The Virtual Parish: Scholarly Communities Online

Laura Sangha & Mark Hailwood

In this post we reflect on eight years of running a ‘virtual’ scholarly community – this blog! – to consider questions that are currently pressing ones for all academics: what do we gain from taking our conversations online? What do we lose? What needs to be improved?   

In the spring of 2020, as much of the world was plunged into ‘lockdown’ by the advance of the coronavirus, regular forms of face-to-face interaction were swiftly replaced by online alternatives. For academics, the classroom morphed into the online seminar; the conference trip was replaced by a day tucked away in a corner of the bedroom staring at Zoom; the common-room catch-up was transferred to the Departmental WhatsApp group.

Innovative initiatives have abounded, including A Bit Lit, a series of fun and informal filmed conversations about history, literature and culture, designed to fill the gap left by the kind of over-a-coffee-conversations that might take place between scholars. We were delighted to receive an invite to take part, and you can see our ramblings here. In the opening film, Andy Kesson talked about A Bit Lit as part of a process of building new kinds of academic community—or to give it a more early modern twist, new kinds of ‘parish’—that would draw on digital forms of contact to overcome the obstacles of infection.

We liked this notion of new ‘virtual parishes’, especially since many of us have been involved in a variety of ad hoc ways in constructing such novel online communities in recent months. But this notion also struck a chord with us because we realised that we—along with Brodie Waddell and Jonathan Willis—had already created a ‘virtual parish’ long before the current crisis: this blog. The context of its creation was very different to the circumstances we face now, but the impulse to create a scholarly community that transcended physical obstacles was central. Indeed, the loss of physical proximity that we had enjoyed as a group of postgrads at Warwick was an important catalyst. Continue reading