Beyond Borders: Virtual Realities and the Future of Conferencing

Image from the 2020 LSFRC conference programme, © Sinjin Li

I’ve been involved in so many online activities since the UK went into lockdown in March 2020 that I’ve lost count. There have been supervisions and meetings and hangouts, trainings and gaming sessions and seminars. Screenings, symposia, and workshops. And of course teaching.

There have also been conferences, continuing unabated across a huge variety of formats and platforms. Tomorrow I’ll be logging into Blackboard Collaborate to attend the 2nd International e-Conference on Translation, which has a focus on linguistic minorities and will have both live and prerecorded presentations. Last week I took part in the CHEP Learning and Teaching Festival (of a similar format) and the Intermedial Eighteenth Century conference, which was mostly asynchronous on forums and Vimeo. Before that came the Pratchett Project and the London Science Fiction Research Community, all synchronous on Blackboard Collaborate (but with some sessions recorded for posterity). And way back in June I presented at the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies, where all talks were prerecorded, and delegates got together on the day for discussion and questions via Zoom.

I’m also a (guilty?) contributor to this surfeit of stuff online, organising a Mobilities symposium on MS Teams over the summer. This November I’m hoping to coordinate a series of online events for the UK’s annual Being Human festival.

Online conferences were already a hot topic of conversation in academia. We’ve begun to seriously consider the environmental impact of international conferences, not to mention the fact that such events are increasingly a privilege reserved for those with a stable income and institutional travel budgets. But COVID-19 has shifted these conversations into high gear. I guess the question on most people’s minds is whether the virtual realm is the future of conferencing. And if so, what works best?

My year of conferencing online has made me more convinced than ever that ‘three twenty minute papers followed by discussion’ is a poor format for sharing new research, or for getting feedback on continuing research. It favours the charismatic classroom lecturers, and in the absence of the physical classroom dynamic even that is lost. It also favours those who already do most of their networking elsewhere, over drinks or the lunch break or on e-mail, where there is a chance for deeper discussion. During the presentation there is only ever enough time to give a brief teaser, which for many presenters could be done more effectively as a video, a podcast, or a thread on social media. Or ideally, as some combination of these things! Particularly when watching online, I found myself paying more attention to the captions/transcript than to the presenter. This was doubly true for live presentations, which became more of an effort to follow due to failing internet or the poor audio quality of a home microphone.

If not that, then what? For me, the strongest conferences have always been those fostered a sense of community. This isn’t necessarily a matter of size, but rather of how engaged people can be with each other’s work, with new and unfamiliar ideas, and with old ideas examined in a new way. The best conferences (both for research and researcher wellbeing) are the ones where there is space for socialising and conversation, where disagreements can be had in a safe and supportive environment, and where you have the opportunity get excited about something other than research. These are the conferences you remember years down the line, and tend also to be the ones where the conversations and collaborations keep going long after the physical event has finished.

Image via pixabay

In some ways conferences are not really about the research at all, but about the act of doing research together. We can read the article or the book, or watch the presentation after the fact. We need the conference to give us an excuse to catch up with our wider community of knowledge, to remind others and ourselves that we exist within that community, and to be surprised and challenged by exciting new ideas in progress.

All this is a long-winded way of saying: I don’t know what makes ‘the best’ online conference, but despite my screen fatigue I’ve been excited by some of what I’ve seen so far. Two examples might help illustrate what I’ve liked about online conferences, and what I will be trying to carry forward.

In terms of polished and streamlined events that jumped straight to the meat of what I personally use conferences are for, the BACLS’ ‘Crisis in Contemporary Writing’ virtual conference was this year’s highlight. Presentations were uploaded a week in advance of the event, and the conference itself was condensed to a single day of conversation, questions, and critique. There were no parallel panels, and all discussions happened in the same, main ‘room’ on Zoom. Most of these discussions happened ‘face to face’ using cameras and microphones, but an excellent moderation team also allowed for written questions to be picked up and considered, and further discussion to continue on between participants in the chat. Over the lunch break, a special panel took place only in the chat, with delegates discussing a series of shorter, 5-minute ‘lightning’ presentations—also provided well in advance of the day. All of this delivered the maximum amount of networking in the shortest amount of time, letting us absorb the material at our own pace before the discussion and maximise our focus and attention on the day. And because we had already begun discussions over text, sharing links and Twitter handles for ongoing work, it was extremely straightforward to take those discussions further after the conference (which I did).

The LSFRC’s ‘Beyond Borders’ conference offered a very different, but equally crucial kind of satisfaction. In contrast with BACLS, ‘Beyond Borders’ it spanned three days, and at several points also had three parallel panels running simultaneously. Nearly all panels were held online through Blackboard Collaborate, with participants alternating between a main room and various breakout rooms. As far as I could tell it had roughly the same number of active attendees as the BACLS conference (80-90 at any given point, though the LSFRC had around 210 attendees overall).  The attendee demographic was very different, though, with some calling in from—for instance—the US, China, and South America as well as the UK.

As such a long conference with so many moving parts, ‘Beyond Borders’ naturally ran into some snags. On the first day there was a technical issue with breakout rooms that meant panels started late. Many speakers had a poor internet connection, and dropped out or were unintelligible for parts of their presentations. Others’ CPUs did not survive a whole day of Collaborate conferencing (my own laptop barely struggled through). And the interdisciplinary of the event meant that individual panels and keynotes were often quite varied in tone, structure, and framing—though all were good at not assuming prior knowledge. Overall, I came out of it feeling washed out and drained, both from the sheer amount of screen time I put in over the three days, and from trying to focus and engage throughout.

Fun in the ‘Beyond Borders’ translation roundtable.

Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I think ‘Beyond Borders’ was the conference I got the most out of this year. This was for two important reasons. Firstly, the conference comes out of a pre-existing community built on shared principles and ideals. It also hosts a series of other, smaller events throughout the year. This shows. The organisers were used to working with each other (and did so smoothly), and most participants also seemed to feel confident and comfortable despite any technical issues that came up along the way. The LSFRC is clearly a place where there is space for discussion, and suggestion, and struggle. Secondly, whatever issues or struggles arose during the conference were very honestly and openly addressed. They were made so much a part of the theming and event of the conference—itself about borders, failures, and mismatches—that they felt in themselves like learning moments. Efforts were always made to keep to time and preserve breaks, but it was also made clear that there was time to address any concern, and that the people behind the ideas were the most important part of the conference. ‘Beyond Borders’ felt vital and urgent, featuring voices and ideas too often marginalised in UK academia, and difficult interdisciplinary discussions that should be had more often.

I’m afraid I wasn’t very successful in engaging by offering questions in the chat or posting thoughts on the Twitter hashtag (though there were many excellent live-tweeters who had that covered—special mention to @cyborg_feminist aka Katie Stone). But I did come away feeling engaged. Highlights for me included the opening panel on sci-fi in translation and the two keynotes by (B)ordering Britain author Dr Nadine El-Enany and UX designer and coder Florence Okoye. In every panel I attended, though, I discovered many new works in progress that I wanted to look up later, and was reminded of others that I hadn’t picked up in a while. And I definitely took away many things that I am continuing to process, as well as many thoughts and ideas for virtual conferencing in the future.

The LSFRC will be sharing materials and recordings from the conference shortly, and I will post a link here as soon as these are available.

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