Virtual Conferences

IMG_0404This year I won’t be able to attend the WHA because of a conflict with another academic conference, but I will be watching the twitterstream on the #WHA2011 hashtag to keep abreast of conference happenings–even though the 140-character soundbites will offer a small (and biased) view of what’s occurring in Oakland.  The conference I am attending this week, MobilityShifts, held a session last night that addressed the impracticalities of in-person conferences:  they’re terribly expensive, waste precious resources (i.e. jetfuel), and exclude those who can’t attend.  The speaker, Eric Kluitenberg, spoke of his attempt to create an all-online conference called “ElectroSmog:”

The ElectroSmog festival was both a practical and theoretical exploration of the idea of  ‘sustainable immobility’ – a response to global mobility out of control and the desire to use networked connections to counterbalance the exponential growth of global mobility. The aim was to investigate the possibility of staging a new type of international public gathering without the usual travel and mobility patterns attached. While the festival spurred a series of highly engaged debates, experimental projects, and remarkably few technical failures, it collided dramatically with audience dynamics. The outcomes raised serious questions about the importance of embodied encounter to galvanize public experience and exchange, and the limits of the tele-presence paradigm.

In a nutshell, what he found from staging this event was that no one attended ElectroSmog–there seemed to be a lack of commitment to an event that happened in an entirely virtual space, where “real” interactions wouldn’t occur.  Thus, he posited that for virtual events to be successful, they need to replicate the embodied experience of actually attending such an event, and the multitude of interactions that occur by virtue of being in the same space with like-minded attendees.  This hit home for me as I waited for the elevator after his talk–I struck up a lively conversation with a fellow attendee who rode down the seven floors alongside me, which extended into 15 minutes of further conversation after we stepped outside the metal doors on the ground floor.  How does one have those elevator conversations in a virtual venue?  It also brought to mind another similar experience at an art installation that I attended recently where the most meaningful interaction of the afternoon was in the bathroom line after the event.  Perhaps this could be replicated in a Second-Life-style environment, but I doubt that my avatar would tolerate a 20-minute line for the women’s bathroom (and that my avatar is gender-neutral is perhaps another barrier to such an occurrence).

Many academic conferences try to include podcasts or web-streaming to help those who can’t join in the event, but this is rarely an ideal way to attend a conference–there are often technical snafus that disrupt live-streaming, and if one is watching taped sessions of an event there’s no opportunity to engage with the material in an interactive way because you can’t join in a Q&A afterwards.  From my experience with podcasting the Past Tense seminars, I’ve found some satisfaction in seeing that there are thousands of listeners who download the podcasts even when there might only be a dozen or two who are actually seated around the table at the events–but I have little idea who’s doing the downloading of the files or what they think of the talks.  The one-sidedness of the podcasting experience often makes me wonder if it’s worth the investment of time in editing each of the recordings.

However, with the way the economy is headed, and because of the environmental toll of long-distance travel, it seems almost-necessary for organizations like the WHA to engage in some means of transmitting conference happenings to those who aren’t able to attend in-person.  In your opinion, what are the most effective means of doing so?  Are audio recordings of the sessions most helpful, or video recordings, or transcripts of the talks, or live-blogging/tweeting by attendees?

fragmentary notes from the “dork shorts”

In the Research Methods section of yesterday’s workshop, I jotted down brief notes from each attendee who shared their favorite tool or digital resource. These notes are fragmentary (I was, after all, also trying to lead the workshop and listen attentively to each person).  However, given how productive the sharing part of our session was, I wanted to post these rough notes in the hope that it will inspire those who shared their sources in the session to write about them at greater length on the blog.  And thank you to all who participated–the discussion in our workshop was vigorous and enthusiastic.

On a related note, I welcome your feedback on the format of our session.  Please feel free to drop a comment here or email me personally (janaremyATgmail).


googlebooks for early 19th century literature

U.S. Geological Surveys, (exhibit), MIT freeware for mapping, timelines, database-driven sorting   (free trial)

Early California Newspaper database and (has searchable pdfs)

Lexis-Nexis Congressional, and also

Chronicling America: interact for Worldcat records, ICON (Icon Digital Newspapers)

Digital Library projects, all are useful (like Territorial Kansas Online to Making of America),

Central Pacific Railroad Museum Site: photos, complete RR surveys w/illustrations, integration with book offers timely updates, expanding over the next few years

Wyoming State Historical Society with online exhibit of state history journal, Montana Historical Society also indexed online

GoogleDocs for groups projects with research assistants, ProQuest, British Library Collections

“Dork Shorts” at the WHA

This past weekend I attended THATCamp Bay Area, an “unconference” for digitally-minded humanists. Though I’ve attended two other THATCamps, this was the first one that did a “dork shorts” session, where each person that wants to present gets two minutes at the podium (similar to “lightning talks“). I liked the informality of this session and how it gave each presenter just enough to show what was important about their project, and to give a URL for those who wanted to learn more.

I was thinking about the dork shorts this morning as I was contemplating the challenge of teaching a workshop at the WHA conference–where there will be participants who are seasoned digital humanists and those who are just starting their first experiments with technology. Certainly the scope and variety of our projects will mean that we approach digital tools quite differently. So I’m setting aside some time in our workshop for some dork short-style talks to give attendees a brief opportunity to share their digital research successes, so we can all learn from each other.

Digital Research at the WHA

Download the support document for this session

Since I’m leading the Digital Research segment at the WHA, I thought I’d briefly outline what I intend to discuss and solicit your feedback.

General digital research resources:

  • Google Books
  • Google Scholar
  • WorldCat
  • Western History resources


  • Adding items to a library
  • Adding footnotes to a document via Zotero
  • Creating a bibliography

Specific Digital Tools for research

  • Wordle
  • Googlemaps
  • Blogging (as a research journal)