This time last year, many of us had enjoyed a summer zooming (no, not that kind of zoom) around the UK and further afield, attending and presenting at conferences, symposiums and seminars. Thinking back to last October, many of us had just returned home from the Modernist Studies Association (MSA) Conference 2019 in Toronto. This year, along with many other conferences and events, MSA has been moved online – we were able to watch the roundtable of authors celebrating MSA’s First Book Prize from the comfort of our own homes. This inspiring and insightful event is also available to watch if you missed it live, meaning online events like these are widely accessible and largely open-access. Academia has had to adapt this year, suddenly finding itself unable to hop on a train or flight to attend conferences, meet people and engage with new research.
Earlier this year, TMR published a series of reflections and responses to Online Teaching. Lee Skallerup Bessette started the dialogue with her timely reflection on ‘Teaching Online in Extraordinary Times‘; Naomi Milthorpe and Jessamy Perriam wrote about the importance of trying to make connections, Alexander Jones and Sean Michael Morris reflected on the need for resilience and admitting defeat; Cai Lyons, Laura Biesiadecki and Paul Thifault shared pedagogical practices and tools; and Gareth Mills wrote on Nearly Carbon Neutral Conferences (NCNCs), suggesting why this online approach should not be confined to COVID-19 contingency plans.
Jumping off from Mills’s observations, this new series addresses what the move online has meant for conferences this year: what the benefits, setbacks and learning curves have been. Starting off this new series, the organisers of the Entangled Modernities Conference and the Pandemic, Crisis, and Modern Studies Twitter Conference share their thoughts and advice on creating a community in an online space.
If you would like to contribute to this series on online events, please email any ideas or thoughts to email@example.com.
From our screens to yours,
Entangled Modernities: New Directions in Settler Colonial and Critical Indigenous Studies
Entangled Modernities: Take One
When we first started planning the Entangled Modernities conference in July 2019, the animus for foregrounding colonial encounters and entanglements was the lack of a proper reckoning with our colonial past in public discourse here in Britain. Brexit has rekindled not only imperial nostalgia, but an equally problematic resurgence of the idea of the ‘Anglosphere’ that is embedded in the racial logics of settler colonialism. In this moment of populist nationalist insurgence across the Western world, it seems particularly urgent to critique the premise that former British settler colonies were always majority white spaces, and to foreground the contribution of non-European peoples and cultures to the intellectual traditions, cultural formations and technological innovations popularly associated with modernity. Even the very concept of ‘modernity’ has become increasingly problematic in recent scholarship:‘modernity’ has been used as an ideological weapon, justifying the domination of ‘traditional’ peoples by more ‘advanced’ ones. In these public and academic contexts, we felt there was a pressing intellectual, political and ethical need to rethink the methods we use to assay ‘modern’ literature and culture, and to focus on ‘entanglements’ between different types and conceptions of a/modernity. In order to achieve this, we knew straight away that Indigenous scholars had to be central to the conversation. The University of Kent’s new Centre for Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies was, therefore, an ideal host for the conference, while engaging critically, as the centre itself aims to do, with what it means to do this work at the Heart of Empire. Placing Indigenous voices, theory, and methodological approaches at the centre of that critical engagement is essential to move the conversation in Europe forwards. Doing so necessarily involved planning to fly scholars from the Pacific, North America, Asia and Africa to Canterbury.
Entangled Modernities Take Two: Community Building in an online environment
In early March 2020, as Michael Falk and I met to put the panels together, it became increasingly clear that the face-to-face gathering on May 24th-25th was not going to be an option. As Spring progressed, even our (perhaps naïve) rescheduled date of 12-13th September began to prove impossible as the pandemic showed no sign of abating. We then began to consider what sort of online format would facilitate the sort of convivial interdisciplinary conversations we envisioned the symposium enabling.
The main question we pondered when transitioning to online was how to create a sense of community, while everyone was now so dispersed, that one gains at a face-to-face conference. The first scheduling decision we made was that we would make the days longer and have all delegates attend the same papers, rather than having parallel panels in multiple Zoom rooms. The second was to involve postgraduate and postdoctoral students from the Centre for Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies in organising a ‘social’ event for the conference: a screening of short Indigenous films. This enabled the event to bring in postgraduate students who don’t necessarily feel comfortable speaking out at main events. In this respect, the film screening was a great success, as one of the postgraduate organisers reported:
It was an absolute delight to be a part of such a vibrant and exciting conference, I’m hoping there will be more events like this in the future, it fostered such a lovely sense of community and collaboration.
As the event drew nearer, we considered how best to facilitate the informal networking one normally gets at conferences. Taking our inspiration from the corporate world, we decided to use Slack Channels for this. The #general channel enabled delegates to introduce themselves and was a space to continue conversations begun in the Q&A sessions that followed the panels and roundtables. While we had always planned to have at least one roundtable, we decided to add a second roundtable to the conference programme in the hope that this would foster slightly more informal debate and discussion. We were not disappointed: the two round table sessions produced particularly vibrant discussions both between panelists and betweenaudience members. Having the conference online meant that we were able to gather round table panelists from a number of continents, ensuring the kind of representation that it would otherwise have been difficult to achieve.
The #technical channel was a place for any technical issues to be raised and resolved, while the #resources section was an opportunity for people to promote their own and others’ work, and follow up on reading recommendations and references given in the papers. In order to enable the smooth running of the day itself, and minimise the techno-angst of our delegates, Michael acted as technical chair the whole time: making sure screen sharing technology worked, sharing and communicating the schedule and being on hand to reassure anyone unfamiliar with online conferences. This enabled panel chairs to focus fully on the intellectual content of the day and taking questions from the floor through the Zoom chat. Finally, to add pace and variety to what would have otherwise been a lot of screen time, we made sure that we alternated standard panels with more dynamic formats such as lightning talks and roundtables.
Of all these technologies, it was the Slack Channel that most exceeded our expectations. There was a lively backchannel chat throughout the conference. Speakers posted their bibliographies in the #resources channel, delegates were able to get in touch with panelists they shared an interest with, and panel discussions spilled over into debates in the #general channel. In some ways, the Slack resembled a twitter hashtag, with its lively discussion and low barrier to entry. The Channel continued to have some activity for several days after the conference, and while we do not have data to support this, we suspect that delegates have been revisiting the channel to look up ideas and resources that were raised during the conference.
Despite all this, there are costs to an online event. One of our keenest regrets was not being able to meet and thank our keynote, Alice Te Punga Somerville, in person, a regret that was echoed by Prof. Te Punga Somerville in her extraordinary paper on whakapapa. This regret was compounded by the news of ongoing casual and structural racism towards Māori staff members at the University of Waikato where Prof. Te Punga Somerville is a faculty member. While we expressed our solidarity with the Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, the difficulties of promoting allyship and building ethical relationships with Indigenous scholars and communities from a distance were compounded by our inability to host Prof. Te Punga Somerville in person.
Where to from here?
In some ways, Entangled Modernities was just like any other conference. Delegates arrived, keynotes gave distinguished lectures, roundtables tried to get a grasp on the underlying themes of the event, papers sparked discussion or were politely listened to. We are planning the usual range of conference outputs, working towards journal issues, edited collections and future meetings that will build on what we hope was a real sense of momentum among conference delegates.
But with the success of the online format, we are also exploring new avenues for networking and collaboration. We will release a generous selection of the symposium on YouTube, taking advantage of Zoom’s cloud recording feature. David has used the conference as a springboard to launch an online reading group on Indigenous Theory and Method. And in the wake of the conference, Lara has arranged a monthly series of Work-in-Progress Workshops, where Europe’s scattered scholars in Critical Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies can submit articles they are working on for discussion and feedback. In a way, COVID was exactly what this field needed, at least in a European context. In the settler societies of Oceania, the Americas, Africa and Asia, there may be established concentrations of scholars, and established protocols for networking and engagement. (Of course, ‘established’ doesn’t mean ‘unfraught’.) In Europe, where the complexities of Indigenous and Settler Colonial societies are more remote in space, the scholarly community is also more fragmented. COVID may finally have realised that early promise of the internet, as a structure that reaches into the world and collapses the orders of space and time. It is a grisly time, but we hope that by adapting to it, we can build something new and lasting for European, non-European and Indigenous scholars around the world.
The full programme for Entangled Modernities can be found here. For more information about the projects, please visit Southhem and the University of Kent Centre for Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies.
Let us backtrack for a moment to April 2020: millions of people around the world stuck indoors while a global pandemic unleashes itself. We suddenly find ourselves having to resort to social media and other virtual modes of communication to stay in touch. With this in mind, we at Countervoices, the postgraduate forum of University of York’s Centre for Modern Studies, wanted to engage constructively with the pandemic, so we organised a conference. Because desperate times call for desperate measures, ours was not a conventional conference. It was a Twitter conference. Twitter’s groovy format not only allowed us to combine our passion for research in Modern Studies with a pressing global issue, but also facilitated communication with like-minded researchers across an international academic community stretching from the US to India – all this through a few mouse-clicks, and for free! But as a brand new academic format, what scored Twitter the most brownie points was dissolving the boundaries between the academy and the public at large.
The benefit of a live Twitter event is that it does not have to be ‘live’, per se. For academics, who put great emphasis on words, churning out introductory Tweets at precise times while promoting the conference and solving technical problems could have proved overwhelming without preparation. Writing most of our Tweets in advance and scheduling them wherever possible (a brand new feature when we ran the conference) saved us a lot of unnecessary stress. Which is not to say that it was stress-free. We waited with anticipation for each new paper-thread to appear in our news-feed, as we hoped presenters would ‘appear’ on time.
Pressure aside, running the conference live was rewarding. Participants’ innovative uses of the medium reassured us that we had made the right format choice. While running a conference about the Pandemic during the Pandemic, we watched as participants shared thoughts and insights to which we could all relate. And although we did not share a physical space, we felt truly connected. In a world that was becoming defined by isolation, we were proud to pave the way for these interactions.
The new format of 15 tweets facilitated global participants well at this unprecedented, difficult time. Tweeting presentations brought great convenience. With any phone, tablet orPC in hand, participants neither struggled with sharing a workspace with partners and children, nor had to spend days drafting long essays while being occupied with teaching and parental responsibilities. It also pushed participants to be concise, engaging, informative yet critical. Albeit difficult, it is worthwhile to clarify an argument in brief language. As @smcchistory commented, ‘I like being limited to 15 tweets [read: slides]. Challenges me to clarify and edit. Great writing exercise.’ Besides, tweet presentations connected our participants in more intimate, interactive, and supportive ways. CModS director @jtwelsch said, ‘One great advantage of the online format is its long-term accessibility. Just as importantly, you were clearly providing a supportive and encouraging space for people developing research in this rapidly changing area. I could see from the presentations themselves just how inspired people felt by your support… Your own messages at the start and introductions to each panel made it all feel more welcoming than quite a few ‘live’ conferences I’ve been to!’
Our twitter conference covered six panels including dystopia, death and the body, conversation, aesthetics, and teaching, which addressed the critical global issues concerning the pandemic. Panelists from different time zones took advantage of diverse tweeting ‘languages’ such as words, pictures, illustrations, GIFs, website links, and videos to show their innovative thoughts about this crisis. The Twitter format allowed them to unleash creativity, humor, emotion, and sincerity. Each unique presentation struck a chord with us.
This project started in a world that could not provide ‘live’ experiences as before. We stayed at home while still trying to maintain social connections virtually. It is during the first wave of the pandemic that we tried to create a virtual live space on Twitter where we could feel a true sense of connection. The conference was a site of creation. By adopting a new type of conference format, presenters challenged themselves to express their intellectual ideas with vivid ‘languages’ that suited Twitter threads. There, a wide range of inspiring discussions took place in an atmosphere totally different from that of more traditional ‘live’ conferences. Surprisingly, it was different from other virtual experiences, which do not lend themselves so easily to networking and interpersonal communication. The conference made us rethink the ‘live’ experience itself.
We are living in the time of the Virtual Turn in which online academic conferences have become the ‘new normal.’ So what happens next? By the looks of things, the ‘live’ experience is morphing into a myriad of new and wonderfully creative forms.
Thank you to the event organisers for Entangled Modernities and the Pandemic, Crisis and Modern Studies Conferences for their contributions to this dialogue. It’s greatly appreciated.
If you would like to share your thoughts on the current state of modernist studies as it navigates Zoom and online events, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to hear from you.