As you probably know, I spent most of the last week at Leeds IMC (International Medieval Congress) without having to leave my living room or wear anything other than pyjamas! What was initially (I assume) a decision made fairly late on in order to ensure the conference could go ahead is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about and I thought I should share some of my thoughts here in case anyone is interested in them. Some brief caveats – these ideas are almost all based on my experience of the IMC. They may not translate well to other conferences – the IMC is huge and overwhelming, with a programme longer than some novels, and a very large number of participants, panels and papers, as well as several non-academic things going on (like the disco!)
Previously, I don’t think the IMC has allowed for virtual participation – if your abstract is accepted, you agree that you can give the paper in person.
I’ll start with one of the real advantages of going online as far as I can see it – it makes conferences much more accessible. I may be speaking from a position of bias here, but I would not have been able to go in person. Spending five days in a place I don’t know very well would have meant having to wheel myself around, using up most of my energy levels on that rather than on absorbing content, and on finding accessible accommodation.
It also makes it much more financially accessible. For students, early career researchers and independent scholars in particular (often the people who can get the most out of a conference) it can be really difficult to afford because it’s very expensive, and even if you are able to get institutional funding this often is in the form of reimbursement rather than being paid upfront. That’s before you even get into the issue of visas etc. Going online could help with all of these issues and make a truly international conference.
Another advantage was being able to be in pyjamas and in a comfortable setting – I know I keep going on about this but with good reason! I’ve not really done anything academic for a while, but now I’m full of ideas. Being able to be in a space that I feel comfortable in made that transition (dare I refer to it as a liminal space?) much easier.
The next thing was that sessions seemed much better attended – it wasn’t uncommon for there to be over 100 people in one session. When I last attended the IMC in person, there were really interesting panels that only had about 10 people in them – whether this is a reflection of my interests or a simple virtue of the fact that it’s much easier to fit 100 people in a virtual one than a ‘real’ one, I’m not sure. It was also pared down a lot from the last time I was there – it made it much easier to choose and made things a lot less overwhelming.
There are disadvantages to being online too – not everyone has access to reliable internet, and technology is sometimes unreliable, although with a few exceptions, the technology worked well. There were also a few issues with trolls (who trolls a medieval conference, seriously?) but these were dealt with by moderators very quickly and efficiently.
I think virtual conferences are much harder to create a sense of community at, and it will be interesting to see if this has a knock on effect next year – the conversations about future collaborations or panels go on in private, which probably benefits those who already have contacts or networks. However, in an attempt to preserve energy, I didn’t go to the networking events that were scheduled so those may have filled that hole.
The obvious solution is, perhaps, to have two streams running along side each other, one virtual and one in Leeds itself, but to me, this sounds like it could create two tiers, with the virtual one perhaps being seen as inferior. Also, why would you pay (especially for underpaid or unpaid academics) so much for accommodation, food, registration, and so on if you don’t have to?
These are just some very initial thoughts, and I am also aware that the organisers can’t have had very much time to make the substantial changes needed. If they were to continue the virtual aspect in some way, in the future they would have a lot longer to iron out any cracks and to think decisions through fully. Smaller conferences may find very different issues and I don’t think there’s an obvious solution, but I do think that academia needs to make all kinds of accessibility a priority.