By Tim Galsworthy |
I’m sure, like me, many of you have taken part in plenty of online events over the last few months. I’ve competed in virtual pub quizzes, attended virtual talks, and participated in the virtual replacement for an in-person conference. However, I’ve opted to go one step further, I’ve organised my own online seminar series.
My school hosts a cross-department conference for internal doctoral researchers every year. Due to coronavirus, this year’s event had to be cancelled. As student union representative for History PGR students, I – in consultation with other reps – took it upon myself to arrange a “History Postgraduate Zoom Researcher Series.” In this piece I will discuss various elements of the organisation process which, I hope, might be useful for other PhD students thinking about planning their own events.
Conference rooms of the present, and the future?
The initial point to consider is the value of your event(s). What are you hoping to achieve? What will the event offer participants and attendees? The seminar series I organised provides a number of tangible benefits. Firstly, the sessions directly replaced a physical conference, performing similar functions. The series affords postgraduate researchers the opportunity to present their work and receive feedback, despite current restrictions. Moreover, the events enable speakers to maintain existing connections and foster new ones, both professional and personal. The online format facilitates engagement both inside and outside our department, allowing presenters to discuss their work with a wide range of interested students and staff. This series also supports a sense of community within our department. Many researchers and faculty have not “seen” each other since March. The series is helping to foster and maintain feelings of collegiality despite our separation.
Practicalities are also a crucial component of online event organising. Many of these points apply to traditional events also, but the global pandemic adds a new dimension to your considerations. Is your conference or series going to have a topic or is it open-ended? Who are your potential contributors and how are you going to attract them? Once you have answered these questions, you must draw together a call for papers reflecting the breadth and confines of your event(s). It is important to note how coronavirus has shaped your proposed event within your call for papers, thereby ensuring the virus’ impact is not an elephant in the room. Next comes promotion. Depending on the size and scope of your event, where and how you promote your call for papers – and your final programme – will vary. My own series was designed for a limited pool of people: doctoral researchers within my department. Given the array of topics my colleagues and I research, I kept the call for papers open to any topic. Internal emails and Twitter served as my primary means of promotion. Six presenters (including myself) signed up to take part. For bigger events your call for papers and promotion will be somewhat different.
The unique practical consideration for organisers of online academic events is technology. While technologies, such as PowerPoints or videos, are part and parcel of in-person conferences, they are not the cornerstone of an event’s very occurrence. When arranging and coordinating virtual conferences or seminars, determining the best software is crucial. You must consider technological ease and accessibility for both participants and attendees, along with related issues of security and wi-fi requirements. What software you have available to you, personally or via your institution, is obviously a determining factor. My institution has a subscription to Zoom and I chose Zoom Meeting for the series. The online etiquette of participants and attendees, something you should make clear early on during your event, is heavily shaped by available technologies. Matters including muting yourself or others, screen sharing, and chat boxes vary by software and are important elements to an event’s smooth running. Ensure you or a co-organiser are sufficiently versed in the software you are going to use before you choose it. Nobody wants the academic content and conversations of an event to be subsumed by technical difficulties!
A number of sessions in the series have taken place already. My (admittedly invested) review so far is that they have gone pretty well. The presentations have been informative and have provoked interesting discussions. We have had decent numbers of attendees, including both students and staff, who have been very engaged. The series has offered the informal, supportive venue for feedback on research which I intended. Hopefully this will continue to be case, especially when I present my work this Wednesday!
I hope this has offered some guidance when it comes to organising online academic events. This experience will be useful for my CV, but I have found the whole process genuinely rewarding, not simply something for a utilitarian checklist. I must be glutton for punishment as I am also organising the annual postgraduate and early career conference for HOTCUS (Historians of the Twentieth United States) this September. For the first time the conference is going to be virtual. Fingers crossed the seminar series will equip me well for arranging a bigger event with a larger audience.
It is almost certain that the world of academia, and academic conferences in particular, is going to come out of these turbulent times forever altered. Many institutions and organisations may never go back to traditional in-person conferences. The global pandemic has forced us to think critically about how we work and interact with others. Online events over the last few months have shown innovative ways of “doing academia” which would have been unthinkable not too long ago. Combined with the greatest crisis of our time, the looming climate emergency, and an increased sense of environmental consciousness, many may be unwilling to return to “business as usual” when it comes to conferences. But who knows what is going to happen when we return from unprecedented times to some semblance of precedented times!
Tim Galsworthy is a History PhD student at the University of Sussex. His PhD project focuses on American Civil War memory and the Republican Party. He is Chair of Pubs and Publications and Postgraduate Secretary for the Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS).
Image 1: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1382980