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Why are we switching our annual conference?

The most important consideration for evaluating whether or not we could hold an in-person conference has been the health and safety of our membership. Even while parts of the world have begun to “open up,” social distancing and restrictions in large gatherings remain part of the public health guidelines for the foreseeable future. With no vaccine likely until 2021, we feel it would be impossible to gather hundreds of people together in hotel conference rooms for a number of days without risking the health and safety of our members and the communities around us. In addition to health concerns, we also recognize that there is an important equity issue at stake in this decision. As many departments/programs have made cuts to travel budgets due to the current situation and international travel restrictions have been put in place, we anticipate that many members would not be able to participate in an in-person conference.

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Why now? Why not wait a bit longer to make a decision?

On May 21, Washington DC Mayor Bowser published guidelines for the steps her city would take toward reopening. These guidelines, called “ReOpen DC” make it clear that the mayor plans to recommend gathering of groups larger than 250 in the fourth stage of the reopening plan. This stage will only take effect once there is an “effective vaccine or cure.” Even the most optimistic public health officials do not predict the availability of a vaccine before 2021. It is thus extremely unlikely that there will be any significant changes in the COVID guidelines that would impact this decision. Moreover, we felt that a clear decision sooner would provide additional time for staff to plan for the new format and enable members to finalize their participation plans.

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What will the virtual conference look like?

We are building the virtual conference on the same basic foundation as the in-person conference. We will have several programming blocks during the day, a plenary session, receptions, mentorship opportunities, an exhibit hall with coffee breaks, and other informal networking opportunities! We will also utilize the virtual space to do new things that are specific to this medium. Stay tuned for more details in the next few weeks.

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If I participated in the Call for Papers, do I need to do anything at this point?

No. All accepted papers and sessions will be automatically included in the virtual annual conference program. As we have done in past years, we will send acceptance decisions by early August.

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Will papers be delivered live?

To maximize audience participation and broad engagement, we expect the conference to operate primarily as a live gathering. We do recognize, however, that participants will be connecting from across the globe and will have access to different technologies/bandwidth. With this in mind, we will be discussing the possibility of including pre-recorded content in certain circumstances.

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I am feeling a bit nervous about presenting virtually. Can I postpone until 2021?

This is going to be a new experience for just about all of us. We plan to hold pre-conference webinars to walk through the technology of participation for both audience members and presenters. If you decide to wait to participate in the conference in 2021, we will ask you to resubmit your paper next year.

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What will I need to participate in the virtual conference?

A computer, tablet, or smartphone that has a camera, microphone, and internet access (preferably high speed). For those presenting a paper, we will send along some recommendations for improving the quality of video and audio during your presentation.

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Who will plan the virtual conference?

As you can imagine, the shift to a virtual conference requires the organization to pivot quickly to ensure that we have the technical, logistical, and staffing resources to host a virtual conference with over 1,000 participants. In order to coordinate our efforts, we have created a task force to address the many questions and opportunities that we need to address quickly and thoughtfully. Two board members, Shira Kohn and Sarah Bunin Benor, have agreed to co-chair this task force, which also includes members of the staff and the AJS Program committee. Our planning will be guided by our values and strategic goals, especially our goal of “cultivating informed, active, and diversified membership.”

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How will conference registration and fees work?

Several years ago, the AJS instituted a sliding scale policy based on yearly income for conference registration. We will continue to use this policy this year. This year, all cancellations will be accepted and refunded in full until September 11.

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Wait, isn’t Zoom free? Why should a virtual conference cost as much as an in-person conference?

We anticipate that the cost to AJS to run this conference will actually be greater than running an in-person conference. Webinar and video-conferencing like Zoom are not free—especially so when used at the scale of a 1000+ person conference. Not only is there a cost for the web technology, but managing a conference of this size will require us to hire a professional company to make sure that everything runs smoothly (imagine the “wait, are you on mute?” frustration many of us have experienced over the last few weeks multiplied by dozens of sessions without professional IT support; or think about potential vulnerabilities to Zoom-bombing). But, even more importantly, the most substantial expense of hosting the conference each year is the year-round staff time required to run the conference. AJS has several full- and part-time staff who spend the majority of their time preparing for the conference throughout the year. Conference fees help the AJS cover these costs, which remain the same this year. Members will not have the cost of travel and hotel this year. So hopefully, overall, the total cost for conference participation will be much lower this year for everyone.

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How will we support participation of all members, especially those who have been most deeply impacted by the financial hit of COVID?

We have set up a fundraising campaign to help defray the cost of conference participation for graduate students, contingent faculty, and other members. We will use these funds to subsidize registration for those members hit especially hard by the COVID economic situation. We are cautiously optimistic that our fundraising efforts will enable us to provide significant subsidies to those with need, especially unemployed members, graduate students, and contingent faculty. For those of you able to donate to support conference registration fees for members in need, please donate here.

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What if I already paid my conference registration fee?

Thank you! You don’t need to do anything at this point. You are registered for the 2020 conference.

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What if I already paid for my program book or meals?

These fees will be refunded ASAP. Michelle Katz will be in touch with you to arrange for this.

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Do I need to cancel my conference hotel room reservation?

No, you do not. The hotel will automatically cancel all attendees' rooms booked under the AJS room block. If you did not book in the room block, you will need to cancel your own arrangements.

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How will a virtual conference impact the broader organization?

Staff, member volunteers, and board leadership are all working especially hard to transition quickly to a completely new format. While we don’t have enough information to know the exact details, the board has approved a potential deficit of over $100,000 in order to cover possible additional costs associated with cancelling the in-person conference, possible cost of lost advertising/sponsor revenue, and new technology/IT support. Our organization has a healthy reserve that can bridge the significant increase in our budget for this year. This will reduce our reserves, however, and perhaps make it more difficult to pursue new projects/initiatives in the near term.

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What can I do to help make the 2020 Annual Conference a positive experience?

Thank you for asking. I would ask for everyone to be flexible and patient with us over the next few weeks. Everyone is working very hard in good faith to make the best of a tough situation. Please plan to participate enthusiastically in the new format. At the end of the day, the success of this conference will rest largely with our members’ willingness to experiment and innovate. Finally, for those who are fortunate to be in a secure financial position, please consider donating to support our funds which will defray the conference registration fees for our most economically vulnerable members.

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