The Virtual Parish: Scholarly Communities Online

Laura Sangha & Mark Hailwood

In this post we reflect on eight years of running a ‘virtual’ scholarly community – this blog! – to consider questions that are currently pressing ones for all academics: what do we gain from taking our conversations online? What do we lose? What needs to be improved?   

In the spring of 2020, as much of the world was plunged into ‘lockdown’ by the advance of the coronavirus, regular forms of face-to-face interaction were swiftly replaced by online alternatives. For academics, the classroom morphed into the online seminar; the conference trip was replaced by a day tucked away in a corner of the bedroom staring at Zoom; the common-room catch-up was transferred to the Departmental WhatsApp group.

Innovative initiatives have abounded, including A Bit Lit, a series of fun and informal filmed conversations about history, literature and culture, designed to fill the gap left by the kind of over-a-coffee-conversations that might take place between scholars. We were delighted to receive an invite to take part, and you can see our ramblings here. In the opening film, Andy Kesson talked about A Bit Lit as part of a process of building new kinds of academic community—or to give it a more early modern twist, new kinds of ‘parish’—that would draw on digital forms of contact to overcome the obstacles of infection.

We liked this notion of new ‘virtual parishes’, especially since many of us have been involved in a variety of ad hoc ways in constructing such novel online communities in recent months. But this notion also struck a chord with us because we realised that we—along with Brodie Waddell and Jonathan Willis—had already created a ‘virtual parish’ long before the current crisis: this blog. The context of its creation was very different to the circumstances we face now, but the impulse to create a scholarly community that transcended physical obstacles was central. Indeed, the loss of physical proximity that we had enjoyed as a group of postgrads at Warwick was an important catalyst.

As PhD parishioners there we had been nourished by an early modern seminar series; a weekly postgrad work-in-progress workshop; a theory reading group; access to a staff and postgrad common room for lunch and coffee breaks; and after work pints in the Graduate Bar. But then we were flung far and wide as we each completed, often taking up temporary positions on the margins of new academic communities. The blog provided a way of keeping the old parish together: a way to keep talking.

So, like many of the initiatives that have sprung up in recent months, it initially helped us to sustain a scholarly community when face-to-face interaction suddenly became more difficult. But over time writing blog posts, reading your comments, holding online symposia, hosting guest posts, and running online reading groups, have each helped to transcend various other boundaries within academia, many of which are closely tied to physical geographies…

What do we gain?

It matters less if you find yourself in a Department with very few other early modernists: you are still plugged into a wider community of the latter through conversations on the blog.

It matters less if you can’t afford to attend the big conferences in your field: work-in-progress can be presented or promoted on the blog, and online symposia provide an opportunity to bring scholars from across the country – or the world – together in a different way. You can organise an online event without the institutional funding and support that temporary contracts often make it difficult to access.

It provides a permanent and stable space to develop a research community or conversation, something that a short-term contract and fleeting affiliation with a Research Centre does not.

It provides an opportunity to converse with audiences that you are less likely to encounter in your Department, or at the conferences in your field: scholars in other disciplines, or other scholars who might not have been in a position to attend a seminar series or an expensive conference. Those at the margins of traditional academic communities have better access to the blog community.

It provides an opportunity to write for, and converse with, a wider public outside of academia, in a way unencumbered by the organisational burden of impact activities.

It provides a way of holding scholarly conversations that does not leave a large carbon footprint.

Looking back on these benefits, we would argue that this ‘virtual parish’—and many others like it—can do more than just tide us over during the current public health crisis. Building new forms of digital community should also be part of our response to long term challenges created by precarity, access issues, and the climate emergency.

What do we lose?

Digital communities are not without their limitations, as many of us will have come to realise this year. So, if ‘virtual parishes’ are going to be an increasingly important part of our future, what are the pitfalls we need to avoid? How do we ensure that we don’t replicate some of the downsides of face-to-face communities, or avoid creating new problematic dynamics?

One problem, which affects bloggers and teachers alike, is the challenge of sparking interaction and dialogue. Whilst we know our blog posts are still read, the comments section is now largely moribund. Discussion might sometimes flare up on twitter, but it is often fleeting, dispersed and limited. Our experiences of online seminars—whether teaching undergrads or delivering a paper—suggest that few of the people who login will actively participate in discussions. How do we make live conversation happen online? How do we recreate the informal, free-flowing and often incredibly creative conversations that happen in conference coffee breaks, or over dinner, when our workshop is one big Zoom call?

Here we would like to invite our readers to join the conversation. What have been the frustrations of trying to engage in online scholarly communities? What works well, and in what ways are they failing? Comments are open below the line, as ever, or join the discussion on twitter using #schonline, but we would also be interested in hosting guest posts on this theme (contact m.hailwood@bristol.ac.uk). It’s time for an online scholarly conversation about online scholarly conversations…

4 thoughts on “The Virtual Parish: Scholarly Communities Online

  1. Building on-line communities and contacts is vital for the discipline of history inside the academy and, may I suggest, outside it too. Every day I read on twitter the anguish felt by postgraduates and ECRs unable to find permanent jobs. Keeping them fully in touch with their peers and those in posts is an opportunity not to be wasted.

    • Thanks Christopher, absolutely agree that one of the great advantages of online communities is that you don’t need a stable instituitonal affiliation – or indeed to be ‘inside’ academia – to participate. This blog was certainly a lifeline for me as I bounced between short-term contracts.

      As a result they can also provide a space where those in precarious positions can make their voice heard. We are much more aware of precarity in the academy now than we were 10 years ago, partly because twitter is a place where people can speak out about their experiences. It can be/was hard to raise awareness when you can’t afford to attend conferences and are not invited to Departmental meetings.

  2. Pingback: Online Conferences: Four Reflections | the many-headed monster

  3. Pingback: #SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online | the many-headed monster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s