Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

The Concrete Benefits of a Virtual Conference

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To the surprise of no one, the Modern Language Association’s annual convention went online this year. The MLA made its decision early and was technologically primed when the January meeting date arrived. Still, I approached the virtual sessions warily. Like most everyone else in academe, I’ve spent untold hours on Zoom during the past year, and have not always emerged the better for them.

So imagine my surprise that the online MLA was actually a very good conference. It wasn’t just that the meeting went off so smoothly, with no technical glitches worth mentioning. Simply put, it was an altogether valuable and productive time — for some instructive reasons.

The online MLA conference had very different virtues from the in-person version. I’ve long enjoyed the latter because of what happens in between the sessions. Paula Krebs, executive director of the association, spoke in an email of “the value of hallway conversations, nightcaps, and hugging friends,” and of how “chance meetings (in a coffee line or in an airport shuttle) can break down silos and allow you to meet folks who aren’t in your subfield or on your campus.”

Those sorts of contacts have certainly been highlights for me over the years. Walking through the book exhibit, I expect to run into colleagues and friends amid prospective authors hawking their wares. The bustle reminds me that the annual MLA meeting gathers more of my peers in one place than any other conference. Attendance numbers have diminished over the years as job interviews have — with the association’s blessing — migrated online, but the conference still drew more than 5,000 registrants this year.

As for the conference sessions, well, they can be pretty good sometimes. But for me, they aren’t the most memorable parts of the in-person show.

By contrast, the sessions were the star of the online MLA. They were easy to attend — as simple as turning on my computer. And I could move from one to another with a click, using an app that the association devised to make the hundreds of sessions easy to view and join. I couldn’t meet friends for dinner, but I could attend a session while making my own breakfast. And then there was the comfort factor. Sitting at my desk (usually with my own camera turned off) was easier on my body than sitting in institutional chairs. Joining an audience was so easy that I could attend more sessions than usual, which led to a concentrated learning experience.

The sessions themselves raised my opinion of Zoom. As both a presenter and an audience member, I found that the chat function lent a richness to the dialogue that has no in-person equivalent. As presenters spoke, audience members talked in the margins. They annotated the performance, usually supportively and usefully. They amplified points made on the virtual stage, shared links, and sometimes pushed back productively. The result was an impromptu dialogic tapestry embroidered in real time around the words of the presenters.

“I love the chat function,” said Sharon Engbrecht, a fourth-year graduate student in English at the University of British Columbia, in an email. She compared it to “interactive note-taking, which helps build that important community” that may otherwise go missing when conference attendees can’t share a physical space.

This effect isn’t new, of course. Those of us who have taught online are familiar with such cross-talk. But the conference version of it was turbocharged by the desire of so many people to contribute to a common intellectual interest, shared in the moment.

At their best, these Zoom sessions felt like small communities. The exchanges that took place effaced the stratified class system that pervades many academic conferences. Instead of scoping out people’s badges and categorizing them on the spot, everyone met on the same ground. “I felt like an equal member of the conversation at all times,” said Sørina Higgins, a fifth-year graduate student in English at Baylor University.

Judith Butler, president of the association and a professor of comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, likewise invoked community in her presidential address. She spotlighted the need to open the scholarly community to marginalized groups like contingent faculty members.

The online conference reflected those sentiments by its very accessibility to a wide range of people who might have physical, financial, and other barriers to attending an in-person scholarly meeting.

To begin with, the virtual MLA is cheaper (the conference fee was the same but no hotel or travel expenses) and easier for graduate students to attend. The difference was evident in the numbers: More than a quarter of all attendees this year were graduate students, “which is on the high side of our usual range,” said Anna Chang, the association’s director of outreach, in an email.

Accessibility was a feature of this year’s meeting in other, less visible ways, too. “Packing up my daughter and scrambling for child care make in-person conferences a little difficult to plan for,” said Engbrecht. “It was a relief not to have to worry about my travel-funding applications being accepted, arranging air travel,” or getting a room in an economical, nearby hotel.

But the ease of use goes beyond economics. Higgins said she expected the MLA conference to be “overwhelming, huge, confusing, impersonal, and exhausting.” But the online version wasn’t any of these things, she said. Instead, she found it “friendly, accessible,” and thanks to the “helpful app, not too confusing.”

For graduate students, this ease of use offers unusual opportunities. Higgins chose to attend “mostly practical sessions” focused on career and professional development. She was able to reserve two different career-counseling appointments sponsored by the MLA, one focused on academic careers and the other on possibilities outside academe.

Higher education is “becoming less introverted,” Higgins said, and turning into “a more colorful landscape” that’s “more welcoming to different approaches and different groups of people.” Although she described herself as “perfectly aware of the apocalyptic nature” of the post-pandemic academic landscape, Higgins found herself feeling optimistic — and acting that way, too. “I had LinkedIn open at all times” during the conference, she said. “I sent people connection invites right away.”

The virtual version of the MLA met graduate students right where they are. “We were pleased with the way the remote convention worked out,” said Krebs, in an email. “We know how important it is for our members to be able to gather physically,” she said, “so we are not going to simply replace the in-person convention.” However, Krebs and other MLA leaders see that “there’s clearly a hunger for more” of what the remote experience can also provide.

Accordingly, Krebs said, the MLA is now “exploring how to incorporate some aspects of remote accessibility into future in-person gatherings.” But it also plans to hold more virtual events at other times of the year.

We’ve all heard the cliché that “every crisis is an opportunity” a little too often lately. But sometimes a crisis is an opportunity, and the MLA rose to the challenge of this year’s meeting. The “pandemic MLA” may offer a harbinger of conferences to come.


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