‘Nothing can replace the face-to-face event’ (?): A poetic turn (Sam Illingworth)

What can poetry tell us about the future of academic conferences and our engagement with them?

 EGU General Assembly, April 2017, by Sam Illingworth

In 2021, my colleagues Hazel Gibson, Susanne Buiter, and I published a research article entitled ‘The future of conferences: lessons from Europe’s largest online geoscience conference’, the purpose of which was to better understand how participants of the biggest geoscience conference in Europe (the European Geosciences Union General Assembly or EGU) responded to the conference being shifted to a virtual environment because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This research article used qualitative content analysis to explore survey feedback provided by participants, identifying four key themes that emerged in relation how going online impacted the General Assembly both in terms of challenges and opportunities for future events. 

The themes that emerged from this analysis were:

  • “connecting” – how interpersonal connections were affected
  • “engagement” – the extent to which respondents were or were not able to engage with the online format
  • “environment” – the impact on the environment
  • “accessibility” – how the move to a virtual conference included or excluded participants based on their personal and professional circumstances.

These themes and subsequent recommendations were very much in keeping with several other studies and reflections on the future of conferences, including the impact on participants with caring responsibilities and a need to reconsider the power dynamics of such events.

Alongside this more traditional qualitative methodology, I also used poetic transcription as a creative method to potentially complement the main research findings of this article. Poetic transcription can be traced back to ‘found poetry’, a concept which takes existing texts and re-mixes their content to create original pieces of poetry. Found poems can be thought of as the literary equivalent of a collage and can be created from any source that contains text. There are many different types of found poetry, with some of the most well-known including: erasure (in which poets take an existing text and erase or redact several sections leaving behind only those elements of the text that they want to highlight), cento (a poetic form composed entirely of lines from poems by other poets), and cut-up (where poets physically cut up or tear fragments of text and re-arrange them together).

Similarly, there are many ways in which to perform poetic transcriptions of qualitative data sets, and I am not saying that my method is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than any of the others, rather that it is grounded in my research and practice around giving voice to marginalised communities through poetry. The process is underpinned by the following four core principles:

  1. The Transcribed poem should seek to give voice to any narrative(s) to emerge from the data.
  2. The aesthetic quality of the poem is less important than the emergent narrative. 
  3. The poem should not contain any identifiable information. 
  4. The transcribed poem need not be the final version. 

A rigorous research method is applied to the data set. This method is outlined fully in Chapter 5 of my recent book, Science Communication through Poetry, but in essence it involves looking for illustrative lines that are true to both the emergent narratives and also the overall ‘rhythm’ of the research. In the case of the responses to our EGU General Assembly survey, this resulted in the following poem:

Moving online

Nothing can replace the face-to-face event,
the chat is great
but it is just not the same.
My job as a scientist
is mostly reading and writing,
scrolling through the presentations
makes attendance feel a lot
like grading papers.

Nothing can replace the face-to-face event,
those unable
to physically attend
can gain some part
of the experience from home.
Thus broadening
the scientific content.

Nothing can replace the face-to-face event,
I’m concerned
about the copyright issues
about being more climate-friendly
about what was possible for presenters
about issues that are in common interest
about our conference practices.

Nothing can replace the face-to-face event,
if it was only online
we’d have to adapt
to a new way of working.
The chat is great
but it is just not the same,
there is definitely something lost
but also something gained.

Sam Illingworth

The poem creates an alternative lens through which to listen to the responses of the participants and in turn to experience the challenges and opportunities of moving to a virtual event. For example, the repetition of the line “Nothing can replace the face-to-face event” helps to evidence the overwhelming responses within the surveys that any virtual conference should not seek to simply replace an in-person one, but rather that it should offer something different that better reflects the strengths (and weaknesses) of this medium. This detail was perhaps not apparent in the way in which we presented our original findings, but through this poem it is given voice. 

This is, of course, not the end of the poem’s journey. Other audiences that I could share this poem with include: the original participants of the study (provided they had shared their contact details and given consent to be contacted in this manner), other EGU members, and the wider scientific community. Acknowledging that the transcribed poem is not the end of the process is an essential part of this research method, as it enables the impact of the findings to reach beyond any one researcher or study.

I hope that this approach might inspire others to also consider using poetic transcription as a way of both interpreting and presenting research related to the development and importance of conferences. At the very least it provides a creative accompaniment to strengthen the richness of our research stories. 

About Sam Illingworth

Dr Sam Illingworth is an Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, whose research centres on using poetry and games to help develop dialogue between communities. You can find out more about his research via his website www.samillingworth.com and connect with him on twitter @samillingworth. 

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