Conferences in the Time of Covid

Written by John Broadwell, graduate assistant

Earlier this year, I decided to submit an abstract for a poster presentation at the Oral History Association’s 2020 annual meeting in Baltimore. I was over the moon to be accepted, but sadly, coronavirus made the in-person conference impossible to pull off. When I got the news that the conference would be moved online, I was as excited as I was skeptical to see what that would look like.

The first difficulty I encountered was making the poster itself. It’s one thing to submit a 250 word abstract. But then once it gets accepted, the realization that you actually have to do something hits. The last poster I made as an undergraduate was borderline embarrassing, and I threw it in the garbage can outside the building as soon as class ended. I am more of a content-oriented person than a “make the content look visually interesting” person, so I knew I needed help. After getting some design tips from my Gore Center supervisor Sarah Calise and Elizabeth Rivera, the archivist at Lipscomb University, I ended up with a poster I was genuinely proud of.

My poster, which I cobbled together with a lot of help with Sarah Calise and Elizabeth Rivera.

While Zoom seemed like an obvious way to do virtual sessions, the opportunity to network with other people seemed like a trickier thing to replace online. To help with this, the folks at OHA created an island in the video game Second Life that could only be accessed by other people attending the conference. I was actually really impressed by how much work went into it.

Conference dance party with DJ James Nasty. Luckily you don’t need to know how to dance to bust a sick move in Second Life!

Because the conference was originally supposed to be held in Baltimore, OHA modeled the Second Life island after the city. The aquarium, local bookstores, and the harbor (which I definitely saw a few people walk their avatars into) had all been placed onto this little island so that conference attendees could really feel like they were in Baltimore. It was almost like being there in-person, save the fact that you can fly in Second Life.

Here we are on my Second Life island tour, stopped at the aquarium.

There were so many sessions to choose from that I couldn’t possibly go to all of those that interested me, which is really the best kind of problem to have. I mostly tuned in for talks related to LGBTQ+ history, but I also got to take part in some equally interesting conversations on other topics including Black Lives Matter and transnational Arab oral histories. The conference’s theme for this year was “The Quest for Democracy: One Hundred Years of Struggle,” so most of the topics related to that struggle for democracy in some way.

Screenshot from a wonderful discussion on Black Lives Matter and oral history.

My experience with the Oral History Association’s virtual 2020 conference was extremely positive. I was bummed out when I saw the conference had been moved online, but the event planners got around that hurdle in really engaging and interesting ways. This was my first time attending a major conference like this, and I am really appreciative of everyone at OHA who made it such a great experience.

One comment

  1. SL is THE best way to teach & learn history, check out 1920s Berlin & Time Portal in SL, I’m a historian and have been using SL for over a decade to recreate the past 🙂

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