Building disciplinary community through online conference announcements (Rosa Lorés) 

In this post Rosa Lorés explores how the rise of digital platforms has shaped the text/genre of conference announcements.

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In academia, as in many other contexts, digital platforms are changing the ways in which members of the profession learn and interact. Digital platforms are increasingly acting as dissemination bases for information as well as influencing the way interaction is taking place among members of disciplinary communities. Ranging from academic blogs to research papers available online, conference announcements to journal calls for papers, digital platforms both provide a series of affordances for academic users, as well as placing added demands upon them.

In the case of conferences, many organizers resort to using academic distribution lists for the international dissemination of information about the events they organize. There are a number of reasons organizers do this, such as the wide reach that these international lists have, and the high degree of interactivity that can be achieved by digital means. Additionally, the use of hyperlinks serves multiple purposes, and opens paths for the reader to achieve other aims beyond the informative one: it allows direct access to the conference web page (which again opens a cascade of pages providing information about the venue, accommodation, the program, etc.); readers can also address conference organizers for queries in just one click. Thus, online conference announcements are taking advantage of the “flat earth” that the borderless digital world facilitates.

What is remarkable here are the affordances that the online conference announcement offers, the impact that such affordances may have on (re)shaping of the conference announcement as a textual genre, and on the textual practices of the disciplinary community where it emerges. It is my view that these (re)shapings do not stop at the level of text/genre itself, eventually they have impacts on the advancement of the discipline itself, in terms of the massive distribution of information it allows, the increasing degree of competitiveness it fosters, and, subsequently, the need for conference organizers to act as quality controllers.

In 2018 I published a study where I analysed  a corpus of conference announcements posted on The Linguist List , which is a major online resource for the academic field of linguistics. The Linguist List is an online community which stems from a pre-existing face-to-face community (professional linguists who meet face-to-face at conferences and read one another’s work in professional journals), and it is this offline community which provides and sustains a basis for online interaction.

All the online conference announcements published in the Linguist List share a rhetorical structure which is the result of the stages of information requested in the platform to post the announcement. As a result, a kind of template is created, which consists of three sections: the first section provides contextual information about the conference (dates of conference, place, sender, website and potential audience).  At this stage the conference organizers act as informants, thus fulfilling one of the main communicative purposes of any announcement: to provide information. The second section provides a description of the event, in terms of field of study, plenary speakers invited to the conference, etc. The conference organizers adopt the role of peers and their communicative purpose is mainly to persuade colleagues to attend the event. For such purposes they describe the event in relation to the field of study and highlight the relevance that the conference might have as a contribution to the discipline. In that sense the text also has a double aim: persuasive and evaluative. The final section contains basically the call for papers, and instructional information about presentation modalities, deadlines, submission of abstracts, etc. The function is basically one of controlling scientific quality. Here conference organizers shift roles and become gate-keepers whose main aim is to ensure the quality of the contributions. They establish the conditions of the call and set the rules, giving instructions to potential contributors. The textual function is mainly instructional and organizers assume an empowered position. These writer roles and textual communicative purposes are manifested linguistically through the use of various interpersonal markers which are strategically deployed along the texts.

Contrary to what happens in other academic genres where the addressers are fully identified (e.g. research articles, abstracts, book reviews, etc.), in conference announcements, the writer assumes a collective identity and acts as a representative of the whole disciplinary community with an aim to fulfil: to highlight and preserve the academic values and quality of the discipline. Thus, self mentions (first person pronouns) are scarcely used in favour of impersonal nouns referring to the event (the conference, the symposium, the meeting), which efface their personal identity.

Moreover, other linguistic features are used to explicitly build a relationship with the reader. This is the case of engagement markers, which are interpersonal markers used to bring the readers into the text, involving them in the negotiation of knowledge or meaning. The use of engagement markers reveal a collegial attitude on the part of writers, who address readers as peers with whom to share attitudes, interests and beliefs. Instances of engagement markers are the use of the inclusive pronoun we as subject (which includes the organizers and the whole disciplinary community as readers), the use of the pronoun you as a direct form of address and the use of nouns (authors, contributors) to refer to the reader. Rhetorical and open questions also are a recurrent syntactic device to raise relevant disciplinary issues, thus making the readers participant in the discussion which might emerge from the academic gathering.

Several implications may be derived from this study. To start with, the affordances of the online conference announcement make communication among members of the same disciplinary community fast and global, thus enhancing communication and interaction among them. As a result, intradisciplinary communication may be boosted, thus contributing to building disciplinary community and shaping disciplinary identity.

Moreover, the wide distribution of the conference announcements afforded by the use of new technologies seems to be imposing new needs on conference organizers. On the one hand there is the need to sound attractive and encourage readers to participate. In fact, one of the challenges that conference organizers are facing nowadays is that, as there are so many conferences organized in whatever field across the world, and as information about these conferences is widely spread through the net, they really need to make the event sound interesting and appealing to potential participants and attendants. On the other hand, the wider readership afforded by electronic distribution also involves a higher number of potential contributors, which implies the need to apply “quality filters” in the form of reviewers and strict instructions of presentation and submission of contributions, deadlines, etc. As a result of the, at times, fragile balance between persuading colleagues to participate and maintaining the quality standards of the discipline, conference organizers have been found to adopt a variety of writing roles and the texts to fulfill a wide range of communicative purposes, in an attempt to cover different, and sometimes divergent, aims.

In short, online conference announcements are revealing themselves as strategic sites of interaction among disciplinary members, acting as catalysts for knowledge production and community building, and driving conference organizers to adopt a variety of roles, as trend-setters, attraction-getters and quality-controllers, to an extent which may have not been possible with the paper format in the past.


Bio: Rosa Lorés (Universidad de Zaragoza, Spain) is an Associate Professor (PhD) in the Department of English and German Studies at the Faculty of Arts, Universidad de Zaragoza (Spain). Her research has mainly focused on the exploration of discursive and lexicogrammatical features in written academic genres from the standpoint of intercultural rhetoric and the use of English as a Lingua Franca. Her present research interests revolve around the study of digital discourse and digital practices within academic communities. She has published her research in various international journals such as English for Specific Purposes, Text and Talk, Languages in Contrast, Corpora and Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, among others. She has also co-edited four books on academic discourse and pragmatics applied to translation. She is the principal investigator of the competitive project “Visibility and dissemination of scientific research: A linguistic, rhetorical and pragmatic study of digital genres in English as an international language” (InterGedi). ­­Further information of her research can be found here.

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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