Conferences are a major part of an academic life, of researcher lives, for networking and many other reasons.
Often, conferences are where we connect with others in our discipline or methodological community, where we meet people, make contacts, expand our thinking, or where we share our research and our developing ideas.
But with the advent of COVID-19, the conference cancellations have come in thick and fast. What does this mean for conversation, connection, collaboration and community building?
In February 2019 (well before COVID-19!), we co-chaired a fully virtual conference MAKING shiFt HAPPEN. In reality, it was probably more of an unconference. We were trialling an alternative. Creative ways to connect. A virtual exchange of stories and experiences about life in academia. We framed it as a multi-disciplinary conference for women academics, adopting an inclusive definition of ‘woman/women’ and ‘female’, and welcomed trans-women, genderqueer women, and non-binary people.
MAKING shiFt HAPPEN sought to create an alternative, more inclusive space for women regardless of where they lived or where they were in their career. We were looking for ways to engage in and promote slow scholarship, and the playing of the infinite game rather than propagating the finite games promoted by the neoliberal university.
These philosophies gave our conference heart – the ‘why’ – and framed our conferencing pedagogy. Holding space for safe and supportive conversations was key for us. We focused on four underpinning themes to support our collective conversations: contemplation about academia, led by First Nations Women; consideration about how caring academic communities are created and supported; the importance of sharing our lived experiences with each other; and reimagining academia into something kinder, more generous, and wise.
In some ways COVID-19 is inviting this reimagining too.
Our desire to think outside the traditional conference box was also linked to our experience as mums, our carer responsibilities for our parents, our limited access to travel support funds, and our “interrupted careers” in terms of Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence (ROPE). We had each felt the exclusionary challenges of traditional conferences, particularly when they were expensive and situated in another state or country. We were also wanting to support the planet through reduced airline travel.
MAKING shiFt HAPPEN was definitely unusual. It was not a typical conference. It was not focused on a dense, multi-strand program of research presentations; however, 16 wonderful Australian and international presenters supported the program, our contemplation and our conversations. The conference sought to break down some of the barriers we had experienced. It had a small registration cost, but bursaries were abundant and many of our key speakers waived their honorariums to support the attendance of research students or early career academics.
Across the 90 registrations, 19 Australian universities (inclusive of every state and territory) were represented. Staff from 13 international universities across New Zealand, UK, Sweden, US, Canada and South Africa attended. A range of fields were represented including education, health, sociology, psychology, anthropology, social work and indigenous studies. Women’s academic roles varied and included casual/sessional staff, research higher degree researchers, ECRs, Associate Lecturers through to Professors, Associate Deans and Directors, librarians, and academic developers.
Our conference considered multiple timezones. Not everyone attended for the whole 36 hours (obviously), and it was never our intention that everyone would, could or should. The attendance was staggered and scattered. A continuous program meant different time zones could be accommodated. It also meant that, as the conference co-chairs and moderators of many sessions, we didn’t get a lot of sleep! However, the opportunity to gather synchronously in our various time zones provided a space for building connections.
Our conference was fully virtual. We used Zoom. We had looked at some other products but chose Zoom because the university used this platform and we had inhouse technical support (which was invaluable). The experience wasn’t perfect, but it did work. We recognise that becoming Zoomed-out is a risk in the age of COVID-19. For our conference we sought to vary the ways of using Zoom. We invited a keynote speaker and a panel of speakers (two – three speakers) to talk to one of the core four themes. These two sessions were scheduled back to back and a moderator supported interactivity via the chat. These sessions were also recorded so that attendees could come back and engage with ideas asynchronously and in their own time.
We planned curated and informal Zoom meeting rooms to facilitate dialogue of various kinds. Each of the zoom meeting rooms had a moderator present to welcome and facilitate. People could effectively ‘create their own adventure’ engaging in ‘curated conversations’, talk around a ‘campfire’ or share their research ideas or projects via a ‘pop-up podium’. In terms of the Zoom rooms, Curated Conversations offered meaning-making spaces with a little bit of structure (guiding prompts, questions, anecdotes and provocations) and focused on stories and storytelling. The Pop-Up Podium was a supportive place where people could share ideas and projects. The Campfire was a place where participants could start or end their day and engage in informal connections, like the kind you would have sitting around a backyard fire pit, or over a cuppa at a face-to-face conference.
We curated supporting online resources including a book pantry, an inspiration gallery and suggestions for community connections. These web resources and keynote/panel recordings continue to sustain conference attendees more than a year after the conference ended.
Our team was pretty small, and we would recommend getting a bigger team if you are thinking about bringing something like this to life. If you would like to contact us, we are happy to share more of what we learned.
We are excited that conversations continue. We have secured a book contract where 30 or so attendees have teamed up with a colleague who didn’t attend MAKING shiFt HAPPEN. Together, we are continuing our contemplative conversations in long, slow, written ways via our edited book, Towards a Kinder Academy – Collaborating, Listening and Understanding for Change, which is due for publication with Palgrave next year.
For many, the value of our conference has been long lasting. Many of our conference participants say the conference has subsequently offered support for their work in academe. A number of participants said that prior to the conference they were questioning their future in academia. The conference enabled community connections and offered alternatives. One colleague has initiated a ‘Making shiFt happen’ group in her faculty to support care, collaboration and creative resistance. A collective joined together to share their experience in a review for Art/Research International.
These kinds of comments affirm that it is time to reimagine what conferences might be – what academia might be – so let’s take up this invitation to think creatively about why and how we gather together.
Author Bios:Ali Black is an arts-based/narrative researcher in the School of Education and Rachael Dwyer is a Lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy in the School of Education both at the University of the Sunshine Coast.