yet on the other hand someone actively participating in the emission of tons of CO2 through various means of consumption, including air travels. This is probably what Lawrence Buell calls our environmental unconscious, which there seems no way out. But I’m glad now you make us realize this problem. Indeed, I greatly appreciate this new form of conference that forces everyone of us to rethink about individual responsibility and culpability in combating global warming and striving for a better future. I look forward to watching more talks in the next 11 days or so, and thank you all again who have made this conference happen!


    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      You are obviously not alone, as I suspect that most scholars in the developed world are, to use your apt term, “implicated” here.

      Your citing Larry Buell’s notion of the environmental unconscious caused me to reflect on the nature of environmental consciousness, insofar as it seems to me that by this we mean a thematic awareness of an environment, whether pristine or endangered, local, distant, or global, which we scholars can then take up as a field of study. However, in the process we often look away from ourselves and our personal practices. In other words, even as we become aware and concerned about an environment, we sometimes fail to become conscious of our own personal (and sometimes considerable) impact on our local and global environment.

      Consequently, it strikes me that one of the most important things that an intervention in this situation can do is to make us aware of what previously escaped our attention. So, even if this conference largely fails at its goal of helping to bring about a change in the way that conferences are staged, it nonetheless may succeed at making scholars reflect on their own participation in this environmentally disturbing practice.


  11. Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

    Hi All,

    A colleague brought up an interesting question: Would the talks at our virtual event “count” the same as conventional conference talks during faculty promotion reviews and in general as cv lines. It seems to me that they would, especially as they will be permanently archived. With a conventional conference, the only information that a hiring or review committee generally has is the talk title and the venue. Consequently, if you gave your talk and then spent the next three days sightseeing (assuming that you were in an interesting enough locale to do so), no one back home would likely know. However, if a committee is interested in doing so, with a conference of this sort they can view the talk itself. Moreover, they can also assess total conference participation, as it is easy enough to check the Q&A sessions to see who is contributing, and how much and of what sort.

    Given that this conference is unusual, it seems natural enough that a talk’s inclusion on a cv or in a merit review might raise some questions, but it seems pretty clear to me that it should certainly “count” as much as a traditional one.

    But perhaps I am missing something. Please do weigh in with your thoughts!


  12. Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

    HI All,

    Many thanks for all the above questions and comments. Do keep them coming!

    I would very much like to hear more about what folks think of the above issues, especially questions of central importance to this conference, such as those raised by Kacey, Brogan, Molly, and an anonymous email.

    However, at the risk of being self-serving, I have a simple question for everyone taking part in this event, speakers and Q&A participants alike:

    How might we improve on conferences like this?

    Suggestions could be small things. For example, over on Panel 1, Peter Kalmus brought my attention to the fact that it is neither possible for participants to embed HTML links in their comments (due to a security plugin that we are using) nor can folks edit their comments. These are both shortcomings that should be addressed in future conferences. Alternately, perhaps you would like to raise larger issues, like the anonymous suggestion that we should consider making the conference entirely text-based, replacing the videos with talk transcripts.

    Any and all ideas that you have are welcome!


    • Matthew Fledderjohann, University of Wisconsin, Madison says:

      Hello, Ken,
      First of all, thank you so much for your work in conceptualizing, organizing, and making this conference possible. It’s been a pleasure to sit and participate in.
      A thought I’ve had about making these kinds of conferences even more successful has been to perhaps pair them with an identified set of best practices for participation. We all know how to go to and behave during in-person conferences, but what kind of time-management and attention-investment strategies have folks productively employed as they’ve interacted with this one? Would it be useful, for example, to recommend that future organizers encourage participants to set aside several afternoons throughout the conference (even mark them on their calendar to avoid cross-commitments?) or watch a presentation or two a day? What are good ways of efficiently locating the conversational trends occurring within particularly animated Q & A sessions to avoid repeating what others have said? I’m sure there are many ways to approach all this, but knowing a range of what has (and hasn’t) worked for people might be useful for making recommendations regarding how future carbon-conscious conference participants might want to think about their participation.

    • Peter Kalmus says:

      I’d suggest considering both videos and texts (the texts help when coming back to a talk after a few days), a longer commenting period, and perhaps a live chat / office hours feature.

      I’ve found three major differences between this format and the conventional one. First, I failed to set aside a day or two where I focused on the conference (this could be fixed). Second, there’s no getting beers with folks in the evening, no pickup soccer games (don’t see how this could be fixed). Third, I guess these talks and comments will be viewable on the internet by anyone indefinitely? That makes the stakes seem kind of high, especially for such a politically charged topic.

      • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:

        Matthew and Peter,

        Great suggestions!

        Regarding participation, in our original CFP we asked that each of the speakers agree to do the following:

        1) Take part in your online Q&A session by responding to questions raised by your talk.

        2) View as many of the talks as possible, posing questions of your own to speakers. This is especially important, as this is how you will meet and interact with other conference participants. As with any academic conference, our goal is help establish relationships and to build a community. In this case, since travel has been removed from the equation, our hope is that this community will be diverse and truly global.

        Admittedly, we were intentionally vague here. We could have, for example, suggested that participants devote an equal amount of time to this conference as they would have to a conventional one. Since we have fourteen panels and four keynotes, if this had been a conventional conference it might have been possible to squeeze it into three days with a few overlapping panels. Hence, I suppose that suggesting 24 hours of total participation, or perhaps one hour per day for the three weeks that this online conference was open, would have been about right. Enough time, as you note Matthew, to “watch a presentation or two a day.” Alternately, one could have just devoted three straight days to the conference.

        However, as Peter noted above, “I wasn’t able to set aside a few days where I did nothing else but attend this conference.” Moreover, he aptly notes that “Perhaps this is a great advantage of the traditional conference: all you do is focus on the conference. You are forced, both by the lack of other demands and also by social pressure, to absorb and interact!”

        Peter, I had not given much thought to this prior to the conference, but I think that you are right in foregrounding the fact that a conventional conference demands that you clear an uninterrupted spot in your calendar for it. Moreover, your point about “social pressure” seems squarely on the mark. While I have some thoughts on the subject, I am going to withhold them, if that is okay, as we hope to do a little poll of conference participants in the near future in order to find out, among other things, how they managed their time throughout the conference.

        Matthew, as to your other major point, regarding “good ways of efficiently locating the conversational trends occurring within particularly animated Q&A sessions to avoid repeating what others have said,” I agree that this is proving to be a problem with certain of the Q&A sessions, which is why I referenced Peter’s comment above in order to consolidate it with yours.

        To be honest, I am actually delighted that this has become a problem! Before the conference started, one of my major anxieties had to do with whether our Q&A format would encourage discussion. Well, this particular session currently has almost 12,000 words of discussion (i.e nearly 50 double-spaced pages)…

        Since I was bracing for the opposite situation, I did not give the possibility of such an embarrassment of riches – which I admit can at times be a little overwhelming – much thought. However, here are a couple: We could give participants the ability to open up new Q&A sessions as necessary. If we had this capability available, and if the conference was not ending in a day or so, I would definitely consider opening one up around this issue (actually, I could do this but fear that doing so at this point might be more confusing than helpful). Alternately, we could have one of the grad students working on the conference identify (to use your phrase Matthew) “conversational trends” and create a list of them with links. Participants could be encouraged to send along important ones, perhaps with short glosses of the issue.

        Any other ideas everyone?

        Peter, I am very grateful for your suggestions and questions here, as well as those up above. If it is okay with you, I would like to include some of them (perhaps with revisions and additions) in the aforementioned poll that we intend to conduct.


  13. Joseph Nevins says:

    Hi, Ken,

    I have another question for you. Given that the conference is close to finished, feel free to save this for another day.

    I’m curious as to how and why you came to be critical of flying. Lots of academics know that flying exacts heavy ecological costs, but few act upon that knowledge as you have. Who and what influenced you to change? How long have you been thinking about this matter, and how did your thinking evolve?

    On a related note, what led you to decide to put together a conference such as this one?

    Thank you!

    • Ken Hiltner (UC Santa Barbara) says:


      First, I have to give credit to you and Parke Wilde for organizing the flying less petition back in October. If anyone at the conference here hasn’t yet visited the site, they definitely should, as it really lays out the problem and inspires action – which it certainly helped do for me.

      Back when I made my living as a furniture maker (prior to 2002), I rarely flew anywhere. In fact, if I am remembering correctly, I did not fly at all from 1992-2002. Consequently, I was startled by how much flying was demanded of me once I started a Ph.D. program. As with Kacey above, it quickly became clear to me that it was indeed demanded by our profession.

      This issue of flying really came to the forefront for me back in 2012-13 when I was a visiting professor for the year at Princeton. Because I was somewhat centrally situated geographically, it occurred to me that I could give talks locally without the need for flying. I wound up giving around a dozen talks that year, most less than 100 miles away. In the process, I not only felt really good about flying less, it slowly occurred to me that flying to conferences never had felt good nor right. Consequently, when I was asked to give a talk in Munich toward the end of that year, I sent them a prerecorded one instead. I am not entirely sure, but my impression is that this approach was not well received. Nonetheless, from that point on I decided to fly less, limiting myself to one flight per year. At a talk that I gave in NYU last month (which was my annual flight for 2015-16 and which required me to fly across the country), I vowed to stop flying for talks and conferences altogether from that point onward.

      I began to seriously think about alternatives to academic flying last year (2014-15) when our Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI), in conjunction with UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, brought in a range of scholars to speak to our theme of “The Anthropocene: Views from the Humanities.” You can see those talks here. At the same time, we coincidentally began to film short interviews with our faculty and students, such as these with some of our Ph.D. candidates. On comparing these different sets of talks, it occurred to me that an interview-style talk can in many respects be more effective than a traditional one given to a small room full of people.

      So, we set about thinking of ways to do talks of this sort remotely. The initial idea was to send our speakers an external, high definition webcam and then record their talk via Skype or a similar service. Our first experiment with this approach was the interview on the grad page with EHI Fellow Tom Doran, which was conducted at a distance of 3000 miles. By no means broadcast quality, it nonetheless seemed more than adequate for the purpose. The keynote talk by Kim Stanley Robinson at this conference was also done this way. Our reasoning was simple: it is much better to send a webcam, which weights just a few ounces, back and forth rather than a person (plus we used more efficient ground transportation for the purpose).

      Still, we were stumped on how to scale this approach to a full-blown conference, as the prospect of sending out nearly 50 webcams and coordinating as many remote filmings was daunting. The answer to this problem, which is ridiculously obvious, nonetheless took months to occur to me: simply ask speakers to film themselves. At the time, this seemed a risky proposition, as it was 1) unclear how many submissions we would receive from our CFP with such a unconventional requirement and 2) it was equally unclear if the quality of the filmed talks would be high. Well, I have coordinated quite a few conferences in my day, but have never received half as many abstracts as we did for this one. As to the quality of the talks, I think that, all things considered, they rival, for example, the talks for our Anthropocene series. Yes, they take a variety of different forms and are all different from traditional conference talks, yet with out exception they all splendidly get the speaker’s point across, which, after all, is all we can ask of any talk.


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