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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Haith

Why vegan yoghurts are like online conferences

I have survived the first two weeks of Hilary Term without a bite of cheese or a sip of a milky latte. Not even one egg has made its way into my pastries (that is, the pastries I bought). Veganuary concludes on February 2nd (because we had to finish the cheese plate on January 1st), and while I have learnt a lot, I also never want to make my own yoghurt again.

At the outset of Veganuary, I knew that my main challenge would be yoghurt. I like Greek style yoghurt thick enough to make small, wobbly statues with. Imagine David, but a bit podgy. I want my yoghurt to be able to stand up for itself (not like that). In my quest for vegan yoghurt substitutes I bought and ate some truly awful sludge, and what's perhaps worse is I attempted to make it at home. Twice.

I don't give up easily and when I'm after something I stick to my guns (for reference: I made eight PhD applications during my Masters). But twice was enough to know that my homemade coconut yog wasn't working and never would. It might have worked for someone with different standards. Not better or worse standards, just different. Someone who wanted runnier yoghurt. Someone who didn't mind the tapioca lumps. Someone more committed to the 'homemade vegan yoghurt' life than I was. You can probably tell where I'm going with this.

In the last six years, I have spoken at over two dozen conferences. In 2019 I gave ten conference presentations. In the last year of the pandemic, I've had five conferences cancelled or postponed, including a conference/research trip to Chicago last March. And I have made no effort to attend online conferences during the pandemic, because it's just so disappointing.

I am thrilled that so many more events are accessible to scholars who aren't able to travel, to students who might not otherwise have been able to afford to attend, etc etc, but I have called it *for myself* (and make no imposition on anyone else): I'm not doing conferences online. And I am not eating any more homemade vegan yoghurt.

Full fat Greek style, the product of cow's milk and whatever the hell else they do it, is to the culinary arts what the three-day in-person international academic conference is to the research community: worth-fucking-while. It improves the experience. It is rich. It makes the meal (the research) better. Shared with friends, it is joyful. It, and this is crucial, cannot be adequately substituted.

Here I am, at the podium, after three amazing days during the Futures Thinking conference in October 2019. I never knew how good I had it.

Vegan yoghurt is to the culinary arts what online conferences are to academic research: a substitution, with varying degrees of success.

Before I offend, let me note that I have experimented extensively with vegan yoghurts this past month, and I may well stay off dairy if M&S will sell me the contents of the Plant Kitchen Coconut Pot in 1litre tubs. It is very very good. It is thick, creamy, and very coconutty. You have to really really like coconut for this yoghurt substitute to pass muster. Just like you have to really really like talking without visible feedback for online conferences to work for you. It is doable. It might even be good (for some). But it's not the same experience. And the differences are marked and may be disappointing.

The one-day, small group, online conferences are the Coconut Pot of vegan yoghurts. This is the best possible alternative to doing things in person. If I can't be in a foreign country with some interesting strangers for a few days, then I don't want the conference to drag over more than 24 hours total. I don't want to have my toilet breaks and lunch dictated to me in my own home by someone who set up the schedule in a time zone four hours ahead. If I am to undertake a conference through my laptop it needs to be 30 people max., held ideally across only one or two time zones, consist of actual conversation about the research presented, offer genuine engagement and provide some concrete insights at the end. I do not want to pretend I'm eating yoghurt when I'm patently not.

Anything more than three days, or with multiple panels, all online, with required reading beforehand, is soya yoghurt. Just awful. It makes you feel ill, it isn't the right colour, it's trying too hard. You know your eyes are going to be burning half-way through, and the attempt to recreate the essence of the real experience falls so woefully short that you end up feeling conned by yourself. Even the good brands are bad.

The online seminar, capped at a certain number of people, or run by an institution or group, and ending after an hour or two is the fancy cashew-gurt or almond yoghurt with blackberries or maybe even a compôte mixed in. It's fancy, you feel good about yourself, the contents are great and you might not otherwise have had the opportunity to experience it. Still, there's something not quite right: you can't network afterwards or ask the question that you feared would sound daft. Instead, once it is over the high profile speaker will turn off her camera, and go lie down for a bit. She deserves the rest! She's presented for 45 minutes and answered awkwardly posed questions from people she can't see without even the promise of a glass of room-temperature white wine afterwards. She has to buy her own wine these days. Though at least she can ensure its cold.

Homemade vegan coconut yoghurt, the kind I attempted this past month, is better than soya yoghurt solely because it has no pretensions (apart from those inherent in actually being vegan yoghurt). It is made from coconut milk, starch and probiotics. But for all its simplicity and good intentions, it is grim. It manages to be lumpy and runny at the same time, and doesn't even have the decency to firm up after nearly a week in the fridge. It brings to mind watching a pre-recorded conversation between two esteemed scholars while comments from those watching are streamed alongside, straight into the void. It has all the right ingredients: prestige, accessibility, dissemination, and yet I cannot bear it and find myself walking away halfway through (or after the first ruined breakfast).

Given that I am not a fan of the fruity yoghurts (separation of church and state if you will) I won't go into further comparison along those lines. There are other types of mass academic interaction happening online, and I don't mind a middle-of-the-road coconut yog substitute that's a bit less expensive and a little more runny (the online book launch and panel) if it doesn't go on for too long.

But I really miss full fat Greek yoghurt. I don't want to present for the sake of filling my diary, or having conferences on my CV. WE'RE IN A PANDEMIC FOR GOD'S SAKE. I want to really talk to people about the direction of the research, not speak for twenty minutes to five muted faces and consider my work done. I can't help but feel like we're carrying on as though little has changed, while the fundamental heart of what (I think) academic conferencing is *for* has been lost. I want to gossip, and network, and discuss, and laugh, and buy books at obscene prices, and get lost in a foreign city on the way back to my dodgy BnB. I don't want to sit at home reading aloud in a small windowless office to some people who've already been on Zoom for far too long that day.

Veganuary is over, and I have appreciated the experience to work out what I want and why. It's not just about yoghurt, it's about quality of life.

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