UA “Visit Day” Symposium + Some Thoughts on Online Conferences

(Despite the date of publication, this is not an April Fool’s post!)

A little over a month ago, I had the opportunity to digitally return to the University of Alabama, my three-time alma mater, for the Department of History’s annual “Visit Day” for prospective graduate students. (No, I’m not a prospective graduate student.) One of the main events of the “Visit Day” each year is a research symposium during which current MA and PhD students give short–approximately five minutes each–synopses of their ongoing research projects. The primary effect is cumulative, showcasing the broad range of research interests within the department, but the symposium is also beneficial to the individuals presenting, as it forces speakers to whittle down their seminar paper or dissertation to its core elements and to present those elements in a concise way that is still intelligible to non-experts. Think “three-minute thesis,” but with five minutes instead.

As noted above, the research symposium is typically limited to current graduate students, not alumni, but I was invited back this year to show, perhaps, that there is life (gainful employment, even!) on the other side of graduation. Typically, the research symposium and other “Visit Day” activities are held in-person, and the event allows prospective students to chat with current students and faculty members and to see the campus and Tuscaloosa for themselves. This year, though, the festivities were conducted online, so even though I am still based in Tuscaloosa, I Zoomed in to the symposium from my home office across town.

Having previously presented at all but one of the past research symposiums (I missed the one on the day of my dad’s retirement celebration), I generally knew what to expect, though I felt old when I realized that not only did I not know any of the prospective students, I had also never met several of my fellow presenters, some of whom were only at UA during my last year of dissertating and some of whom began their studies after I had already graduated. Despite the age-induced culture shock, though, it was great to see a few familiar faces and to hear about the research work currently being done in the department. I was last on the docket, so I got to hear the full range of subjects before I spoke briefly on my chosen topic, “Disciples of Christ and the Origins of Religious Education at the University of Alabama.”

I’ll have more to say about that project in next month’s post–I will have presented at the online Stone-Campbell Journal Conference by that time, and I am planning to recap my experiences here–but very briefly, this new post-dissertation article explores an attempt by the Disciples of Christ to establish a seminary under the auspices of the University of Alabama back in the 1920s. The effort did not ultimately take root, but its story offers helpful insight into church-state relations in that era and focuses on a notable Alabama Disciple, Oscar Pendleton (O.P.) Spiegel, who is perhaps best known in Stone-Campbell circles for his famous/infamous open letter to former mentor T.B. Larimore.

For now, though, I want to offer a few general thoughts on my experiences with online conferences from the last year, as I’ve presented at a couple and attended a few more. Without giving a conference-by-conference recap here, I’ll say that the experience of presenting online has been pleasant. I teach online full-time, which includes weekly online class meetings with my graduate students, so I’m perhaps a bit more accustomed than some to speaking to a digital rather than physical audience. Still, the presentations I’ve given have gone off without a hitch, and that includes leading a free-flowing roundtable discussion as well as giving a more traditional presentation. Audience feedback was just as robust online as it typically is in-person, and at least in these regards, the online conferences were every bit as successful as their in-person counterparts.

I have found being an online audience member generally preferable to being an in-person audience member as well. Since I have a multi-monitor setup, it’s very easy for me to work on one screen while listening to/viewing a presentation with the other, especially if the expectation is for audience members to keep their video off during the sessions anyway. I just keep a notepad handy in case I have any questions or comments to bring up during the Q&A, or anything that I would want to email a presenter about later. Bringing work into a physical conference presentation would be a bit gauche, of course, but I think our work patterns have changed enough in the last year that doing so for an online conference is perfectly fine. Too, I find myself actually attending more sessions for online conferences, as there are fewer things (book tables, visiting with friends, seeing the town) competing for my time and attention.

Where the online conference experience falls short, though, is in that kind of informal learning and networking that takes place outside of the scheduled presentations and keynote speakers. By design, online conferences preclude the need to travel, which admittedly saves presenters money but which is also a bit less exciting. This means that there are no opportunities to check out local cuisines, museums, or other sights–other than your own town’s, of course–and no chances to get away from home or the office (or the home office). Similarly, a big draw of conferences, aside from presenting papers and adding to CVs, is the networking that takes place. “Networking” is a dirty word for many academics, but I don’t necessarily mean the very formal sort that involves exchanging business cards or angling for a job interview. Rather, “networking” includes catching up with old friends and former colleagues, as well as making new friends (not just work acquaintances) based on shared interests. Those kinds of chance encounters, side conversations, and impromptu dinners really can only take place at physical get-togethers, meaning that while online conferences are capable, or even in some instances preferable, substitutes for in-person gatherings, they don’t allow for the unofficial, but still important, conferring that takes place outside of panels and plenaries.

More about online conferences to follow next month!

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