Two weeks, four virtual conferences: some thoughts

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Over the course of two weeks (the one starting on 31 May and that starting 14 June) I attended a total of four virtual conferences. I wanted to write down my impressions both for virtual conference organizers and for those wondering if it’s worth investing time (and sometimes money) to attend.

I only presented in a single of those conferences, which was quite expensive. I decided to attend the three others because they were free. I’m prompted by my overall positive experience to pay the £10 to attend the Victorian Popular Fiction Association (VPFA) conference even if I’m not presenting.

Disclaimer: I’m extremely extroverted. I loooooove developing ties with people and putting them in touch with one another. Scholars who are more introverted approach conferences differently, and wouldn’t see the same pros and cons to the various models discussed below.

Getting together, virtually like in person

Virtual conferences are just as exhausting as those held in person, but they can be nearly as nourishing. To get the most out of them, make sure you’re attending full-time as you would in person. The temptation to multitask might be great, but won’t give you the time to be fully present neither for the scholarly stimulation nor for the networking and socializing.

In the end, I realize that I want to feel like I’m in a room with others, not alone in front of my computer watching presentations. In person, when I’m knackered, I usually find it easiest to caffeinate and follow my friends around the panels than to get back to wherever I’m staying and get some sleep. My bed is much more attractive when I’m attending virtual conferences from home (where there’s also no coffee machine).

There are various ways of getting there —from turning cameras on during Q&As to discussing on Twitter using the conference hashtag— but it also depends on the attendees’ own desire to participate and level of comfort with one another. Organizers can foster a sense of community by scheduling times to hang out together as we’d do during receptions.

I also want to be able to go meet people during the breaks as I would at an in-person conference, either straight after a panel or at the coffee table. This simplicity (at least for us extroverts) cannot be replicated in virtual events because you need to message the person and agree on a meeting time.

Organizers can make it all easier within built-in messaging or by providing the contact details not only of presenters, but also of attendees. Once you have that, all you need is to make sure you get in touch with anyone you would have walked up to in person.

So here are my take-aways from the four following conferences:

Bibliographical Society of Canada

Cost: give what you can

Size: 30-40 participants?

Platform: EventBrite + GoogleDoc + Zoom

Schedule: 2 or 3 panels per day, 1 hour 45 minutes each with 15-minute breaks in between

Panel format: 3 presentations, ~20 minutes each, prerecorded but played live and followed by a Q&A

Time difference to accommodate: 5.5 hours (from Pacific to Newfoundland)

Level of familiarity: I didn’t know any of the panelists

Opportunities to socialize: none

Live-tweeting: #BSCSbC21, with just Leslie Howsam and myself


I decided to take part in this conference to assess whether I should travel to Canada in the future to attend in person. In short, no. I didn’t feel like I was in a room with a community. We were a multiplicity of individuals each alone in front of our screens, with no opportunity to get together during or between panels.

My nationalistic knee-jerk reaction was to be annoyed by the fact that the very first email I received after registering for the conference was only written in English. The rest of the emails were bilingual, but my suspicion that this wasn’t actually a bilingual society was confirmed when I realized that there was only one presentation in French throughout the whole conference.

Let’s just say the BSC was already on two strikes when the conference started for strictly political reasons (yes, I know, I study English literature, I don’t have any problems speaking English, and I usually attend English-only events… it’s complicated). Nothing to do with the organization of the virtual event.

Creating a Slack to foster participation was a good idea, but it didn’t pick up steam, except with the Special Collections Interest Group. It could be a good communication tool for societies both during events and throughout the rest of the year, but nothing has happened since the conference.

Another good call, one which did work out well: the decision to show prerecorded presentations. It ensured there were no technical problems related to live screen-sharing.

However, the lack of live-tweeting, the fact that cameras remained turned off, that presenters mainly responded to questions directly in Zoom’s Q&A function, and that there were no opportunities to meet other attendees pretty much killed my curiosity regarding the BSC. I’ll give it another try if it comes to Montreal!

I did nevertheless meet Stephen Webb. We made an appointment to meet the following week, talked for two hours, and parted ways saying we’d keep in touch. He since wrote saying he was in touch with another attendee that I should also meet. The disappointing experience was not a waste of time, just more laborious and less rewarding than it could have been.

 

Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association

Cost: US$50 (membership fee) + US$95 (conference fee)

Size: hundreds of participants

Platform: Pathable (Zoom)

Schedule: 6 panels per day, 1 hour 20 minutes each with 10-minute breaks in between

Panel format: 1 hour 20 minutes as if in person but on Zoom

Time difference to accommodate: as if we were in person in Boston

Level of familiarity: I knew my two area co-chairs

Opportunities to socialize: 3 hours on the evening before the conference started

Live-tweeting: #PCAACA21, engagement varied from one area to the other, but was overall quite active


My two area co-chairs had warned me that the association was not known to be very technologically inclined, so I was surprised in the best of ways by how the conference unfolded. This is probably due in large part to the Pathable platform that was selected to hold the event. It was nonetheless the organizing committee that decided to hold a conference social on the Tuesday evening preceding the beginning of the conference. It immediately reconciled me with virtual conferencing.

The Pathable platform doesn’t only reproduce the here’s-my-research part of conferences but also all the other networking-related aspects. Participants had the opportunity to prepare a profile complete with photo, bio, pronouns, and contact details in addition to setting up a “Want to meet” list. The organizers never configured private meetings so we couldn’t use the “Schedule meeting” feature, but I was able to communicate with all the people I wanted to meet using the built-in messaging service.

A third of participants opened their cameras in the panels I attended. It therefore felt like we were in a room together. PCA/ACA is clearly the place for those studying certain popular-culture-related fields, and not just in the United States or in North America. The Australian contingent, which had to get up in the middle of the night, was really impressive in the romance area.

There was enough activity on Twitter to warrant panel-specific hashtags in the future. Certain areas, like romance, actually used their own hashtag (#PCARomance). Panel hashtags provide the opportunity to follow only the discussion in the panel you’re attending in conferences with dozens of concurrent panels. It is easiest when they are planned for and shared by conference organizers in the programme.

All panels were recorded and will remain available on the platform until the end of the summer. Given the number of panels running at the same time, it is certainly a great plus. However, I don’t know if I’ll have the motivation to play back these recordings. A friend suggested gathering people to organize watch parties.

I was disappointed that the conference couldn’t be held in person because the host city, Boston, was on the East Coast. Next year, it will be in Seattle in April. I’ve never been. Maybe I could pair that with my trip to Los Angeles to visit Arthur William Lawson’s penny blood collection at UCLA!

 

European Society for Periodical Research (ESPRit)

Cost: free

Size: +200 registered participants, an average of 35 attendees per panel

Platform: custom website + YouTube + Zoom

Schedule: posters with 25-minute discussions on the Friday preceding the beginning of the “real” conference

3 events per day with 15-minute to 1-hour breaks in between:

  • 1 or 2 panel(s) per day, 45 minutes each;
  • 2 roundtables throughout the entire conference, 1 hour each;
  • 3 keynotes throughout the entire conference, 1 hour each

Panel format: 3 or 4 prerecorded presentations of 15 to 40 minutes to watch asynchronously on a private YouTube channel, 45-minute live discussion opening with each presenter summarizing their papers in a few minutes

Time difference to accommodate: 10 hours (from Eastern Time Zone to Indian Standard Time)

Level of familiarity: I attended the 2018 ESPRit conference in Paris

Opportunities to socialize: a Zoom room (“The Lounge”) was available during breaks and at the end of each day, a conference dinner was organized with a Currywurst recipe that we could reproduce and eat together

Live-tweeting: #2021ESPRit, with just the organizers and myself

The ESPRit crew at Bochum, Germany did an awesome job, re-creating online the conferencing experience from the ground up, starting with emotion. That’s why the organizers sent presenters the kind of things we normally receive, like pens, via snail mail. However, these conference packs also included local products like honey and even the sausage to prepare Currywurst all together for the conference dinner.

It’s the pandemic pessimism of organizer Christian Bachmann that gave them the time to organize this incredibly successful online event, redesigned for its new setting. Since ESPRit isn’t at all comparable to PCA/ACA in size, it was out of question to go for a turnkey platform because of costs.

The organizers came to the conclusion that the website needed to be at the heart of the conference. It was therefore designed specifically for the event, and Christian was making changes live throughout the conference to adjust the layout and add information.

The only difference with Pathable in the end seemed to have been the lack of built-in messaging service. Participants needed to register on the site, automatically creating a profile which provided their email address. We could add a photo, a bio, and contact details.

The atmosphere was super congenial. Half of attendees would turn their cameras on. I met two people (a post-doc presenting a poster and an acquaintance from Paris 2018) in a break-out room in “The Lounge”. I even got to have beer in person with a presenter from McGill, so living in Montréal like me!

Another noteworthy decision: thanks to the organizers’ willingness to examine and critique their own work, we dedicated the last session of the conference to assess how it was organized instead of dissecting the scientific advances it achieved. After a presentation by Christian (complete with slides!), Laurel Brake —one of the doyennes of the society— provided a wonderful run-down of the organizational choices, their virtues and downsides.

This last session provided the opportunity to give praise to the Future States: Modernity and national identity in popular magazines, 1890-1945 conference, a nearly carbon neutral (NCN) conference held last year that was an important source of inspiration.

Asynchronous presentations

The only downside for me was that I found it hard to find the motivation to watch the presentations ahead of time. Since the concurrent sessions were held in my mornings, I needed to watch the prerecorded papers the day before, after a half-day of conference followed by time spent socializing, which is normally in the evenings, but which was in the afternoon for me.

Laurel claimed that the format —with prerecorded presentations that we could comment up to one week ahead of the conference— demonstrated that it was organized by pedagogues for pedagogues. Indeed, it encouraged us to digest the content over a longer period using written discussion before moving on to the live one.

I missed out on the first phase of presentation viewing and commenting. I think it requires a much greater time investment than simply turning up for a panel. It’s obviously more rewarding, but I don’t know if I’d have the required motivation now that I better understand how it works (since I’m not a pedagogue myself!).

The live event recordings and the prerecorded papers remained available until the end of the month. The organizers will put them on a public YouTube channel in instances in which the presenters give their permission.

Cool ≠ Twitter

The fact that the majority of presenters were not on Twitter took me by surprise: I associated tweeting with greater openness, a willingness to disseminate research widely, to get in touch with other scholars, to collaborate, to socialize, to goof off together. Basically, my kind of people. I therefore discovered that “my kind of people” don’t only exist on Twitter.

When we discussed it on one of the numerous opportunities we had to socialize, a participant pointed out to me an important difference between the Zoom chat and Twitter: the chat is a private space, a safe space; Twitter is entirely public.

I hadn’t realized we might want to be discussing amongst ourselves in a scholarly society. It does strike me as a perfectly legitimate need. The disadvantage is that it makes it harder for me to determine whether or not it is worth me paying to travel to a conference held by a society I don’t already know.

I thought I could use the level of Twitter activity of its members as a proxy for how welcoming a society was, but ESPRit has provided me with a false negative! I would certainly like to go to Budapest next September!

 

Universal Short Title Catalogue

Cost: free

Size: 50-70 participants?

Platform: EventBrite + Microsoft Teams

Schedule: 3 or 4 panels per day, 1 hour 30 minutes each, breaks lasting 30 minutes or an hour in between

Panel format: 3 precirculated papers, 90-minute live discussion starting with each panelist presenting a 10-minute version of their paper with slides

Time difference to accommodate: as we were in person in St Andrews, Scotland

Level of familiarity: a friend was presenting, and I recognized one or two other names in the programme

Opportunities to socialize: an event for students and another for all participants

Live-tweeting: #USTC21, which was relatively active during the Q&As

I had never heard of the USTC conference held each year at St Andrews, Scotland because the catalogue covers 1601 to 1650, which is much earlier than my 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. However, I learned from my friend who was presenting that it seemed to have been opened up to all historical periods, so I eagerly registered as it was free.

The Microsoft Teams platform is not perfect (I don’t like the fact that there is a distinction made between the presenters and the attendees in the room), but it’s perfectly suitable. The chat from each session is all kept together and saved in the same spot. The attendees could also use the platform’s meeting rooms to hold private conversations. The programme, the precirculated papers, and a list of contacts were also available in the “Files” section of the group.

I thought it was very time-consuming to read three written papers before a 90-minute discussion, but I realized that the panelists’ mini-presentations at the beginning of the discussion gave me enough context. I thus approached it the way I would an in-person conference with the added possibility of reading more afterwards should I wish to.

In the end, only a few panels contained presentations I was interested in because it remained a conference mainly on the 17th century. The greater Twitter presence gave me the opportunity to provide useful links and to share what I was hearing with contacts by tagging them, including my new friend met at the BSC! And we have thus come full circle…


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