Last week I got to attend the first (annual?) Digital Pedagogy Lab in Madison, WI. The week was intense: attendees spent an average of 5 hours per day in one of three workshop tracks (Praxis, Networks, Identity) and also attended unconference sessions, keynote lectures, and daily meals together. It was exhilarating, exhausting, inspiring, and frustrating, all at the same time. The week left me with as many unanswered questions as it answered, and I’m still sorting through what I learned, and how to integrate that learning to improve my own teaching.
In addition to the regular activities, I was also one of a few people who acted as “conference buddies” connecting virtual participants to those who were able to attend physically by co-hosting brief, informal webcast conversations. There were live (and recorded) streamed hangouts each day of the workshop, and I participated in four out of five of them: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Here is the Virtually Connecting page with links to each of the sessions, and here is the overall schedule for the hangouts during the week.
Why Be a Buddy?
Rebecca Hogue (
@rjhogue) and Maha Bali ( @bali_maha) first introduced me to their concept of a “virtual buddy” who could facilitate informal chats between live conference presenters and/or attendees and virtual attendees at #et4online in Texas this spring. At that conference, Rebecca used her devices to connect Maha and other friends to a series of panels at the conference for brief “hallway chats” about the content of the panels. The style was informal and conversational, the purpose not to re-present conference papers, but rather to enable virtual participants (who watched live stream or Twitter feeds during the panels) to ask questions and discuss ideas.
Conferences are expensive and location-specific, so the virtual buddy concept that Maha and Rebecca developed is an attempt to address structural inequities that discourage so many academics from being an equal part of conversations. I love this idea, and I was (and am) delighted to be part of a project that encourages real inclusiveness. I have limited conference funding at my institution, so I am often the one watching the Twitter feed of a conference longingly, and I hope to get to participate as a virtual attendee one day soon. So far, I’ve participated as an attending buddy at three events this year: HASTAC, DHSI, and Digital Pedagogy Lab and as an attending guest at the inaugural #et4online conference.
How to be a Buddy
Now that I’ve been a buddy three times at different types of events, I thought I’d record my reflections. My overall feeling is delight and gratitude that Rebecca and Maha asked me to join their project. As a facilitator of conversations, I’ve gotten to chat with a bunch of folks at each conference–some I know well and others I’m meeting for the purpose of the hangout. The project opened doors for me, giving me a reason to approach Alex Gil (whose work I had admired from afar), and Amy Collier (whose keynote knocked my socks off). And facilitating an online conversation was something to offer back to friends whose work and ideas have influenced mine, such as Adeline Koh, Anne Cong-Huyen, and Chris Friend. Being a conference buddy–acting as a vector to connect virtual and physical attendees–is one of the most embodied modes of participant culture I’ve experienced. I love it!
Being there and being virtual: Balancing two ways of connecting
The most complicated aspect of being a buddy is the fluidity of connecting an embodied experience (conference attendance) with a virtual experience (streaming discussion). Ideally, the two should dovetail seamlessly, with the embodied bridging effortlessly to the technologically-facilitated virtual (which is, of course, embodied differently). In the best of all worlds, I’d hope that the VirtuallyConnecting hangouts provide the virtual participants a point of access into the sensibility of a conference, to the side conversations and serendipitous juxtapositions that transform conferences into coherent events rather than merely sequential presentations. Additionally, the virtual group, by participating in the conversation, can spontaneously generate fascinating connections and create their own shared sensibility, since such event coherence is produced by each conference attendee, or by small groups of attendees who share ideas.
But the part I find tricky is being the conduit: the “buddy” who acts as fulcrum between physical and virtual. I want to make my conference experience visible to the virtual participants, while also making space for them to produce their own collective focus during the discussion. And I want to achieve all that while being mentally present during conference sessions and also fully committed to the streaming discussion. So far, I’ve not quite mastered how to do all that. As a virtually connecting session approaches, I notice that I get nervous: will I be able to round up the on-ground participants elegantly? Will the hangout initiate smoothly? Will our conversation develop naturally out of the collective sensibility of the conference as well as of the virtual participants? How can I invite virtual participants into conversations that feel ongoing among the on-ground attendees with as little repetition as possible? How do I enjoy my own conference-going fully, while also adhering to the preset Virtually Connecting schedule? This last is one of the most challenging aspects of being a buddy: you have to interrupt your own conference to help others connect in. But, so far, that complexity has yielded enormous benefits for me. And, more importantly, I get to feel that I’m giving back to others by bifurcating a bit of my own conference time by linking multiple communities together. It’s one of the most rewarding and exciting aspects of these last few conferences I’ve attended, and I look forward to becoming better at it.