By Marieke Dhonte, University of Cambridge
In March 2020 the professional lives of many people, including academics, moved online. Initially conferences were cancelled or postponed, until it became clear just how easy meeting via Zoom or Google Meet would be. Planned conferences were reconfigured for a digital format, new virtual seminars were organized. Meeting online has significant advantages, and I was determined to make use of them early on: in April 2020, I set up the Cambridge Septuagint Series (CSS), a series of reading groups and thematic seminar sessions exploring various books and aspects of research in the Septuagint, for seven weeks. Now, well over half a year later, we have all experienced our fair share of zoom fatigue, and while we get ready for a much-needed holiday break, it is also time to reflect on our online practices. In this post, I want to share some tips with you to get the most out of organizing online conferences.
First of all, hosting conferences via an online platform is a great opportunity to advance diversity and equity in the field since participation, whether as speakers/presenters or as audience members, no longer requires expensive travel and hotel accommodation. When organizing an online conference, give some thought as to which scholars would have been unable to attend under pre-CoVid circumstances because of, for example, their remote location or limited funding opportunities. Invite them to present!
When deciding whether or not to open up the event for an audience, and to what extent: open it up, advertise, and do so broadly! We should not underestimate the impact this may have in creating an actual world-wide scholarly community. While scholars who are affiliated with prestigious universities or who enjoy extensive networks may take schedules filled with international virtual engagements for granted, or even dread them, this is not necessarily the norm. After organizing the Cambridge Septuagint Series, I received dozens of notes of thanks from all over the world. Online meetings are an opportunity to reach out and include everyone and anyone interested beyond the normal circles, so let’s take advantage of this. One real limitation for online events is the variation in time zones — no matter when you plan something, it will be 3 am somewhere. Considering recording the event and distributing the recording may facilitate equal access to everyone; this may also benefit those who may experience difficulties with their internet connection.
Secondly, look for small ways to professionalize the event. Design and share a welcome screen for the meeting room, for example, which you then disable once you introduce the first speaker. If you are moderating or presenting, briefly consider your background. A survey showed that people can be surprisingly judgmental about this, and unfortunately, we do not all have a private home office with a well-equipped library in the background. Send a thank you note to your speakers afterwards. Sometimes it’s in the details.
Lastly, online events may offer a new way to network for early career scholars. Meeting people and establishing professional connections when there are no in-person events is a different endeavour. Organizing an online event is one meaningful way to get your name out. Consider sending out personalized invitations to people you would like to attend your event. While advertising an event broadly may facilitate access, sending out personal invitations helps you reach the people you may want to meet or with whom you want to engage. During the event, don’t hesitate to address them privately via the platform’s chat function to thank them for coming, or perhaps even mention you would have loved to be able to meet in person to discuss certain aspects of their work. Many people are eager to connect in these times.
While news reports of successful vaccine trials raise hopes that we will be able to meet in person again sooner rather than later, it will take quite some time before we get there, and regardless, online events are likely here to stay. I hope this blogpost may encourage you to use them as opportunities.