Introduction: Small Academic Meetings in the Virtual and the Covid-19 Pandemic

From the Series: Virtual Connections, Digital Contentions: Small Academic Meetings During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Photo by Janita Van Dyk, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

When the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted our current and imagined ethnographic research, teaching, and professional activities, we found ourselves unmoored. We began to rejoin academic networks slowly, as in-person meetings, events, classes, and conferences shifted into virtual spaces. Upon clicking a online meeting link, we were greeted by seas of framed faces, interspersed with display names and animated by awkward silences. We collectively wondered: who would declare their presence first? As people continued to filter into the online space, accompanied by packed bookcases, customized virtual backgrounds, pets, cups of tea, and indiscriminate wine bottles tucked into corners, someone would eventually initiate conversation or begin moderating—much to the relief of our anxieties about etiquette online.

Virtual platforms have been around for decades; for example, Skype was created in 2003 and Zoom in 2011. While these virtual platforms had been used as resources for teaching, research, activism, and social connection, the scale at which they have been exclusively deployed to resume academic work disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic is new. This adjustment has been uneasy for many; learning social cues and communication techniques for virtual gatherings or meetings have proved challenging. As of 2021, online meetings are now routine, for better or worse.

On one hand, the Covid-19 pandemic has given our discipline pause to rethink the academic conference (and academic work more broadly). Many anthropology conferences have been recreated as virtual gatherings. These conferences were preceded by the work members of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) have done in organizing our digital meetings with the Society for Visual Anthropology (SVA): Displacements 2018 and Distribute 2020. Anand Pandian argues this work is vital to creating intellectual futures that are sustainable, inclusive, and just; shifts to online conferences reduce carbon footprints, enable better access to academic conversations and spaces, reduce costs to conference participants (particularly for graduate students), and offer new creative ways to present academic work and enable collaboration with research communities (Pandian 2020). During the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread lockdowns, such virtual gatherings have afforded opportunities to connect while it has not been safe to gather in person.

This series scales down to reflect on how we have recreated small meetings online: seminars, workshops, meetups, symposia, and so forth. Here we use small meetings as a catch-all for the myriad of spaces and activities—smaller than the academic conference—that have been moved online. These gatherings have not received the same sort of attention as conferences. Smaller academic gatherings are just as critical to the development of new ideas and connections and yet are too often sequestered away behind departmental and institutional walls.

Virtual meeting spaces can be deeply alienating. They can generate feelings of displacement despite online connection. Sitting still in front of a webcam with your image mirrored on the screen can require stress-inducing bodily contortions and uncomfortable feelings of self-awareness. Mediated visual and audio components shape how presence is felt and experienced—a half-second audio delay and an occasional screen freeze disrupt a sense of immediacy and feelings of connection. Zoom meetings can create unease about revealing personal living contexts or domestic situations, even if these are glimpses of what academic life now looks like. Meeting online relies on forms of access contingent on a myriad of technical, infrastructural, and relational support—such as reliable internet, electricity, a private space to meet without interruption, familiarity with social expectations and cues in online settings—that are unequally distributed across geographies and divisions, including class, race, and gender.

Online academic gatherings and conferences have ushered in new socialities and possibilities to connect, organize, learn, and research. Streaming series on abolitionist anthropologies, like “The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn,” and other challenges to the anthropological status quo cascade into and unsettle department listservs, YouTube chat forums, WhatsApp groups, and Twitter threads. At the same time, students and educators are “Zoom-bombed” and the academic grind meets “Zoom fatigue.”

The exclusive use of online platforms reinscribes enduring hierarchies within global research communities. The digital divide in access to high-speed, reliable, and consistent internet, as well as electricity and electronic devices, is distributed across geographic divides of urban/rural and Global North/South, as well as other existing inequalities. To speak to and about the challenges and creative ways people navigate differing access to small online academic spaces is to contend with enduring exclusions across digital divides that have been exacerbated in the shift to working remotely. In this series, posts might consider how virtual platforms like Zoom have become the “appropriate technologies” suitable for working and learning during a global pandemic and thus, on the one hand, are invested with moral and ideological promises and, on the other, may “actualize latent (or ‘virtual’) social potentials” (Mazzarella 2010, 798).

In sum, this Open Series is concerned with the struggles and challenges posed in the facilitation and cultivation of small virtual meetings, as well as the affordances and opportunities that these spaces can offer. We seek to locate what we as scholars can do better, as well as how we can improve small academic meeting spaces, which, for many, can be hostile, exclusionary, competitive, trauma-inducing, hierarchical, and colonial. This series does not attempt to elide new tensions emerging in these spaces, or ignore the ones inherited from the academic habitus disciplined into somatic and intellectual registers. Instead, this series invites posts that investigate the way the affordances of virtual spaces—new intimacies, restorative connections, and invigorating collaborations—might collide with or confront histories of academic knowledge production, including exclusionary and pernicious practices underlying our attempts to meet and meet well through forms of digital connection and mediation.

Furthermore, our goal is not to celebrate additional opportunities for academic productivism—how to be a better scholar in pandemic times, add a CV line, transplant “academia proper” into virtual spaces, or professionalize virtual meeting techniques. Rather, our goal is to share with scholarly communities what forms of cooperation, connection, and challenges can happen despite and out of the necessities of quarantined academia. We seek to question: What new intellectual relationships and connections can be amplified? What can be done with these efforts? In what ways do we want to sustain these spaces? In a future where academic meetings can happen in-person, what hybrid forms and what lessons from online meeting spaces and tactics should be translated? How do we move from spaces designed to be “good enough” to spaces that we want to participate in?

References

Mazzarella, William. 2010. “Beautiful Balloon: The Digital Divide and the Charisma of New Media in India.” American Ethnologist 37, no. 4: 793–804.

Pandian, Anand. 2020. “Redesigning the Annual Conference: Contagion, Carbon, Access, Equity.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, March 18.