How to Organize a Virtual Workshop for Environmental Historians

This October the NiCHE New Scholars Group will be hosting its own virtual environmental history workshop for graduate students. Using a combination of different online tools, including Skype, Google Groups, and Picasa, they will attempt to bring together a geographically dispersed group of graduate students studying different aspects of environmental history from around the world. There are still a few spaces available for participants so anyone interested should click here to register.

Will Knight, Carleton University

Virtual workshops and conferences are certainly not new ideas, but they are still relatively novel endeavors in the humanities. The workshop organizers, Lauren Wheeler (University of Alberta) and Will Knight (Carleton University) face a number of different challenges as they strive to coordinate this effort over the summer. Given the great potential of this kind of project, I thought interested readers might benefit from learning a bit more about Will and Lauren’s experience organizing Place and Placelessness.

Sean Kheraj: What exactly is a “virtual workshop”? How does it all work?

Will Knight: A virtual workshop is the same as a regular workshop — people getting together to meet and discuss ideas — but instead it is held online. In our case, we’re running our entire program through Skype, which we’ve successfully field tested as a meeting space over the last year with the NiCHE New Scholars reading group. The workshop consists of a series of concurrent group discussions with a virtual field trip thrown in to spice things up.

SK: At this stage in the planning, what have been some of the major challenges in organizing this kind of workshop?

Lauren Wheeler: We tested the carrying capacity of Skype for conference calls early – learned that 25 people is too many and less than 10 is optimal – and feeling confident the technology will not pose a major challenge, the biggest hurdle has been creating buzz and getting graduate students who are not part of the NiCHE New Scholars Virtual Reading Group to submit papers for discussion.   The concept of a virtual conference is relatively new in academic circles so a big part of promoting the conference has been explaining how the conference works.  Most of the people I’ve spoken to are apprehensive about using Skype for a conference call – usually because they have never used the program.  For the small group discussions we use, typically 4-6 ppl, Skype is the best program.  It allows the moderator to host the call, taking the pressure off the person whose paper is up for discussion, and allows the discussants to have a real-time conversation with the author about his or her work.  Having a solid group of people who have subjected their work to the virtual reading group has helped in having first-hand testimony that the system works and is a great benefit for polishing a work-in-progress.

The major challenge in the coming months is going to be scheduling call times around so many time zones!  In North America alone, we have 6 time zones to keep in mind, and with applications from Japan and France already in there is going to be a lot of playing with time zones to find an hour that works for all participants!

SK: Have you had much interest in this workshop outside of Canada?

WK: Yes, we’ve have graduate students register for the workshop from various points in the United States, from students in Europe including France and England, and one grad student from Japan. And we hope to get a few more!

SK: What are some of the benefits for graduate student participants?

LW: For all participants it is an excellent opportunity to connect with other graduate students from around the world working in environmental history and related fields without having to leave home.  As students, juggling which conferences to attend and which to pass up based on travel funding is tricky.  The web-based format of Place and Placelessness eliminates that stress.  All you need to participate is high-speed internet connection and a Skype account!

The other major benefit is connecting with students around the world, connections that may never happen at traditional workshops and conferences.

SK: How are you going to hold a field trip for a virtual workshop?

WK: This is an especially exciting part of the conference because it is experimental and emergent in nature. The ‘field trip’ is really an invitation to the workshop participants to collaboratively document the presence and impact of the automobile as a commodity in each of our far-flung locales. That is the theme — and we ‘field trip’ together through a digital infrastructure that allows us to share and map the results as each of us wanders about. So we’ll use Google maps, Picassa, Twitter, and other freely available tools to upload images, text, and hopefully sound to a central portal. Environmental historians are known to love field tripping so we thought we couldn’t hold a workshop without a field trip.

SK: What do you hope to learn from the experience of organizing a virtual workshop?

LW: I hope we are able to try out a means of exchanging ideas that capitalizes on the technology we have available and through that is able to set an example for other academics interested in non-traditional forms of conferences and meetings to seriously consider.  Environmental issues associated with travel to conferences and workshops aside, we have so much technology available for little or no cost, it is worth putting it to use.

So far, I’ve learned that organizing Place and Placelessness is just like organizing any other conference!  Well, except for the part where we have to explain how a virtual conference will work to potential participants.

WK: I’ve already learned a lot so far. One thing is that a group of excited and committed new scholars — who are all over the geographical map — can do a lot in a short space of time with freely available digital tools. This bodes well for the future of online conferencing, an idea that I was initially leery of. Looking forward, I am hoping to learn more about making this type of experience as rich and fruitful as possible — and I am especially interested in what may come out of this first workshop. I can imagine that it might spawn an international council or group of new scholars in environmental history who meet regularly — or at least annually — to discuss ideas and to hatch up new and exciting plans.

If you’re interested in participating in this workshop as a discussant or presenter, click here to register.

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