Conferencing Goes Digital: Some Thoughts on Virtual Academia

After everything else I had planned for this Spring got cancelled, I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to present at the BAAS Digital Dialogues series. Basically a virtual version of the BAAS Annual Conference, which was due to run in Liverpool in April this year, the Digital Dialogues allow academics to share their ideas in a virtual environment to benefit from each other’s feedback and generate new ideas.

As no one has ever faced a situation like the current one before, I suspect organising and taking part in virtual events has been a bit of trial and error process for everyone involved. It certainly was for me. The notorious unreliability of technology alone adds an extra touch of anxiety to proceedings. But with the whole thing over and done with, and successfully so, I thought I’d note down my experiences.

Of course, I’ll say upfront, there’s one massive element of real-life conferencing that virtual meetings lack. The ability to mingle is restricted to virtually zero. This increases the potential for awkwardness as you sit all dressed to the nines facing nothing but your computer screen, talking to people who sit miles away in equally anonymous rooms. I’ve had the best academic discussions over watery coffee and limp pastries during lunch breaks and I can’t see virtual conferences replacing that element in any satisfactory form.

That said, the turnout was impressive. Twenty people attended the session I took part in, which is more than I get at most conferences. Of course this could be due to fact that there were no parallel sessions running (larger conferences, after all, often run ten panels or more at the same time, and people can only be in one place at once). But still, given that people were under no obligation to attend, and given that the weather was nice, I was impressed. The virtual environment does seem to negatively impact people’s likelihood to ask questions, though. We presenters got a nice discussion going amongst ourselves but only got one question from the audience, when often audience members with little or no experience of my topic have contributed the most thought-provoking comments.

Technology is always a bottleneck in any conference setting – who hasn’t struggled to get their carefully curated Powerpoint to flourish on a big screen? The Digital Dialogues series use Zoom, not necessarily my preferred platform due to its security risks, but I have to say it functioned well on the day. I was wary about sharing my slides but it all worked like a dream. I even managed to share a Youtube video – including sound – with the audience. I’m treating this as a major accomplishment if not a significant peak in my life skills.

I’d almost forget the actual content of the session (which was, by the way, excellently chaired by BAAS Chair Cara Rodway). I was on the Gender and Sexuality in American Culture panel and, as usual, I was worried that my paper would stand out like a sore thumb. My paper explored damaged masculinity and cult in Panos Cosmatos’ film Mandy (2018), a work not exactly known for its subtlety. Hannah Rogers offered an excellent analysis of rhinoplasty and the female body in Thomas Pynchon’s novel V whereas James Baxter expertly discussed the evolution of countercultural (for lack of a better word) periodical Evergreen Review. Both papers were thought-provoking analyses to topics I don’t know that much about and it’s always good to have one’s horizons expanded.

It turned out, however, that our papers actually fitted together quite nicely. I was struck by Hannah’s analysis of the female body as a politicized object, a subject that turned out to run through all three papers. And I’ll definitely check out Evergreen Review, as the magazine’s connection between hardcore modernist texts (Beckett, I hear you), countercultural imagery and sexy-ish photos of half-naked women has captured my imagination. All in all, I left with lots of new ideas to think about, and this is particularly nice during a time when I spend so much time alone without the intellectual stimulation I’m used to.

I can’t see virtual conferences permanently replacing the real thing anytime soon. At the moment there is no alternative but I look forward to the time when I can meet other academics in the flesh again. That said, virtual conferences massively increase accessibility, which has been a bugbear of mine for a while. As an independent scholar with a non-academic job, conferences can feel overtly time-consuming and expensive, and I pass on a lot of opportunities because I simply can’t fit them into my schedule. I can’t be the only one facing this dilemma. The same goes for academics with caring responsibilities, with disabilities or chronic illnesses that make travel difficult, or for ECRs with limited means. The list goes on. And I do sincerely hope that the legacy of the Covid-19 epidemic will be a more inclusive academic community that dares to offer alternative opportunities to learn and collaborate beyond the traditional conferences and seminars we’ve always had.

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

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