Serendipities of Online Community

In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online) Mark Liebenrood (@markliebenrood) reminds us that serendipity is not the preserve of archival research: it can be one of the great strengths of online scholarly communities.

Mark Liebenrood

A few months ago I hit a small obstacle in my research. Reading through borough council documents for information about a museum closure I came across an acronym, apparently for a trade union, that was unfamiliar. My usual approaches to online searching got me no further, and this was made more complicated by the acronym itself being a common word (ACTS). The trade union’s identity was a minor detail, but I still wanted to know it if possible. So I did something I don’t think I’ve done before, which was to put out a request on Twitter with the #twitterstorians hashtag. My tweet got just one retweet, but to my surprise in less than an hour I had several helpful replies, one of which had the answer. Although I’ve seen others ask questions on Twitter many times, this made me realise how potentially useful that huge online community can be. Continue reading

How are we going to teach in Autumn 2020? A survey of UK historians

Brodie Waddell

It has been clear for several months now that start of the new academic year is going to be very different to any we’ve been through before. The Covid-19 pandemic means that there will be huge changes in all areas of academic life, but perhaps the most visible change will be in teaching, where ‘remote’ teaching online will much more common. Where face-to-face teaching is happening, it will have to be ‘socially distant’, in smaller groups and possibly with masks or other protective equipment.

However, one thing that is far from clear is the planned balance between these two modes. Unlike many North American universities, virtually no UK university has publicly announced that they will be ‘online only’ in Autumn. Instead, almost all of them have made vague announcements about ‘blended’, ‘hybrid’ or ‘mixed’ modes, which will include both online and face-to-face teaching in varying proportions.

In order to get a firmer sense of where we stand, I’ve done a quick informal survey of scholars based in 26 different UK history departments, asking them what proportion of teaching they are planning to conduct face-to-face. This included Oxford and Cambridge, five London universities, a bunch of provincial Russell Group universities, and a smaller number of post-1992 institutions. I have not named any of the individuals or institutions because none of these plans have been publicly announced, and anonymity allowed them to give more candid answers.

Unsurprisingly, there were a wide range of answers, many of which cannot be easily quantified. Nevertheless, one common response stands out… Continue reading

‘You’re on mute!’ How can we make online meetings better?

Laura Sangha

I’ll keep this brief, I know you probably have a [Teams, Zoom, Skype, other] meeting to be at. Probably more than one. Is it about deferrals? Transition to online teaching? A viva? Personal tutoring? Decolonising group? Accreditation? Supervision? Wellbeing? Exam board? Deep dive lightning talk extraordinary forum workshop reading group paper sand pit?

Before this year I had attended online meetings for work on only a couple of occasions, but now it’s a rare day that doesn’t contain a couple of online meetings. Everyone I talk to in these meetings tells me they are spending too much time in online meetings. I am beginning to feel like each minute I spend staring at a pixelated reproduction of the shape of my colleagues is equal to a minute I will spend lying awake in bed, unable to switch off my fevered screened-out brain and escape into unaware oblivion (or at the very least a bizarre lockdown dream).

Evidently online meetings are inescapable, and they are likely to be for quite some time yet. But before resigning ourselves to our fate, a bit of reflection might be useful. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Evading the hounds: online scholarly collaboration and crowdsourced harassment

The latest post in our #SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online series addresses the urgent issue of online harassment and abuse. 

Elizabeth Watts

Taking our scholarly collaborations online has opened up a world of conversation – at least for those who have the health and energy for it in a global pandemic, and those who are not impeded by barriers such as inaccessible digital materials or organisers’ time zones. Yet in grounding our collaboration in spaces which are subject to rampant organised harassment and surveillance, the well-known threats that marginalised scholars at in-person events face from individuals are exchanged for the instantaneous threat of abuse at menacing, escalating scale.

Online abuse has been an endemic aspect of public scholarship, above all for women of colour, since social media started collapsing digital communication into a handful of massive, searchable platforms. Marginalised and feminist scholars have been ever more vulnerable to forms of online violence aimed at hounding them and their knowledge out of the public sphere since the 2014 #GamerGate campaign (when anti-feminist internet users subjected them to the same tactics of doxxing and swarm harassment they were already turning on Black women journalists), which some writers argue was even instrumentalised by Steve Bannon to help elect Donald Trump.

Besides these organised campaigns, the ease with which high-profile public figures can expose individuals with much lower public profiles to a mass of followers in derogatory ways creates an intimidating atmosphere for any scholar who has experienced or even witnessed the spontaneous harassment that can result. In my own case, as a white mid-career scholar with an ongoing contract, I was privileged and secure enough that abuse from accounts that did not appear to be linked to any identifiable offline people was no big deal. Coming to the attention of individuals with a wide reach on social media, offline positions of power and the capacity to use their influence to cause me material detriment has been a different level of threat altogether, leaving me anxious that I would not be able to keep up with my core job during another episode. With consciousness that my family’s peace and privacy would also be at risk (an even greater threat for scholars whose families are not cis/heteronormatively traditional), my online life has had to become much more defensive and constrained. Continue reading

#SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online

In the spring of 2020, as much of the world was plunged into ‘lockdown’ by the advance of a global pandemic, regular forms of face-to-face interaction were swiftly replaced by online alternatives. We all found ourselves coming up with new ways to recreate our scholarly activities online, as 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.

As the UK lockdown eased at the end of June, we invited our readers to contribute to this ongoing mini-series reflecting on the best way to build communities online.

Contents

> Laura Sangha & Mark Hailwood, ‘The Virtual Parish: Scholarly Communities Online’

Laura and Mark introduce the series and reflect on eight years of running this blog as an online scholarly community. What do we gain from taking our conversations online? What do we lose? What needs to be improved?

> Will Pooley, ‘Online Conferences: Four Reflections’

Will examines his experience of co-organising an online Zoom conference during a global pandemic. He discusses how things were adapted, what online spaces had to offer, and accessibility.

> Clare Griffin, ‘Time Zones Still Exist’

Many of us are facing the prospect of teaching across time zones in the autumn of 2020. Here Clare Griffin reminds us of the access implications of time zones for online events, and suggests that the move online could provide an opportunity to improve the experience of delegates across the globe.

> Jennifer Farrell, ‘The Digital Delegate: attending on online international conference’

What is it like to attend a huge international conference from the comfort of your own home? Jennifer considers reduced costs, technology, trolls and community.

> Brodie Waddell, ‘Teaching Microhistory: small things, big questions and a global pandemic’

How can we teach students the value in studying small things to answer big questions, online, during a pandemic? Brodie explains what it was like to teach an online MA module on theory and methodology, and gives away the handbook for free!

> Elizabeth Watts, ‘Evading the Hounds: Online Scholarly Collaboration and Crowd Sourced Harrassment’

Taking our scholarly communities online has opened up a world of conversation. Yet in grounding our collaboration in spaces which are subject to rampant organised harassment and surveillance, the well-known threats that marginalised scholars at in-person events face from individuals are exchanged for the instantaneous threat of abuse at menacing, escalating scale. In this post Elizabeth shares her own experience as a victim of online of such online abuse.

> Marianne C.E. Gillion, ‘Cultivating a (Virtual) Conference Community

Marianne discusses what it was like to rise to the challenge of hosting a major conference online. The 2020 Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference created a virtual environment that facilitated the unique combination of scholarship, music, networking, and the sociability integral to the annual event. 

> Laura Sangha, “‘You’re on mute!’: How can we make online meetings better?”

Online meetings have become a common feature of our working lives this year, but many people are frustrated at the amount of time they take up. How do they compare with a face-to-face version – beyond the potential technical pitfalls, might they be an improvement? And what can we do to make them more accesible, inclusive and effective?

> Brodie Waddell, ‘How are we going to teach in Autumn 2020? A Survey of UK Historians.

It’s August, but in many UK institutions there is still much uncertainty about what form teaching will take when term starts next month. Here Brodie offers some thoughts based on a quick informal survey of scholars based in 26 different UK history departments, asking them what proportion of teaching they are planning to conduct face-to-face in the autumn.

Teaching Microhistory: small things, big questions and a global pandemic

Brodie Waddell

Over ten weeks in April, May and June this year, as a pandemic raged across the world and most of us found ourselves confined mostly to our homes, I taught one of my favourite modules. It’s called ‘To See the World in a Grain of Sand: Reading and Writing Microhistories’, and it’s open to most of the MA students in my department at Birkbeck.

microhistories-promo-slide

There’s no obvious reason why about twenty postgrads would sign up to do an optional module focused on theories and methodologies, especially as most of them were living in locked-down London, one of the hardest hit cities in the world. But they did, and I’m glad they did. Continue reading

The digital delegate: attending an international online conference

We are delighted to welcome our next guest blogger for our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online). Here Jennifer Farrell (@dr_j_farrell) reflects on her experience as a delegate of an online conference.

Jennifer Farrell

Last week saw the return of the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at the University of Leeds. This annual conference attracts thousands of medievalists from all over the world, eager to network with one another, to road-test their research, and to enjoy hearing about the work being done by others in their field. I have attended the IMC numerous times in the past, both as a delegate and as a speaker, but the major difference this year was that I did so from the comfort of my own living room!

Bingo Card

Sadly moving a conference online will still not stop you spending too much time at the book stalls.

The Covid pandemic has impacted researchers in various ways, but one of the major changes we are seeing is the willingness and indeed tenacity of conference organisers to find ways of facilitating networking and the sharing of research via online platforms. The sheer scale of the IMC means that its move to a virtual conference was nothing short of heroic.  This year the virtual IMC supported the delivery of c.530 research papers, attended by c.3,200 delegates from across 60 countries. The organisers, moderators, panellists, and facilitators deserve to be commended for this.

Speaking purely from the perspective of a delegate, with no need to worry about my paper being interrupted by poor internet connection, bad sound, disruption from trolls, or just the generally odd sensation of talking about your research to a computer screen, my own experiences of the vIMC were very positive. Of course, a virtual environment is by no means the same as experiencing the conference in person, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.  Like many of the changes that have occurred to our working conditions on account of Covid, there are good and bad sides. Continue reading

Time Zones Still Exist

In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online), Clare Griffin (@balalaichnitsa) calls for the organisers of online events to think about the access implications of time zones. 

Clare Griffin 

In the brave new world of virtual conferencing, there has been something of a sense that this is more open, more inclusive. After all, we don’t have to travel for hours to get to a physical venue. But there are still a number of accessibility issues, one of which I want to address here.

Time zones still exist.

A substantial number of these virtual events are being held live. That’s great, if you are in that time zone or a neighbouring one. Less so if you are not.

Many such English-language events are being held in North America and Western Europe, so are most directly accessible to academics based in those regions. What about those of us in other time zones? I am in Kazakhstan. There are academics interested in English-language events based in Australia, Singapore, India, and many other places.

Technically, we can still take part in such live virtual events, if we are prepared to get up in the small hours of the morning, or stay up until midnight.

When we were in the era of in-person events, I would regularly be flying multiple hours, crossing several time zones, to get to an event. And would be exhausted. Now, to take part in live virtual events I would often have to disrupt my sleep. And be exhausted.

Sleep is important for everyone, and we shouldn’t expect people to disrupt it to do their job.

Sleep is a particular issue for me, as sleep disruption is a major trigger for one of my conditions, a bipolar spectrum disorder. I am less well if I disrupt my sleep. If I try and participate in live events in time zones far to the West or East of me, I will harm myself. And weren’t well all supposed to be more concerned about our colleagues’ well-being during the pandemic? Continue reading

Online Conferences: Four Reflections

In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online), Will Pooley (@willpooley) reflects on hosting an online workshop. 

Will Pooley

There is something odd about the effect the pandemic is having on online academic work, collaboration, discussion, and teaching. The lockdowns imposed in many parts of the world have given a renewed impetus to some forms of doing history online. The pressures of the current situation have provided momentary distractions from longstanding problems with the platforms and tools that historians have found themselves most drawn to, such as Twitter and blogging.

The challenges of the #SchOnline moment involve addressing these legitimate criticisms around issues including accessibility, abuse and harassment.

One big change has been the adoption – almost overnight – of teleconferencing software such as Zoom and Skype, to replace face-to-face meetings and events. Jan Machielsen and I decided to give an online workshop a go, to bring together people interested in talking about the broad issues of the supposed ‘decline of magic’.

I have four reflections on this.

Something Old?

The first thing I want to mention is something that Jan and I agreed on from when we first discussed the idea: an online ‘conference’ or ‘seminar’ cannot just simulate a face-to-face equivalent. It’s very hard to broadcast a 20 or 50-minute talk, especially given the unreliability of the technology, and the fact that none of us are media professionals. The videos that professional Youtubers, for instance, put out involve specialist equipment and a whole production team. Academics need to be realistic about what we can do using an old work laptop in a poorly-lit makeshift space.

Something New

The second point I would make about this is that different does not have to mean worse. Continue reading