Reflections after the conference

Corpora & Discourse 2020 was the online conference that was never intended to be online. We welcomed over 250 attendees taking part in the live discussions who came from Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium Canada, Chile, China, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nigeria, Oman, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand Turkey, UK, USA, UAE. The 130 papers were made completely open access on this website and received over 700 visitors on each day of the conference (views still ongoing).

Turning it into a digital event took equally large doses of energy and optimism from all involved – any conference is the sum of its organisers, chairs, speakers and participants. I learnt a lot about the generosity of our academic community and what we can do when the occasion demands it. And I learnt a lot about how people have struggled over the last few months and how the conference was able to salve some of that. And, hopefully, along the way I learnt something about how we can do conferences differently in the future – because we often only start to innovate when we have experienced how things can be done differently.

I said I would do a quick lessons-learnt blog post afterwards and so here it is. The following reflections are not intended as any kind of template, but hopefully others will do the same and we can collectively learn from these experiences.

The greatest advantage to the shift online for me was the way that it opened up spaces and flattened out many hierarchical structures. Some of the ways I saw this playing out in our conference were:

  • Lower registration fees
  • No requirement for participants to leave their house (overcomes some potential caring, financial, physical and mental health challenges)
  • Speakers can prepare videos in advance (may help reduce anxiety around performance)
  • Participants and Chairs can think about / prepare questions and comments in advance
  • Participants can ask questions/make comments in different ways > the online chat was particularly well used
  • Where the chat was used, the speakers too could see potential questions in advance and start to think about their response
  • Removal of posters means all career stages occupied the same conversational space in the panel discussion
  • In the panel discussions, there were fewer signifiers of power structures (e.g. who walks in with whom and where they sit)
  • It is easy to associate names and faces (the format places the name on the speaker) so prior knowledge/acquaintance is less important
  • It is easy to associate names to social media accounts so post-conference interaction is possible
  • Talks can be made free to access for all

Cumulatively, I think these allowed more people to participate, and more equal participation, including enabling less confident voices to be heard in the conference. And, there is a potential opening-up benefit beyond the conference because those talks are still available.

The second main strength for me was that many of the same features also allowed the discussion to bring together collective themes rather than focussing on the specificities of the methodology of a single paper. In the future, I would really like to see more opportunities for speakers to talk together and across papers.

In terms of disadvantages to the move online, I think the thing we all missed the most was the social side. We had a conference social which was a fabulous quiz and genuinely more enjoyable than any conference dinner. But what is so difficult to recreate is the opportunity for conversation with the person you have never met who’s sitting next you in the seminar room or standing next to you in the buffet queue. The chance to approach someone whose talk you enjoyed or whose work you have admired.  The chance for all speakers from a panel to go for coffee afterwards. The challenge for online conferences will be how to create both these kinds of focussed and serendipitous smaller online spaces for interaction and a set of norms that allow us participate in them comfortably.

In the way this conference was conceptualised, there were timing challenges. It had been designed as a conference with parallel sessions with enough time in each day to watch the videos for one panel and then join the discussion. But, of course, people wanted to go to all the discussions and future design needs to facilitate that.

And then there are some challenges to the opening out too – the power structures will still be there and confidence in your right to be in a space will impact on your ability to be heard in that space. More tangibly, it is still the case that those who do not have good internet connection and a reasonably quiet place will struggle to join. And, we have to make an effort to speak to people who might not feel the space is open to them (for instance, I got many emails from people who were anxious about attending in ‘imperfect’ working conditions and relieved when we made it clear that was normal for this conference). We also have to consider that making papers completely open access requires careful consideration when speakers are working on sensitive topics or those that attract aggressive reactions.

Some key things that I will take away for future conferences are that:

  • no conference in the future should be completely without an online component. And that online component should be a topic that is totally central to the conference theme, not a poor cousin add-on. It also gives us a way to bring in plenary speakers from further away with less environmental and economic cost – but without the awkwardness of collectively sitting in a room watching a video. I think if everyone is remote, we are all much closer.
  • we should think about why our standard format at conferences is a 20-minute one-way talk followed by a 10-minute many-to-one interaction.
  • we should think about why the poster session is spatially detached from full-length papers on the same theme.

The feedback from this conference has been astonishingly positive and warm. This is probably because exciting research is exciting in any format, because we all appreciated a dose of normality and it offered the most social interaction most of us had experienced in the last three months, and also because there is something worthwhile about the online conference experience.

Thank you to everyone who participated!

Charlotte