Feminist Thresholds of the Para-Pandemic Academic Conference
By Midori Hartman.
I write this reflection having recently returned from participating in the International Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Salzburg, Austria (July 16th – 21st). After two years of virtual conferences, it was quite a wonderful experience to meet with others in person again, especially engaging with other feminists in events sponsored by the SBL Women in the Profession committee. Yet this conference was also an important moment for me to think about the threshold upon which we find ourselves concerning future directions of the professional academic conference. For us feminists and womanists who study religion, this is an important moment to recognize what has happened and to envision future trajectories given those experiences.
We can now acknowledge that COVID has had immense impacts on those who identify as women, to the extent that it has been called a “disaster for feminism.” The data show that as a result of the pandemic, women have reduced economic employment and have taken up the lion’s share of unpaid care work. The impacts on the LGTBQI+ community are even worse. In academia, women and LGBTQI+ people have been disproportionately impacted in their ability to fulfill teaching and research obligations and their career progress. In short, we can see that pandemics have far-reaching gendered ramifications, ones that are not fully appreciated or understood even now.
In this blog, I reflect briefly upon the paradox in which we feminists and womanists find ourselves given the impacts of COVID-19 on the academic conference. As scholars and educators, we have all had to adapt in so many ways as the pandemic stretched and challenged us; however, in doing so, we have also learned many new ways and fashioned new tools to do our feminist work. As feminist scholars, educators and activists, we center the idea that many feminist ways of knowledge production come from embodiment, thus implicating space and place in this communal process. It is in this way that we are invited to be more intentional in our use of technology and more inclusive than traditional in-person forms of community building through the academic conference.
Although we can and should critique the 24/7 demands of being virtually present (i.e., by maintaining good work-life balance), the virtual or hybrid format of academic conferences during COVID became a surprisingly egalitarian solution that accommodated people in various feminist ways. People with compromised immune systems, family care responsibilities, and economic constraints were able to participate in ways that would not have been possible prior to COVID’s society-wide impact. And while I will acknowledge that a number of us may have felt that there have been downsides to this technological shift, from the loss in normative patterns of networking and collegiality to logistical and financial constraints, it is also important to point out the wisdom that can be gained from recognizing that such “downsides” may not be as great as we who are able-bodied and have class privilege feared (cf. crip wisdom). 1 Might this all be a transitional prelude to the future of conference work in academia, whether virtual and/or hybrid? The modified hybrid conference in particular may be a step in the right direction: toward a more inclusive academia.
The academy should not consider its present and future work as being post-pandemic, but rather para-pandemic: alongside and near (not “beyond” or “abnormal” as the prefix is most popularly understood). We are not “after” or “behind” COVID, especially if it will become endemic (study) and because there is the serious potentiality of future pandemics on the horizon given climate change and our increasingly globalized societies. If we are to be focused on the future of our academic institutions, then we must also be prepared for future climate, natural, or disease disruptions to our annual conferences.
An intentionally planned hybrid conference as a permanent modality would give conference planners the ability to pivot quickly to a virtual conference with less disruption to logistics. If there are no such issues, then a hybrid conference would remain accessible to the immunocompromised, the overscheduled, the climate-change concerned, and the financially marginal members of the academy—all groups which are important to feminists and womanists. Moreover, this is a concern for us scholars of religious studies because, like the fields of philosophy and ethics, our field has resources at hand to engage critically the question of what it means to be in community. Who is our community and who is being directly and indirectly marginalized from it?
If virtual and hybrid networking are our future as some suggest, then it would be prudent to begin the work now, even if it will be difficult. I confess that I have no concrete steps for this process, to say nothing about the funding limitations; however, to say that we simply cannot have such options would be to disregard that we can and have done it before. If more institutions push for technological adaptations, they will become more available and less expensive (cf. remember the time before personal cell phones? Now you have the internet in your pocket). This is an opportunity to think about how the academy can change to be more inclusive to a diverse sense of feminist embodiment. This is important for an organization such as SBL, because women make up less than 25 percent of membership. Perhaps more virtual and hybridized work can demonstrate that the principles of feminism and womanism are not periphery subjects but core to the field?
This is all to say that I’m interested in starting a conversation. What have we learned about what it means to be in conference with one another? How can this new knowledge enable us to address the seen and unseen issues of non-accessibility and ableism in the academy? Do you think the virtual and/or hybrid academic conference can be made into a feminist and womanist space for the study of religion? What needs to change for it to be so?
In conclusion, it is perhaps our obligation as professionals to take seriously such work as the UN Women’s Beyond COVID-19: A Feminist Plan for Sustainability and Social Justice into our own institutions and ways of being in the world. If “building back better in the wake of COVID-19 calls for reinvigorated democracies, powered by feminist politics,” then feminist and womanist academia must also take this opportunity to demand a similar rebuild and growth. We have learned from this experience that the “traditional” way of doing things is not the only way.
Midori E. Hartman is an Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Albright College. She holds a PhD in Historical Studies with an emphasis on Christianity in Late Antiquity from Drew University. Her primary research interests are Augustine of Hippo, ancient slavery, and rhetoric as it intersects with issues of gender, ethnicity, and animality.