May 7 Day 425: What I Miss About Meetings in Person

I have just completed two days of virtual board meetings, the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) today and Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) yesterday. Prior to that I participated in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) annual meeting virtually over eight days. What do all these events have in common?

  • I was invited to attend because of my role as president of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).
  • This was my first time attending each of these events. (Technically, I attended CBMS in 2006 or 2007 as executive director for the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) but that experience seems so long ago that it really did feel like attending for the first time.)
  • They were supposed to be in-person events.
  • Zoom played a role in each one.

I am appreciative for what is possible on Zoom. We get together, share screens, discuss, and learn. It allows the work to continue. Upon reflection a few things have become more clear:

  • I felt detached. I knew a handful of people, some of whom I consider good friends, but didn’t get to connect with them on a personal level.
  • Extensive use of acronyms excludes newcomers (and it seems that people in Washington DC love their acronyms.)
  • Travelling to and returning from a meeting is a buffer from life that gives permission to intensely focus on the work at the destination. The same cannot be said when attending remotely.
  • Setting norms for behavior, even if you believe everyone already understands them, is important. For example: please electronically raise your hand to speak. This moves your profile to the leading positions in the gallery view. The meeting facilitator then only has to watch the top line pictures and not continually scan every image to look for a hand raised on camera. It is especially important when a meeting has more than one screen’s worth of participants.
  • I am beginning to recognize people–at least on a small screen. But since the soonest we might be getting together in person is December, I’m not sure it will stick.
  • Informal interactions is what I miss the most—the opportunities to catch-up with good friends, deepen relationships with new friends, or make connections for future collaborations. If we had been in person, this would be possible during breaks.

As I am thinking about MAA’s virtual Board Meeting next week, I want to be sure to include a space for informal connections. I believe that it can be incorporated if planned for. The NCTM conference did this well. After each presentation, the speaker could open up a virtual “roundtable”. I joined roundtables to meet and thank the speakers. In the end, the people I spoke with were the ones that came to my presentation.

Perhaps leaving breakout rooms open for the entire board meeting could be a reasonable substitute? People can join each during breaks or step out to have a private conversation as needed. It happens all the time during regular meetings?

The cover image is from the JPBM containing: Suzanne Weeks, SIAM Executive Director; Catherine Roberts, AMS Executive Director; Karen Saxe, AMS Office of Government Relations; Susanne Brenner, SIAM President; me, MAA President; Ruth Charney, AMS President.

Published by Jenny Quinn

Mathematician. Mother. Wife. Leader. I am a professor of mathematics at the University of Washington Tacoma. Mother of Anson and Zachary. Wife to Mark. President of the Mathematical Association of America.

3 thoughts on “May 7 Day 425: What I Miss About Meetings in Person

  1. Hi! You introduced me to GatherTown a while ago, and just last month I went to a virtual combinatorics conference that was held over GatherTown. I thought that environment allowed for many of the things you say were missing from “just Zoom” conferences/meetings. Being able to wander around and meet people in between talks (and introduce my students to people!) was great. Although some people seemed confused by the video-game aspect.


    1. I agree. Gather does this well and I have enjoyed using it for conferences, especially poster sessions. But it is not everyone’s cup of tea and it is not as robust as other platforms (for example joining on an iPad reduces the quality of the experience.)


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