In April of 2019, Global Maritime History hosted its first digital conference, on “Maritime Toxic Masculinity.” Not only was the conference a success in terms of audience – its associated pages on the website continue to be some of our most visited, months later – as organizers, we learned a great deal about planning and executing an academic event in a relatively new, unconventional format.
In the spirit of reflecting on our experiences hosting a digital conference, and sharing those experiences with others who might be interested in organizing a similar event, we have gathered some of our observations, recommendations, and a list of what we did to pull off this conference. This is the first part of a two-part series of reflections.
Rationale and Resources:
What is a digital conference? It’s similar to a traditional academic conference, with participants giving twenty-minute presentations in succession, grouped into thematic panels. Unlike a traditional conference, where presenters and audience members gather in one physical place, a digital conference takes place online. Formats vary from conference to conference, but might involve everything from presenters uploading videos of themselves reading their papers out loud to a single website, to presenters giving their arguments in a series of tweets, all connected with the same hashtag on Twitter.
Digital conferences are a relatively new phenomenon, but “Maritime Toxic Masculinity” was not without precedent. We recommend that anyone interested in organizing a digital conference seek out examples of previous digital conferences, and consider what (if any) inspiration to take from them. One resource we found to be very helpful in planning for “Maritime Toxic Masculinity” was the recent series of digital symposia organized at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a related list of best practices written by one of the organizers, Professor Ken Hiltner. Another was a Twitter conference organized by War Through Other Stuff.
Why host a digital conference? There are many possible reasons. Digital conferences present new possibilities for conference accessibility. They allow interested individuals to present their research, regardless of where they are located and how much travel and research funding they have. As long as they have access to a computer and an Internet connection, they can present their work. This opens up the conference to those who might not be able to present at a traditional conference, because of geographic distance, timing, or financial constraints. It also means that independent scholars, who may not have the institutional affiliation or funding typically required for a traditional conference, can take part. For some, having the time to practice, record, and edit a digital presentation and then upload it to a website might be less stressful than reading a paper in front of a room full of people. And a digital conference also allows the conference organizers to work with each other even if they are located on different continents too (in the case of “Maritime Toxic Masculinity,” we had one organizer in New York and one in London)!
At the same time, it’s possible for anyone in the world with access to a computer and an Internet connection to watch, listen to, or read the conference presentations online. This opens up a digital conference to anyone who wishes to “attend” without the need to travel, pay a registration fee, or be affiliated with an academic institution.
On a practical level, digital conferences are also cost-effective for the conference organizers. If the organizers already have a place to host the conference – like Twitter or a website like Global Maritime History – then the financial cost to them is zero. All that is needed are some free resources such as a Dropbox account, e-mail address, YouTube account, and audio editing software (discussed in more detail below).
Finally, there are environmental benefits. Traditional conferences have huge carbon footprints: from speakers’ travel (often on airplanes), to the food consumed and plastic waste generated during lunch and coffee breaks. Hosting a conference online significantly reduces this carbon footprint. Indeed, for the University of California, Santa Barbara symposia organizers, this is the major draw – they have branded their digital conferences as “NCN conferences,” or “Nearly Carbon Neutral conferences.”
When we decided to organize a digital conference for Global Maritime History, after settling on the theme and a date, we had to decide what kind of structure we wanted. Would we ask presenters to all abide by the same format? Would we keep the presentations on our website after the conference date – for a certain period of time or indefinitely? Would we try to restrict “attendee” access to the presentations in some way or ask those interested in attending to register? How would we solicit and record any questions for the presenters?
In the end, we put together a CFP that proposed that all of the presenters create audio recordings of their talks, each one twenty minutes long (similar to podcasts). However, we received submissions from presenters who wished to include visuals with their presentations, so in the end we decided to allow presenters to choose the format for their presentations, as long as it was in a file format that could be uploaded easily to the Global Maritime History website and was twenty minutes long. Being flexible is a big part of organizing a nontraditional conference like this – discussed a bit further in later sections!
We also decided that once we received submissions, we would group the presentations into thematic panels and “launch” them on the Global Maritime History website in a set order on the conference date, in a manner that replicated the order of a traditional conference. We informed the presenters that their work would stay up on Global Maritime History’s website indefinitely after the conference finished, in order to make the work as widely accessible as possible (even to those who were interested but unable to “tune in” on the conference launch date). However, we informed the presenters that they would also retain control over their work and if they wished, it could be removed from the Global Maritime History website at any time.
We also decided on a hashtag for the conference – #maritimetoxicmasc – which we used to publicize the conference and solicit questions from anyone tuning in to the presentations. We also provided the option for our digital audience to ask the speakers questions via the comments sections on our website, which appear at the bottom of every page and are a feature of the particular WordPress template Global Maritime History uses.
Recruitment and Development
After writing a CFP, we publicized it using the same channels that we would use to publicize a traditional humanities conference. We used the Global Maritime History Twitter account, Facebook page, and submitted the CFP to several H-Net mailing lists. Conference organizers also communicated directly with peers and colleagues they thought might be interested in submitting a presentation. In order to collect submissions in one place and communicate with presenters in an organized way, we set up a dedicated Gmail account for the conference. Once we had received submissions for the conference, our primary tasks were communicating with presenters via e-mail and helping them get their presentations to us. For this part of the process, flexibility was key!
We set a date by which the presenters had to have their presentations ready (several weeks before the conference launch date, to allow time to deal with any issues uploading the presentations to the Global Maritime History website). We also asked presenters if they had a plan in place for recording their presentations. While some had experience recording their own audio and visuals – using programs such as Keynote, iMovie, and Audacity – others did not. For those who told us they did not have experience recording their own audio and video, we suggested using QuickTime (available in free versions for both Macs and PCs). For those only recording audio, QuickTime can produce an audio recording using a computer’s built-in microphone. For those combining an audio recording with visuals in a Powerpoint, QuickTime can be used to simultaneously record audio and screen visuals (i.e., someone clicking through a Powerpoint presentation as they narrate it).
While we made it clear that the presenters had to send their presentations to us in a format and state that was ready to be uploaded to the website, we did do a small amount of troubleshooting with file formats and queries about audio quality. For example, probably the most common issue we helped troubleshoot was how to turn Powerpoint presentations with recorded audio embedded in the presentations into .mov files, with the Powerpoint slides and audio seamlessly integrated. This was important to do because it would allow the conference audience to view the presentations easily as short movies, rather than as Powerpoint presentations where they would need to click through each slide and click on the audio icon on each slide in order to hear the narration. In theory, there is a way to save a Powerpoint file as a .mov file within the Powerpoint program itself. In practice, we found that this feature was not available in the most recent Mac versions of Powerpoint. The conference organizers found it necessary to call on a colleague with a PC to help convert the files. (Thanks to Megann Licskai for helping with this, as well as cleaning up the audio on some of the presentations with Movavi Video Editor. The Movavi Video Editor has a free trial version; however, this version does impose a watermark on videos.)
We also decided that given the variety of presentation styles submitted, we would not request a particular file extension, as long as the files worked! Finally, organizing a digital conference allowed us to have some flexibility about the conference deadlines – some presenters needed a bit more time to troubleshoot and to get their presentations to us, but setting a deadline a few weeks before the actual conference date gave us some leeway with this.
In our second post, we’ll discuss the logistics of how we organized and launched our first digital conference, and our reflections on what we might do differently for our next digital conference. Stay tuned!