Multiplying Connections, Cutting Carbon: An experiment in multi-site, digitally linked, flightless conferencing (Joshua King)    

In this post the future of conferences is explored using the experiences of the “Ecology and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies” Conference, Sept. 18-21, 2019

A participant at the Baylor University location raises a question during a panel digitally shared between universities in the US and UK

When responding to massive ecological problems such as climate change, Duke University ecotheologian Norman Wirzba recently observed during the Keynote Discussion of the Ecology and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies conference that people need to begin with their own communities and ways of life. Otherwise, “they don’t feel themselves to be contributing to good work, and that is important because the doing of good work helps address the despair and paralysis that people might ordinarily feel.” Wirzba made this remark before an international audience gathered at five universities in four time zones. He did so without leaving his office.

Ecology and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies sought to apply Wirzba’s principle—avoid paralysis before climate change by starting with one’s own community and practices—to conferencing infrastructure and culture.

Turning to the century in which the environmental crises we face were being set in motion, this conference involved over seventy interdisciplinary presentations by scholars based in the United States and the United Kingdom on how environmental and religious perspectives converged and conflicted in the nineteenth-century Anglophone world, asking what these legacies mean for us now.

Part of our answer to that question was to model a flightless, multi-venue form of conferencing that would reduce emissions, save resources, and involve more people by lowering barriers of travel and funding.

Image2.Norman Wirzba
Norman Wirzba (Duke University) addresses audiences at three other universities

The conference team, of which I was lead organizer, digitally linked in-person gatherings at the University of Washington (in Seattle, WA, headed by Charles LaPorte, Gary Handwerk, and Jesse Oak Taylor), the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University (in Waco, TX, headed by myself and Jennifer Borderud), Georgetown University (in Washington, D.C., headed by Patrick R. O’Malley and Nathan Hensley), Lancaster University (in Lancaster, UK, headed by Mark Knight, Andrew Tate, Emma Mason, and Chris Donaldson), and the Center for Digital Scholarship at Emory University (in Atlanta, GA, headed by Chris Adamson). Most of these events were also streamed online through the conference website, where they can still be viewed.

Motivations for a more sustainable model of conferencing    

We pursued this model out of the conviction that, as long as conferences simply offer a venue for analyzing (rather than contesting) ecological devastation, they are part of the problem. In fact, facing the scale, severity, and historical roots of our environmental crisis can induce immobilizing anxiety over the reality that each person’s fossil-fueled action, multiplied by billions of other people, helps devastate coastal cities, melt glaciers, and further accelerate the Great Acceleration (the dramatic spike in human activity and impact upon the earth, especially through greenhouse gas emissions, since the 1950s). Yet the scale of the crisis and resolution seems  so immense—”reduce global emissions!”—that it can only be addressed through impossible universal consensus and impersonal, distant institutions. As Greg Garrard observes in an article entitled “The Unbearable Lightness of Green,” admitting one’s individual complicity while waiting for global reformation means living with a paradox:

Nothing I do is insignificant: switching lights off, eating air-freighted green beans and accepting a pay rise are now morally charged acts. At the same time, everything I do is insignificant, either because of the scale and unpredictability of the global system or because of—for shorthand—China. (p. 185)

Garrard’s shorthand, China, points to the disproportionately massive impact of populous developed and developing countries.

In 2012, the world emitted 42,386 megatons of greenhouse gasses, with the top ten emitters—including China, the U.S., European Union, India, Russia, and Japan—accounting for 76% (twice the amount of the globe’s 175 other nations), while the lowest 100 countries contributed less than 3%. More than one-third of the emissions came from China and the U.S. alone (see this article by Kanski for more information). Given that most of the world’s universities are in regions with the highest emissions, increasingly vocal concern among academics about climate change cannot avoid irony, especially when expressed at conferences.

University of California, Santa Barbara, for example, recently determined that air travel for faculty and staff accounted for one-third of its carbon footprint, equaling the total annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in the Philippines (see Ken Hiltner on this). The TerraPass online event calculator estimates that simply the air travel required to lament ecological crises at an international conference with 375 participants would generate around 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, five times the annual per-capita emissions in the U.S. and over 100 times that in Kenya (Climate Watch). This is the same greenhouse-gas impact as driving 245,098 miles in a personal vehicle or powering 12 homes for an entire year, and equal to the annual carbon sequestration of 118 acres of U.S. forest (according to the EPA calculator).

Making change to conferencing practices    

As long as academic conferences operate as if the climate were not changing, the enervating psychological climate described by Gerard does not seem likely to change. Yet, as we found with Ecology and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies, making immediate and practical adjustments to how we conference can empower agency, enliven the imagination to new possibilities for academic exchange, and inspire adaptation in the scholarly associations and institutions that support the academy.

Multi-venue conferencing is not without precedent, and in another Conference Inference post Fabian Wenner, Freke Caset, and Bart De Wit recommend this model as delivering the most sustainable outcomes. Yet because it remains a rare practice, there are few examples from which to learn. We were therefore grateful to build upon prior experience.

In the fall preceding Ecology and Religion, I had organized a smaller-scale venture, Rhyme and Reform: Victorian Working-Class Poets and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘The Cry of the Children’ (October 4-5, 2018).  Digitally sharing presentations, performances, and exhibitions between Baylor University’s Armstrong Browning Library and the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, Scotland), this two-day symposium involved 265 participants in person and online through the event website (where sessions and the shared exhibition can still be viewed). Rhyme and Reform demonstrated that the model could work and generate excitement (several academics voluntarily organized viewing sessions with students and colleagues at institutions around the world). Yet it also revealed the need to improve our digital connections and devote more attention to fostering rich in-person interaction and participation at each conference site.

Indeed, the potential to reduce emissions and expenses while preserving such face-to-face  connection was what most attracted us to multi-venue, flightless conferencing.  There have been several wonderful experiments in nearly carbon neutral (NCN) conferencing that involves no travel and relies on prerecorded digital presentations.

Ken Hiltner, director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative at UC Santa Barbara, has successfully pioneered several NCN conferences (see his guide). Yet, in our view, fully virtual conferencing cannot replicate conversations at in-person conferences between sessions, at meals, and during outings, which are at least as vital to research and collaboration as the presentations themselves.

To that end, our conference organizing team followed what one member, Nathan Hensley at Georgetown University, helpfully characterized as “a relatively loose federalism,” with a number of sites sharing an overarching theme or common purpose, while “devolving sovereignty locally” over the “intellectual shape” of each gathering.

The CFP and conference communications required participants to limit travel to the ground in a 500-mile radius around each location, with carpooling and public transportation encouraged. Each of the main sites became, in effect, a unique regional conference with contributions from established and leading scholars alongside emerging ones, even as they were interlinked within a larger event that spanned continents. We aimed to preserve the value of attending in person while strengthening regional connections and facilitating international scholarly exchange.

Participants engage in a roundtable at Georgetown, shared with two other universities

The gathering at Baylor University’s Armstrong Browning Library (ABL), for which I and ABL director Jennifer Borderud had primary responsibility, functioned as the “main” site, hosting four days of panels, special keynote events, and an exhibition and musical concert on the conference theme. Presenters at our site included both those who traveled within our 500-mile radius, and a number of individual scholars who beamed in to panels from locations throughout North America. At least one major event—such as a special panel, roundtable, or seminar—was digitally shared between the Baylor site and every other conference location, with one event on the conference theme simultaneously involving audiences and presenters from all the sites. All of these keynote events, together with most of the other presentations, were streamed live through the website, making them available to the wider world free of charge. In addition, Baylor organized two field trips to local initiatives in sustainability and environmental justice (a Waco-based organic farm devoted to alleviating food insecurity and a center for urban sustainable food and renewable energy). Georgetown and Washington each held one-day symposia, digitally connecting at least once to other sites even as their physical participants enjoyed a conference experience unique to their locations.  Lancaster hosted a three-day conference, digitally interacting with other conference sites for three events.  Emory was an organic addition: Chris Adamson, a digital presenter for one of the Baylor panels, decided to establish a viewing station at Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship for all the events at or linked to Baylor.

The conference crossed disciplinary as well as geographic borders. It brought together literary scholars, historians, scholars of religion, theologians, and environmental scientists to practice integrated attention to religion and the environment in nineteenth-century studies, since within that broad historical field these areas of inquiry have yet to enter into far-reaching and mutually transformative conversation. Environmental scientists, ecotheologians, activists, organization and industry consultants, and leaders in sustainable community development participated in several keynote events shared between sites. These events proposed that our responses to current environmental problems (from climate change, to land and water use, to fossil-fuel extraction) benefit from recognizing how they are shaped by nineteenth-century cultural and theological legacies, and from dialogue between those within and beyond academia, especially when they are approaching issues from different cultural and disciplinary perspectives with diverse local concerns in mind.

 A ‘new model for…academic community’?    

The impact was significant: 250 people attended the various sites in person (with an additional 100+ attending the Baylor concert), and 601 participated and viewed digitally from 165 cities in 19 nations.  In other words, with each site devoting resources sufficient for a moderately sized academic conference or symposium, we reached an audience of nearly 1,000 combined.

A page of analytics, together with testimonials from in-person and virtual participants, can be found on the “Impact” section of the website. In those testimonials, and in responses to anonymous post-conference surveys, participants repeatedly observed that the conference offered “a new model for . . . academic community” by preserving powerful dialogues among human beings in the same spaces, even as it extended those conversations around the globe. Some described it as the most engaging conference they had attended, and both those watching online and participating at the sites found the discussions during events and Q&A sessions stimulating and lively.

As Nathan Hensley, an organizer from Georgetown, observed,

It blew people’s minds, to be frank, when I was able to read commentary off of Twitter in real time and get speakers’ responses to a scholar they had never met in the midst of the conversation they were invested in on-site. . . And I want to note that the scholar whose comments I read out was not affiliated with an institution and certainly wasn’t a tenure-line professor—this meant that we had reached audiences of intellectual collaborators that normal conferences (with entry fees, expectation of institutional affiliation, etc.) simply cannot reach.

Hensley’s remark about equitable access to high-level academic discussions was frequently repeated by attendees and virtual participants, a number of whom identified as graduate students, early career researchers, and independent scholars.

We were able to avoid registration and entry fees because each site possessed or secured sufficient resources for hosting activities.  Of course, such resources are not always forthcoming, yet this flightless, multi-site model inherently requires less investment from contributing institutions, since no single location has to accommodate hundreds of people or pay costly travel expenses for keynote speakers who are able to beam in from elsewhere. Many respondents were especially grateful for the access, immediate and long term, enabled by having recordings of sessions available on the website after they were livestreamed, as this allowed their associates to follow talks that they were unable to view in real time. “I will be revisiting many of the talks I heard in order to think about them more carefully,” one remarked; “I think this might be one of the features of the conference I’m most excited about.” Other contributors appreciated the extended opportunity for conversation in the comment spaces on the website. As each session was streamed through the “Sessions” section of the website (where it was also available afterward as a recording), we created a “comments” section for it, in which audiences at the conference sites and online could post questions. We enabled commenting for three weeks after the conference and encouraged presenters to reply to queries, which resulted in several extended and detailed exchanges.

Streaming conference sessions open-access through the website opened them to a diverse and global audience well beyond the academy. Viewers from many backgrounds tuned in—from Houston, to Manchester, to Albuquerque, to Honolulu, to Tel Aviv-Yafo, to Helsinki, to Mangaluru, to Surabaya, and included scholars, students, the general public, community members near conference sites, and friends and family members of contributors. Although “public facing” research is promoted in the academy, we do not often find ourselves simultaneously addressing audiences within our specialized areas, from other disciplines, and outside universities altogether. Some survey respondents, as also reflected in Nathan Hensley’s comment above, found this confluence of audiences exhilarating, feeling that this interdisciplinary conference not only “achieved a conversation across boundaries,” but also managed to be “largely accessible to those who know little about ecology, religion, or nineteenth-century studies.” Nonetheless, others rightly observed that some presentations were more successful in performing this act of translation than others, and that when one takes away the walls of a conference, so to speak, there is even more of a need for talks to “be as clear and accessible as possible . . . to a wide audience.”

Scholars gather at the University of Washington for a roundtable seminar streamed through the conference website

Room for improvement – honing the art of multi-site flightless conferences    

While successful, Ecology and Religion has certainly revealed ways in which its model could be improved.

As several co-organizers noted, future multi-site conferences should adopt a single digital conferencing platform. Due to contractual and infrastructural factors at the time, Baylor relied on Cisco Webex to connect sites and presenters, while Georgetown used Zoom to stream some of their concurrent events. Baylor employed Facebook Live to stream digital meetings in Webex to the conference website, and then later uploaded to the website links to sessions recorded on Zoom by Georgetown.  While this arrangement served our needs within existing institutional limitations, it introduced more stress and technical juggling than would be optimal. Other universities and scholarly associations pursuing multi-site conferencing should try to secure institutional commitments to a single platform.

Holding a conference at several locations also introduces challenges with clearly communicating how the various sites’ schedules differ and intersect. As seen on the “Schedule” page of our website, we adopted a dual-stream model: participants could select comprehensive schedules for each day, which displayed all the events in a chart that noted different time zones, or to rely on site-specific schedules—which, for example, would only show events hosted by Lancaster and shared between Lancaster and other sites. Most respondents to surveys indicated that this method worked, but a more dynamically integrated schedule would be ideal for future events. In addition, we were ambitious in digitally linking and streaming so many sessions, which increased the difficulty of coordinating a shared schedule across an eight-hour time-zone gap, and sometimes required hosting meals at odd hours, especially at Baylor. In the future, others might consider restricting more events to on-site participation and digitally sharing only a few between locations and/or with the public online. Virtually linking far-flung locations can actually focus attention regionally: since organizers and contributors cannot rely on air travel to gather their colleagues in one (often luxurious and costly) venue, they are encouraged to become more aware of scholars and possibilities for collaboration in their regions, and institutions serving as conference hosts have an incentive to showcase their unique resources. Holding fewer, but well-conceived, digitally connected sessions could reinforce this unique combination of regional investment with international prestige and networking, expanding the range of institutions given exposure through conferences, and nourishing new forms of simultaneously global and local collaboration.

By lowering travel expenses, multi-site conferences also open opportunities to include more early career researchers and graduate students in conversations with senior scholars, both in the field at large and in their regions, the latter of which could lead to more post-conference interaction and mentoring between senior and junior scholars at nearby institutions.

Baylor handled registration for the entire conference through a single portal. We would recommend using a shared portal, as it centralizes information that can easily be shared between organizers.  Yet communication about registration, as well as the portal itself, should describe as clearly as possible the forms of participation for which people are registering. We thought we had solved this issue by having all organizers review the portal before its launch. Nonetheless, some individuals ended up registering for on-site attendance at a location when in fact they were planning to view digitally, which in some cases resulted in overordering for refreshments and meals. This will be less of a concern for multi-site conferences that do not livestream events to those outside the conference locations.

As the above will have suggested, an assigned technical team is required for multi-site conferencing. We organized a central team at Baylor, relying especially on Ben Wong from Library and Academic Technology Services, and Carl Flynn and Carlye Thornton from Marketing and Communications for ITS and University Libraries. Each additional location had at least one technical staff member dedicated to the event from their institution. The number of hours devoted to the conference, particularly for the Baylor team, was significant, requiring a full four days of support during the event. This level of assistance could be reduced by cutting down on the number of digitally linked sessions.

Lastly, it became clear to us that digitally linked sessions require new pedagogies for presenting and moderating. Depending on audio configurations, speakers need to avoid sudden bursts of speech that might be missed by room mics. Individuals presenting remotely should be provided with suggestions regarding setting and technology—for example, presenters should keep background noise to a minimum and ideally have a strong internet connection. This last point reminds that digitally networked conferencing has yet to become truly inclusive, as scholars who might be reached in remote or rural locations (as in the Global South) are also least likely to have reliable internet connections. In addition, extra time should be built into the schedule for each digitally linked event in order to allow for technical setup and unforeseen connection issues. For each linked and streamed event, we assigned a moderator to introduce speakers and field on-site questions, as well as one person who would monitor and introduce offsite questions submitted through the conference Twitter feed and the comments sections on the conference website.  In retrospect, it might have been better to entrust onsite and offsite moderation to a single person, providing them with sufficient advance instruction.  Contributors were excited by the possibility of extending conversation beyond the conference through the comments sections, but this only ended up taking place in a few cases.  We promoted the opportunity to use these comment spaces on the conference website, but we did not note it in advertising, and doing so might have motivated more audience members to submit questions.  To encourage discussions on social media, each location might also assign one person to post regularly about events.

“Wave of the future”?

Multi-site conferencing offers one way of reconciling concern over the climate with concerted action. It also promises to equalize access to the discussion table— not only for the wider public, early career researchers, and others with financial or medical barriers to travel, but also for those with caring responsibilities. It is therefore heartening to witness signs that this flightless model is taking off. A digital contributor to the Baylor site, Devin Griffiths of the University of Southern California, was motivated to participate in part because he is adopting a related semi-digital approach for the next annual conference of Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies (INCS). Encouraged by this conference, NAVSA (the North American Victorian Studies Association), has accepted a proposal by myself and Dino Felluga (Purdue University) to run a multi-site, flightless version of their 2024 annual conference. This is the largest conference for nineteenth-century studies in the world, and at least ten universities will be involved as interlinked host locations, several of them, including Baylor, already having contributed to Ecology and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Studies. Between all ten-plus NAVSA sites, upwards of 900 scholars could attend. We are already applying lessons from Ecology and Religion to NAVSA 2024: given the range of time zones, only one or two keynote events will be broadcast between all locations, and each regional conference host will secure leading scholars in their surrounding area to encourage local attendance, even as the likely increased rate of early-career participation will be recognized through professionalization workshops and panels that deliberately group younger with more established scholars. To promote conversation across all of the sites, participants will load their papers to a shared digital platform hosted by COVE (Central Online Victorian Educator), which will allow any member of NAVSA to read and comment upon papers of interest to them. Although there is plenty of room for improvement, multi-site conferencing does appear to be gaining ground and spurring innovation.

A participant in Ecology and Religion remarked that it represented “the wave of the future.”  Other waves loom in the near futures of coastal cities and island nations. It is hopeful to think that we might lessen their impact, however slightly, by shifting the tide of academic conferencing.

About Joshua King

Joshua King is an Associate Professor of English at Baylor University and the current holder of the Margarett Root Brown Chair at the Armstrong Browning Library (see his website). He is author of Imagined Spiritual Communities in Britain’s Age of Print (Ohio State 2015) and coeditor, with Winter Jade Werner, of Constructing Nineteenth-Century Religion: Literary, Historical, and Religious Studies in Dialogue (Ohio State, May 2019).  He has published numerous articles and essays on poetics, religion, print culture, and, more recently, ecotheological and environmental perspectives in the works of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keble, John Henry Newman, Alfred Tennyson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and many others.  His next book project, The Body of Christ, the Body of the Earth: Poetry, Ecology, and Christology, shows how nineteenth-century British poets developed ecological visions by diversely reaffirming the participation of all creatures in God through Christ.

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