I don’t know anyone who doesn’t struggle, at least sometimes, with what is often called “work-life balance”. This term only scratches the surface of a larger issue, which is balance more generally, or living our lives harmoniously. Personally, I experience this desire for “balance” as a response to a mix of demands: personal, health, family demands; work demands from projects or from expectations in the field; demands from various people who want something from me. The worst sense of conflict often comes from when I put conflicting demands on myself. An aspiration to be ‘successful’, to take advantage of every rare and precious opportunity, to not disappoint others, can easily lead to magical thinking: I’m sure I can do this and that and that. Maybe I can squeeze in a trip for work around this graduation, maybe if I give myself a long enough deadline I will be able to write that paper. We all value many things, many outcomes, many people, and many activities in our lives, and are often frustrated when we can not accomplish or include everything. As a physicist friend of mine was fond of saying, “Time is the limiting factor that prevents everything from happening all at once.” Fear of missing out is a natural byproduct of trying to do it all.  

Capitalist systems often tie our sense of worth to our productivity. Early in the pandemic, living in New York City, I was among so many people who were falling apart because we couldn’t align our current realities with existing ways of juggling personal priorities. Within the academic context, some people had to turn their time and attention to childcare, to healthcare, to managing new online teaching and learning, while institutional culture tried to extract “normal” academic progress in abnormal times. The tenure process for faculty, academic progress for students, even just the routines of “school” and caretaking for kids and university students alike became their own emergency and obliterated whatever sense we had of how to juggle work and life to be “productive”. 

At this time I ran across several truly critical pieces of advice that helped me try to realign how I lived my life in line with my values. First was a piece by my friend and colleague Vanessa Dennen. She laid out a simple prioritization for the shift to online learning: people first, content second, technology third. I took this up in my own teaching and enshrined it in my syllabi as people first, learning second, and everything else third. I shifted to focus on caring for myself and others first as humans, then as learners. Productivity felt less like getting students through assignments or research papers published, and felt more like establishing a safe context for us to be human together, and then seeing where we could take our scholarship and knowledge-building.

This shift prompted a lot of self doubt, partly because the needs so profoundly outweighed my own sense of being able to address them. For many, that time was clouded with fear, grief, and isolation. It was quite easy to feel like a failure because so many of us were doing our best simply to muddle through, and facing demands to compensate for systemic breakdowns out of our control. Then I encountered Erin Bahadur’s words: “You are enough. There is no goal that you could ever achieve that will convince you that you are enough. If you don’t already believe it before you get there, you still won’t once you do.” Even when you are not okay, you are enough. This perspective is radical.  In business, economic output is proof of success; academics often strive for something more slippery: respect, novelty, influence, fame… for “productivity”. Self-judgment for being unproductive melts away when you realize we are enough and we are all doing our best.

Our goal for this annual meeting is, and always has been, to disrupt and expand limited notions of how we practice scholarship in the learning sciences. Disruption evokes discontent: our schedule has generated criticism, even resentment, from people who question “how am I supposed to take a week out of my life to do these things?” It seems to me the core of this criticism comes from an assumption that participating in this conference in a certain way is mandatory. To me it seems the criticism is driven by some kind of fear of missing out. I recognize that some in academia may treat participating in the “right” conferences in the “right” ways as mandatory. I think these sorts of expectations are bullshit. People first, learning and knowledge building second, everything else comes after. Once I realized I could choose how to bring my best self to my reactions to the pandemic in my own spheres, I was much more able to affirmatively and deliberately make choices about what I would and would not do or prioritize. So too with ISLS2024.

Our meeting is intended to be a breath of fresh air to help us think about the role of the learning sciences in addressing the problems of the world. Problems such as how to facilitate learning as a cornerstone of healing. Learning as a cornerstone of resilience. Learning as a cornerstone of community. Although the urgency of the early COVID19 pandemic has receded somewhat, the world is facing unprecedented challenges such as a changing climate, a return of violent conflict at a scale not seen in many of our lifetimes, emboldened bigotry and settler-colonialism, and ongoing ideological and institutional threats worldwide to human dignity. Our keynotes throughout the conference are intended to help our field think about these issues, and the community day program midday Wednesday will be an opportunity to engage more directly with these issues in the context of Buffalo, including an opportunity to learn from those outside our field who confront such issues outside our familiar ambit.  

Recognizing that we have many priorities, many expectations, and many demands, we can joyously appreciate that we have choices. We can’t do everything, and must select among the bounty of ways to spend our time and energy. On the organizing committee side, I can say we were flattered and stunned (and a bit nervous!) to receive the highest registration of any ISLS conference, ever. But we also recognize that this conference like any other may not meet everyone’s needs. The community day program midday Wednesday may not appeal to all, and this is okay: if you are not interested, maybe it is not for you. We encourage you to utilize other opportunities in that time, whether to meet, to rest, or to work. If you need to come for a short time rather than a long time, we celebrate that. If you need a refund to attend to other priorities at home, let us know. There is an alternative to FOMO. We can, if we choose, take an abundance rather than scarcity approach to opportunities, and recognize we can celebrate the joy of missing out. We may not always be joyous about how the world is, but we can be joyous in choosing to live in it according to our values. We sincerely hope that however you spend June 8-14, 2024, that those choices will support your own learning, healing, resilience, and community.