Creating Space within Constraints: A Reflection on Conference Planning in a Pandemic

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash.

There is nothing like a pandemic to make one question what an academic conference is for. Especially if you are one of the conference organizers.

When CUNY went remote a year ago, I was in the final stretch of planning Graduate Education at Work in the World, as part of my Fellowship at the Futures Initiative. Together with my colleague Justin Beauchamp, PhD student in Sociology and College Assistant at the PublicsLab, we had succeeded in placing all the sessions in a 1.5-day schedule. For weeks, we had been pouring over a large paper divided into sections, moving around post-its color-coded across multiple categories. Our coded system indicated whether the session is a panel, workshop or roundtable discussion; led by students, faculty or administrators; whether they offered theoretical insights, methods, or skill-building; and the topics they covered: pedagogy, curriculum, career, diversity & inclusion, mentorship, social justice, scholarship, and data literacy. My supervisor Katina Rogers, Co-Director of the Futures Initiative, had already ordered the “swag” — tote bags filled with goodies such as notebooks, pens, water bottles and the like — those nice physical mementos that feel like free candy to academic conference participants. PublicsLab Director Stacy Hartman had lined up our keynote speakers from Frontline Solutions. We were ready to go. It was my first time organizing a conference, my first year on the job as a FI fellow, and my first big assignment that came with the fellowship. Furthermore, we had planned it as a national conference, and participants were scheduled to come in to New York from across the country. I felt the pressure to make it right; to prove to myself and everyone that I could, together with a great team, organize a smooth, innovative conference where people could meet and exchange ideas.

Needless to say, our plans had to change significantly, as did the world around us. In the meantime, we learned a lot of things about the way we work. The pandemic highlighted all of the challenges of academic life and showed the current university model’s limits on supporting its staff, faculty, and students. Our organizing team, made up of people who fulfill the various roles of university student, faculty, and staff, and often more than one of these, also felt these effects. First, we had to understand that we were not immune from this moment, that we needed to let go of the conference that could have been, and that less could be more in such a moment. This helped quite a bit, as our presenters and participants were in very similar situations. We used one of the rare new opportunities (in this instance) that the pandemic provided, which was to be able to meet remotely, eliminating the cost and time required to travel. The challenge then was to anticipate and eliminate, as much as possible, the downsides of meeting remotely — long hours of exposure to blue light, taking in new information through the same medium of the computer screen, and encountering colleagues as disembodied heads, known to most of us as “Zoom fatigue.”

In light of all this, we had to think about what the purpose of our conference is, and two types of structure emerged: on one day, the conference served as a place where ideas could be communicated swiftly and succinctly, mostly through short “lightning talks” comprised of only a few minutes, leaving room for a few questions at the end. People interested in each other’s projects could then follow up with each other at will. This part of the conference was a resounding success, so much so that one could argue that this could always be considered as a format for academic conferences. It reminded me of the advice that I get often as a graduate student that conferences are a meeting of people in a community, rather than a place to discuss ideas extensively, for which there are other types of both virtual and in-person gatherings; I often found this to be very true as well. One example from the rounds of lightning talks on the first day is Ivan Gonzalez-Soto’s presentation on his bilingual comic book project focused on environmental justice. This PhD student in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of California, Merced is thinking of ways to convert his dissertation to a graphic novel to reach wider audiences. With a background in environmental studies, he developed a community-based research project that investigates water management in the American West in relation to racialized labor regimes and agrarian capitalism. Ivan’s lightning talk seamlessly brought together community engagement with innovative and access-oriented formats for sharing academic research that go beyond traditional publications, two of the major themes in the conference.

The second day of the conference served as a space for what I would call workshops with facilitators, where we allotted longer times for presentations, activities, and discussions, while also building on the shared knowledge generated by the first day’s lightning talks. Unsurprisingly, the second day often involved group presentations and longer-running projects that have already reached some results and carved out space for themselves in institutions. These included sessions on public humanities and graduate education, peer mentorship initiatives, inclusive pedagogy, and other student-centered programs. Our opening plenary, which focused on a successful partnership between the University of Michigan History Department and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to create content for college classrooms on digital primary sources, foreshadowed many of the themes discussed in these longer sessions. Project participants discussed their experiences in building a collaboration between faculty, university administrators and museum professionals that resulted in students creating digital primary source collections which are publicly accessible and currently being used in over a thousand courses across the world. Reaching beyond faculty-led spaces for learning, we also learned a lot from students’ perspectives on learning, agency, inclusion and community from the two peer mentorship programs that presented, the CUNY Leadership Fellows and the CUNY BA Peer Mentor Program.

The structure we built for the conference echoes the themes that bring the many ideas shared across the two days: creating room for new ideas and ways of thinking, new methods of sharing research, new pedagogies, and new partnerships to emerge. The respondents to our post-conference survey have agreed that the conference structure worked well: they commented that the structure of the sessions was well-designed, because it allowed people to process the ideas one day and to participate in discussions the next; that the space functioned well for brainstorming as well as for networking; and that the format allowed for open engagement, to name a few. Another important theme emerged from reading these responses: the participants appreciated our emphasis on well-being, restoration and joy, they observed that the conference felt thoughtful, useful, friendly and like a community. They appreciated that we had features like collaborative note-taking and resource sharing, and one participant credited us for encouraging thinking beyond the constraints, adding that they felt hopeful and inspired as a result. In an era where punitive university policies seemed to have changed so little in response to the pandemic, these last comments felt the biggest compliment of all.  We have managed to create a space that has felt less like the neoliberal model of higher education, and more in the spirit of learning and sharing knowledge — what I consider to be at the heart of what makes the university great.

This blog post was sponsored by The Center for the Humanities and first appeared on their Distributaries.


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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New York, NY 10016-4309