In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online), Clare Griffin (@balalaichnitsa) calls for the organisers of online events to think about the access implications of time zones.
In the brave new world of virtual conferencing, there has been something of a sense that this is more open, more inclusive. After all, we don’t have to travel for hours to get to a physical venue. But there are still a number of accessibility issues, one of which I want to address here.
Time zones still exist.
A substantial number of these virtual events are being held live. That’s great, if you are in that time zone or a neighbouring one. Less so if you are not.
Many such English-language events are being held in North America and Western Europe, so are most directly accessible to academics based in those regions. What about those of us in other time zones? I am in Kazakhstan. There are academics interested in English-language events based in Australia, Singapore, India, and many other places.
Technically, we can still take part in such live virtual events, if we are prepared to get up in the small hours of the morning, or stay up until midnight.
When we were in the era of in-person events, I would regularly be flying multiple hours, crossing several time zones, to get to an event. And would be exhausted. Now, to take part in live virtual events I would often have to disrupt my sleep. And be exhausted.
Sleep is important for everyone, and we shouldn’t expect people to disrupt it to do their job.
Sleep is a particular issue for me, as sleep disruption is a major trigger for one of my conditions, a bipolar spectrum disorder. I am less well if I disrupt my sleep. If I try and participate in live events in time zones far to the West or East of me, I will harm myself. And weren’t well all supposed to be more concerned about our colleagues’ well-being during the pandemic?
This all gets even more uncomfortable when the event in question is some form of global history event. In-person global history conferences in North America and Western Europe would regularly have no participation from scholars based outside of North America and Western Europe. Holding virtual global history events as live events recreates this troublesome disbalance.
Live virtual events can be wonderful. I have been attending virtual seminar series, and they have been joyful, collegial, and just as informative as in-person events. The ones I have been attending have been in Moscow, because the live events held by my colleagues there line up much better with my time zone than most English-language events.
The point of this piece is not to argue against live virtual events, but rather to push organisers to think about the access inequalities they create when they make that choice, and push them to ask themselves whether that is really the best choice from the options available to them. So organisers, when you plan your next virtual event, remember – time zones still exist.
Some thoughts from Clare, first shared on twitter, on possible remedies:
‘A number of virtual conferences have taken the major features of a F2F conference – live talks followed immediately by live discussions – and moved it online. There may be organisational or funding reasons for that, which I understand. There are always limits.
But it is a very literal approach to virtual conferencing. Like a normal conference, but all online. The virtue of virtual conferencing is that it doesn’t have to be like that.
You could run an international conference actually internationally, have panels running in different time zones, a 24/7 conference with something in everyone’s daylight hours.
Or you could go the opposite route: make everything asynchronous. Platforms from H-Net to reddit hold asynchronous discussions all the time.
I think virtual conferencing is here to stay, and I also hope that it does. And I hope we come up with a range of strategies of how to virtual conference that strive to take account of our diverse and global academic world.’
A comment from Christopher Thompson, via email:
“Clare Griffin’s comments on The Many-Headed Monster about the problems faced by historians wishing to participate in on-line conferences or seminars being held in other time zones actually touches upon a wider issue of concern. One of the surprising features of academic history in this and, I suspect, other countries has been the absence of recordings of conference/seminar papers and of comprehensive note-taking. Scholars who were not present may hear about the arguments that have been made but not know precisely how they were formulated. In May, 2015, I was privileged to hear John Walter give a paper in Trinity Hall, Cambridge reflecting on his career and publications since the mid-1970s. It was a fascinating occasion. But I was surprised to learn that no arrangements had been made to record what he had to say. Future generations of academic historians would, I strongly believe, have gained from hearing or watching what he had to say. More recently, I have been reading articles, books and theses from central and eastern Europe (including the states formerly in the Soviet Union) on the English Revolution. Much of this work is intelligent and interesting but very much out of date in terms of the historiography it reflects. But the historians producing this work do not, prima facie, have contacts with early modern historians in the U.K. or the U.S.A. or other English-speaking countries. Access to current work of the kind being provided, for example, by the Institute of Historical Research on-line would help to mitigate this problem. That requires more institutions and learned societies being willing to record their proceedings and to make them available to historians elsewhere via the internet. I am sure the benefits would be appreciated in Kazakhstan and elsewhere.”
A good point, Christopher. I think one of the barriers to this is tradition, which can and should be overcome.
But also there are many cases where a scholar might not feel comfortable presenting their material online to a potentially worldwide audience. Junior scholars risk having their work ‘scooped’ by unscrupulous academics, and of course some people are much more likely to receive hostility or abuse when presenting in public than others. For these reasons, various forms of ‘invitation only’ events with a smaller audience and no recording make more sense in many situations.
I take your point and undertsand your reservations, Brodie. Clearly, prior agreement would be needed from the person or persons giving the paper – as the IHR does now. But it is odd that historians have not made a better effort to record their own history.
I’ve no idea how you transcend the problem of time zones.
I would assume that it’s possible to record papers where people are voluntarily prepared and to empathetically omit those who are not yet ready. My dismay here is that there is apparently no one dedicated channel. Most seem to bung it on Youtube with all the other miscellaneous and diverse material. Some universities in the US have their own channels, but again that is disparate. Why isn’t, for example, UKHE still not funding JISC properly to develop these facilities (as it developed jiscmail lists in a similar manner to H-Net)?
As to H-Net, I may be wrong, but it just doesn’t seem to be as vibrant as it was (in say, the 1990s), although my experience is limited to H-Albion and H-Geog. The reasons escape me, although some jiscmail lists still seem to be productive.
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