Virtual exchange can surely be a support to finding the right balance between knowledge exchange that truly benefits from the expensive (socially, environmentally, personally, economically) congregation of people in one place and more granular, fluid, but perhaps impoverished on-line interactions. A virtual meeting and a situated one cannot be expected to do and achieve the same things, but the precise nature of this difference has not received as much attention as the urgency of the transition might merit. Virtual meetings are still in their incunabular phase, where a new technology is expected to replicate the affordances of the old one, with the losses it may represent and the new possibilities it may bring perhaps unrecognised. If we are to understand how to optimally use technology to support scholarship, therefore, we need to better understand not just the technology, but more importantly, what these meetings achieve for us and how.
We propose that the process we need now is not just one of figuring out how to optimise our use of tools, but also of breaking down the experience of the face-to-face meeting into its component parts, some of which may be easily replaced by virtual simulacra, while others may be truly embodied and spatially grounded. This is similar to the process that John Unsworth undertook 20 years ago when he engaged in a project to better understand research processes by modelling them as generic components.
The activities we undertake and processes we join at scholarly meetings are many: we register, we listen, present and respond to keynotes and other papers, we drink coffee and chat over dinners, receptions and at poster sessions. We may even visit a museum, walk in a park or pick up a souvenir of the city where the conference is being held. Of these many activities, which ones are central to our experience, and which are peripheral? What do they each achieve for us, both as individual professionals and as scholarly communities? Which can be effectively recreated in virtual spaces, and which not? Do the tools we have actually meet those needs we can recreate, or do we need new or different ones?
In advance of the DARIAH Virtual Exchange, the event committee compiled a list of what we consider to be some of the functional primitives of the scholarly meeting based on our experience of attending and hosting a range of such meetings. Our hope is that through the input of the participants of the event we can refine and enrich this list. Only armed with such information can we begin to address the wider challenges of how and when to utilise technology to facilitate scholarly meetings. The following is our first attempt to document the scholarly primitives of the scholarly meeting:
A. The primitives (a first pass)
- Semi-formal knowledge sharing, verification and certification (e.g. papers, keynote, workshops).
- Structured and serendipitous individual or small group interactions (poster sessions, networking events, coffee).
- Community identity building (social listening, common experiences, registration, name badges, buffet dinners, ‘letting hair down’ with professional peers?).
- Professional profile building (presenting).
- Collaborative work and learning (workshops, sidebar meetings).
We cannot emphasise enough the provisional nature of this list. We look forward to receiving your input and working together with you to address the questions which the current situation has brought to the fore.
The DARIAH VX Programme Committee