Cultivating a (Virtual) Conference Community

In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online) Marianne C.E. Gillion (@mcegillion) reflects on her experiences as the co-organizer of a large virtual conference.

Marianne C.E. Gillion

Among a certain segment of early music historians, there is a standard formula of farewell: “I’ll see you at MedRen, if not before”. This is a reference to the annual Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference, which for the past 48 years has been independently organised by volunteer host institutions across Europe and the United Kingdom. For many, MedRen is a highlight of the conference calendar. A frequent comment is that meeting together with anywhere between 175 and 375 early musicologists makes delegates—whether they work in universities, have careers in other fields, are members of the growing academic precariat, or are students—feel slightly less alone.

The importance of this community was one of the driving forces behind the decision to move the 2020 edition online when the physical meeting was cancelled. We on the Organising Committee (James Cook, Adam Whittaker, Thomas Schmidt, Andrew Bull, and myself) had spent eighteen months planning to welcome our delegates to the University of Edinburgh from 1–4 July. In only 3 ½ months, we attempted to create a virtual environment that would facilitate the unique combination of scholarship, music, networking, and sociability integral to MedRen. Thanks to the support of our presenters and delegates it succeeded beyond our expectations: with 470 participants, it was the largest conference to date, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

As in other fields, and highlighted in this series of blogposts, MedRen 2020 provoked debate concerning the benefits and drawbacks of the online format. Conference participation is widened and enriched when the barriers to attendance—including the financial burden, the environmental toll, the personal sacrifices, and the lack of accommodations for disabled delegates—are acknowledged and addressed. However, virtual conferencing comes with its own set of barriers to confront, such as the coordination of time zones, the limitations of technology and the potential for digital exclusion, concerns over privacy and safety, and the very facilitation of online communication.

Our Organising Committee grappled with these issues, particularly in regards to format, cost, and communities. I believe that sharing and reflecting on our experiences, both within and without our disciplines, can help us as we reimagine the future of conferencing.

The Format

For MedRen 2020, we chose a hybrid a/synchronous format to try and mitigate digital and geographical exclusion. Pre-recorded papers were grouped into panels on a password-protected website with moderated comment sections, which were only available during the conference. Presenters also had the option to participate in live, one-hour Question-and-Answer sessions, held on Blackboard Collaborate. These were scheduled from c. 11.00–19.00 BST, to try and allow delegates from as many time zones as possible to participate. Questions could be asked via text chat or on-screen, and mercifully, we were not trolled. Many appreciated the ability to view videos at will, and felt they could engage more deeply with the material, which led to interesting and stimulating discussions. Yet finding time to watch the presentations, especially with other commitments, was often challenging. If pre-recorded presentations are integrated into physical conferences, a significant amount of time needs to be factored in to record, upload, and watch the videos. Further, organising committees will need to have robust accessibility guidelines for the presentations and the discussions.

The Cost

Without the overhead of renting physical spaces, and with the Organising Committee agreeing to do all the practical and technical work ourselves, we were able to drastically lower the registration fee for MedRen 2020. Affiliated delegates paid £20, and students, postdocs, unaffiliated researchers, and those adversely impacted by Covid-19 paid nothing. Most of the money (minus the remaining costs) was donated to the two ensembles who provided virtual concerts, as their livelihoods have been severely affected by the Pandemic. For mid-sized conferences such as MedRen, which are not permanently linked to institutions and are not societies with dues, free or deeply-discounted registration for digital delegates might not be a sustainable practice. Further, when organising committees are made up of volunteers—often early career researchers and graduate students—the burden of arranging a hybrid physical/digital conference is substantial, and this needs to be taken into account.  The challenge of keeping costs down and fees proportionate has always been with us, but acquires a new urgency and demands creative solutions if expanding access requires a greater financial investment.

The Community

Encouraging community was a priority for us, as the collegiality of MedRen is one of its most attractive aspects. In addition to our comment pages and live discussions, we had an active Twitter account, and a keynote, two concert watch-parties, and daily receptions held over Blackboard Collaborate. These spaces allowed people to socialise and network via video and text – within the constraints of the technology and internet connectivity. I was elated to witness how, with care and intentionality, we could build and reinforce our scholarly communities online. This leads to some of the most challenging questions going forward: How do we perpetuate this positive momentum, and integrate online and physical communities? And how do we ensure that our future fully virtual or hybrid conferences don’t become hierarchical, with the digital experience inferior to the material?

In the weeks since MedRen, I have been having variations of the same conversation with friends and colleagues – on Slack and on Twitter, via WhatsApp and Zoom. We ask each other, “What now?”. While we dream of meeting in person next year, there is no telling whether that will be possible. But even if it is, we cannot and should not go back to the conferencing status quo. Some meetings have been showing us for years, and it is surely now incontrovertible, that fully digital or hybrid models are possible. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to work together to build more inclusive and accessible conference spaces. The Organising Committees of the next two editions of the Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference—to be held in Lisbon and Uppsala—are already working to increase and integrate digital elements. I, for one, am excited to see the future communities we will create.

3 thoughts on “Cultivating a (Virtual) Conference Community

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

  2. Pingback: Curating a (Virtual) Conference Community – Marianne C.E. Gillion

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