Online Events Dialogue #2

Last month, we began our series that addresses the move online for events this year, written by organisers who had the task of pivoting from in-person to online amid the pandemic. Last time, we heard from the organisers of Entangled Modernities and Pandemic, Crisis and Modern Studies. This time, Tim Satterthwaite from Future States tells us why the environmentally-friendly move online is here to stay, and Bryony Armstrong, co-convenor of Durham University’s Late Summer Lecture Series, talks about why the possibility of a global audience is a blessing and a curse.

Nearly-Carbon-Neutral-Conferences, Part 2

Tim Satterthwaite, University of Brighton

In his contribution to this dialogue on nearly carbon-neutral conferences (NCNCs), Gareth Mills invites us to ‘again learn how to walk’ like the ancient Athenians. It’s an apt, and necessary, metaphor: walking connects us to our localities and local histories; at street level, it brings us a little closer to social realities – my city looks scruffy and sad at the moment, like the heart’s gone out of it. Walking takes us to green spaces, and gives us space and time to think; we walk at a companionable pace, and make conversation.

I was the co-director of the Future States conference mentioned in Mills’s piece, and helped build two further UK-based NCNCs over the course of summer 2020: Telepoetics and Museum Exhibition Design. So I’m becoming quite used now to flying to international gatherings without leaving the ground (or even leaving my loft, if I’m honest). I could talk here about the mechanics of setting up an NCNC  (I will happily share ideas with interested readers), but I want instead to wax philosophical. The change I hope for – the replacement, by default, of fly-in face-to-face events by asynchronous online conferences – offers more than a practical, environmentally conscious, alternative for conference planners. The NCNC model has potential to reshape academic life, promoting a more inclusive and equitable global research culture: anyone with an internet connection can participate, from anywhere in the world. Privileging textual over oral discussion, it embodies, in potential, the rebirth of a venerable tradition of scholarly dialogues. 

The crucial difference is in the temporality. In place of the concentrated spatial and temporal unity of physical conferences, NCNCs are expansive: events run, typically, for two to three weeks, allowing for in-depth discussions of pre-recorded presentations, building gradually over time. For a researcher, the kind of considered, erudite and supportive dialogue that can emerge is simply invaluable: in Future States, typically, I would post a written question in a Q&A forum to one of the panellists and then return, the following day, to find a 500- or 1,000-word response, and perhaps further detailed commentary from other participants, replete with citations, images, suggestions for new lines of enquiry. No physical conference could hope to match this level of scholarly engagement: we had created a ‘republic of letters’ for the twenty-first century.

If we are concerned with the pursuit of knowledge, not conviviality, we need to ask, in blunt terms, what physical conferences offer that the asynchronous online conference cannot do just as well, or better – and for much less money (all three NCNCs I worked on this year offered free admission). We all, of course, might wish for those informal contacts and late-evening conversations that only occur at face-to-face gatherings. But let us build these connections at a local level: among regional and national universities, and within the broader physical reach of rail networks – soon we’ll all be posting letters and riding the railways: the Victorians, like the ancient Greeks, knew a thing or two! And we don’t have to give up on the excitement of real-time events: we can close our three-week NCNCs with an online meeting. The format is open to variations and new experiments, and we will get better at it, as we develop new forms of scholarly practice. 

Time for us all to put away our flight cases and put on our walking shoes!

The World is Your Oyster

Bryony Armstrong, Durham University

Back in 2010, some enthusiastic staff members in Durham University’s Department of English Studies had the idea of setting up a series of talks for PGRs to present their research to university members and public alike. Simultaneously giving the rare opportunity to deliver a whole lecture, as well as filling that quiet time between August and October when departmental events are few and far between, the Late Summer Lecture Series has been held every year ever since. It’s now a chance for both PGRs and ECRs to present their research in an accessible, public-facing format. 

The plan my co-convenor Samantha Belcher and I had for publicising the series this year was fairly simple: distribute flyers around town, send posters to local schools and libraries, email university departments in and near Durham. Then, of course, on or around March 2020, public events changed. When it became apparent that the Late Summer Lecture Series would have to be online, pivoting our publicity campaign could be summed up by this meme:

The world is your oyster! Such a fun and promising idea, and yet it very quickly became an overwhelming point. If the world was our oyster, and our target audience was “the public”, surely there wasn’t a stone we could leave unturned? The mailing lists we could put ourselves on were infinite; any English department in the world might want to hear from us; any library or secondary school could have someone keen to listen to our speakers! We soon put some sober parameters on our spirits, however: we weren’t a John Legend home concert live stream, and our series has a wonderful past and some realistic goals that we could tap into. Having found our stride, and enjoyed a successful series, I realise on reflection that I have three key takeaways from my experience of moving a traditionally local event to the online scene, which I hope will help anyone who might also find themselves in the (I think, actually quite brilliant) position of organising something in these interesting times. 

The first would be to keep an eye on your time management. As I was moving between squares two and three of the above meme, I found that I was spending a decent portion of my mornings scouring the internet for mailing lists, reading groups and literary societies to advertise the series to. This is not to say that in-person event organisers won’t be overwhelmed when it comes to organising their time: venues, catering, travel and bursaries come with a separate set of challenges that I can only sympathise with. What I can say, though, is that knowing that your event can be streamed globally presents a wealth of options that will be limited by your organising team capacity. Try to accept that some stones can lie unturned. Most of them can, in fact. Cordon off the time that you would like to spend on publicity, and don’t feel that you have to go over it for the sake of thoroughness.

The second is to ask yourself, once you reach square four of the meme: what is the function of your event? As I’ve mentioned, for us, we had inherited the wonderful legacy of public engagement with the community outside our university. But of course, having a rethink, the global population was not our target audience. Our target was English speakers, interested in literature, not affiliated with a university. Deeper than that, our target was public library goers; secondary school students and their teachers; unaffiliated members of literary societies. Starting small by reaching out locally first, and focusing on each panel’s particular enthusiast-pool one at a time, helped us to target interested people rather than simply shouting out into the void.

Finally, despite the initial stress and the very unfortunate pandemic context, I do truly believe that this new online format is a gift. On our own humble platform, it was incredible to reach people who would never have heard of the series before, let alone been able to attend. A particular highlight was watching the Zoom chat scroll with messages from people before the lecture has started shouting out their location: from places as far and wide as Thailand, Dubai and the USA. It’s my hope that most events in the future will include an online streaming option, both for climate purposes – as Tim from Future States has shown above, the NCNC is rightly gathering pace – but also for accessibility, and for researchers to have a platform for their work so that the right enthusiasts might be able to share in the joy of their exciting thoughts and discoveries.

Thank you to the event organisers for Future States and the Late Summer Lecture Series for their contributions to this dialogue.

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 – we’d love to hear from you.

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