Cancelled digital humanities conference goes online to great success

Thursday, 14 May 2020

When COVID-19 restrictions meant the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) conference in April was cancelled, members of the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab (ETCL) at the University of Victoria, Canada, created a virtual conference instead so that papers could still be presented and discussed.

Screenshot of Twitter online conference

The ETCL is directed by the University of Newcastle’s Global Innovation Chair in Digital Humanities Professor Ray Siemens and works in collaboration with the University of Newcastle’s Centre for 21st Century Humanities.

ETCL members Randa El Khatib and Caroline Winter developed the online conference with some members of the RSA to bring together digital humanists who were planning on presenting at the conference.

The conference included recorded presentations of work that sits at the intersection of digital humanities and early modern studies, many of which discussed prominent and emerging digital projects in the field, such as the Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral ProjectMIA (Medici Interactive Archive)The Dalhousie Manuscripts Project, and others.

Registered participants were invited to view the presentations on a platform organised by Luis Meneses (ETCL) before the day of the virtual conference and join the discussion on Twitter on the actual day.

On the day of the conference, the experience of an in-person conference was replicated on Twitter with scheduled panels, each with several speakers. During each panel, each speaker had a scheduled time in which to post a series of tweets highlighting the key points of their presentation, and other participants and the Twitter community at large were invited to comment and ask questions during and after the event. The tweets were collected using the event hashtag #NTRS20, which are now available for anyone interested in the event to read and respond to.

Conference organisers Randa El Khatib and Caroline Winter said the highlight of the event was the enthusiasm with which presenters accepted and rose to the challenge of moving to an online format.

“This included learning how to record and edit presentations and sharing their work on Twitter. A few participants signed up for Twitter just for this event,” Randa said.

“The support and sense of community that developed, where all presenters watched the work of their colleagues and were eager to ask questions and contribute to the discussion, was also a highlight,” added Caroline.

“Since the event was one of the earlier virtual conferences that took place during the pandemic, it was exciting to think about what a virtual conference could look like, to put together guidelines and work quickly to move everything online to coincide with when the actual event was supposed to take place. We’re now using some of this experience to move some parts of the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) and affiliated events online this summer!” she said.

Professor Ray Siemens says it’s important to find ways to continue with conferences like this during the pandemic.

“Conferences are valuable as spaces for sharing ideas and as opportunities for engaging with colleagues. The isolation most of us are experiencing now as a result of the pandemic have only increased the need for this kind of dialogue and connection, and, although they can’t replace meeting and working with colleagues in person, online conferences are one way of connecting as a community,” he said.

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