In the past year I have spent approximately 30 hours in airplanes going to conferences and workshops. That is about 19 914km travelled – a footprint I try not to think about too much. The reason for all this travel – Canada is really big, the environmental history community is pretty small, and to meet in person necessitates travelling long distance.
This is why the NiCHE New Scholars Group decided to host a conference to challenge the model of going somewhere to discuss new research. The technology exists, largely free, and we knew from months of virtual reading group meetings it was an approach that worked in small numbers. But could it work for a conference? Out of that question “Place and Placelessness, a Virtual Conference” was born.
After 9 months of planning Place and Placelessness went off without a hitch – okay there were a few minor sound glitches but those were to be expected when the entire conference happens over Skype. The 23 participants collectively travelled hundreds of thousands of miles without anyone leaving the comfort of their own home, or going further than their local coffee shop with a wi-fi connection. The only continents we didn’t touch were South America and Africa – not bad for a little group of Canadian graduate students trying something new.
Our experiment in a placeless conference was an unqualified success, not because the organization committee was fantastic but because everyone of the 23 participants bought into the idea and made it work. The biggest fear going into the first session at 11am EST on October 1 was how do we know the people who signed up with show up when it is time for the session? Maybe it was the freedom of the option of attending a conference in your pj’s – as the western participants in the 9am EST sessions did. Maybe it was the focused discussion of the sessions – one or two papers that all participants read in advance. Maybe it was the thrill of being part of something innovative, of not knowing how a virtual conference would work.
The biggest experiment of the conference was not the sessions – the largest was the 12 person plenary on October 2 – it was the field trip. That’s right, we took a virtual field trip to look at the ways automobiles shape our lives. We walked the commodity chain through photographs from around the world. Each one geotagged with an explanation of what we were looking at. The result was an interactive map and slide show that is viewable here.
It is possible to have a conference without anyone travelling anywhere, to attend a placeless meeting of minds.
Thank-you to everyone on the organizing committee and all of the participants. Place and Placelessness is a direct reflection of you and your engagement with a new approach to discussing and disseminating research.