Last night, I had a dream about waking up at some indeterminate time in the future, not too distant but not very close either. It was one of those kinds of dreams where you find yourself in a world that is so clearly different from your own, yet at the same time seems strikingly familiar. I was still my same-old early Americanist self. But where was I? Well, that was part of the beauty of it. It didn’t matter. I found myself in an early Americanist digital universe of the future. Not just a blogosphere. Not just various social media platforms. Not just online magazines. But an integrated digital universe, one in which access and participation in all the appurtenances of the institutional life of the profession—conferences, working groups, publishing—had been prioritized and maximized and the restraints of distance and resources minimized. And here’s what it looked like…
The two major national conferences in the field—the OIEAHC and SHEAR—and many of the larger regional/topic conferences (including those held in Europe) had been transformed into an integrated combination of the physical and virtual. The conferences were still held and attended in various cities throughout the US and Canada. But now there was a new digital layer added to the conference. Those who couldn’t physically attend the conference paid a relatively modest “digital registration fee” (waived for graduate students) that allowed them access to a password-protected conference website (and/or the conference iOS/Android app). That website streamed live video of every conference panel and registrants could choose which panel they’d like to view for each session (or switch between them). The page for each panel included biographical information on the participants and a transcript of the panel updated in real-time. It also included links to PDFs of any pre-circulated papers. On the right sidebar of every panel page was a real-time Twitter feed of the conference hashtag that also allowed users to write new tweets. At the bottom of the page was a chat box allowing digital attendees to talk with one another about the presentations and post links to articles and books relevant to the discussion. During the Q&A portion of each panel, the moderator usually asked at least one question posed by the digital attendees, in addition to the questions asked by physical attendees.
After the panel ended, a video chat feature—like Google Hangout—was activated that allowed digital attendees to use the time in between panels to engage in face-to-face discussion of the panel rather than running to another room. The website/app also included a digital “hotel lobby,” in which virtual attendees could congregate and converse with one another much as the physical attendees were doing in the physical hotel lobby (see pic above). After the conference was over, users retained access to the site and all panel presentation videos (and online chats) were archived. Users who had not digitally registered could also pay an even smaller fee to access the conference archive, starting 7 days after the end of the conference. This access was also included in the registration package for the physical attendees. And, just a final note (and something which I don’t have the space to go into), the job search process was now conducted on a similar website that had consolidated the entire process, from application to interview for both applicants and hiring committees (something which the Mathematics field has already done).
But it wasn’t only access to conferences that had been transformed. Access to regional seminars and working groups had been as well. A central website/app similar to the conference website had been created that offered digital access to and participation in all of the major early American history seminars and working groups. Access to the seminar platform was also offered for a modest registration fee. For that, registrants could log on to the front page of the website/app and see a single, combined schedule for the semester or year. For graduate students or faculty who lived in areas without their own regional seminar or who found themselves at schools with no real early Americanist community, they could virtually attend any seminar meeting in the country. The Seminar website was something of a no-frills version of the conference website, with less bells-and-whistles but retaining the core live stream and interactive chat features, along with a clearinghouse of the pre-circulated papers for all seminars. All of the event videos and documents were archived on the site. On occasion, when one seminar had an especially interesting presenter, other working groups would organize a “viewing party,” treating it as a meeting of their own.
Individual journals had effectively become obsolete. The entire field had its own dedicated website that acted as a clearinghouse for articles on early American history, each extensively tagged and categorized. Access to the site was offered in two levels: reader level and “peer” level. Readers had access to the articles on the site, often purchased through university subscription. Each article included a comments section, much like a blog post. The non-public or peer platform of the website was where article submissions and peer review took place. Each category (or subfield) had its own Editor(s) charged with oversight and management. Articles were submitted to the appropriate Editor who would then determine if the article could be put up for peer review. If so, it was uploaded to the peer platform, which also looked very much like blogs do now and where “peers” read and offered their appraisals (i.e., accept/revise/reject) and reports in the comments section below each article. The author of the article remained anonymous throughout this process but the peer reviewers commented under their real name. Once a submission had received sufficient reviews the Editor would make a decision based on those reviews. Participation as a peer was seen as service to the profession. So the process was not radically different than it is back in the present, it had however been centralized, made a bit more transparent, and sought to allow readers to engage with the scholarship (and the scholar) publicly. At the moment I was there, the same process was beginning to be used for book manuscripts as well (which, generally speaking on first glance, seemed to have gotten much shorter, and I assume more concise, than they are today).
Looking Back on the Future
So how did all of this happen, you might ask? Well, as I can imagine, there must have been many objections to each of these developments, if not to all of the various aspects of each. Our future early Americanists must surely have been very skeptical (and perhaps a bit uneasy) about changing the most comforting aspect of presenting a paper at a conference or seminar, its ephemerality. “But conferences and seminars are for presenting and getting feedback on works-in-progress,” many must have said when the idea was first proposed. But, that is to say, they are primarily for the presenter and not the attendees. But, surely we don’t travel across the country to attend conferences just to watch someone else get all the benefit.
So our future early Americanists must have found a way to think about and balance the value of conferences and seminars for both presenter and attendee. They also must have achieved consensus on the importance of broad participation in the field, and minimizing the deleterious effects of being underprivileged in a highly-privileged profession. They must have decided that just because a graduate student, adjunct, or new faculty member could not afford a plane ticket and three days/nights at a fancy hotel (or attended a school with no seminar) did not mean that they should be denied access to the scholarship and even part of the social benefits of attending a conference. They must also have decided to take the validation and vetting of scholarship into their own hands, cutting out the journals and university presses. And, overall, those who would be in positions to implement and manage these kinds of digital initiatives must have been committed enough to be willing to accept the new responsibilities and burdens, i.e., more work, required of them.
Now, let me be clear, I am not advocating we contemporary early Americanists adopt all of these changes. Nor am I accusing early Americanists of being slow to step to the digital plate, as it were. Early Americanists, to our credit, have been early adopters of new digital technology and platforms. And the future world above is one in which digitalization in the name of access was prioritized and pursued (with sheer abandon, one might say). Though, it is worth noting, that none of the above actually requires new technology (see InXpo or Blackboard Collaborate). All of it could be done within a few years, if there was a real will to do it. But in its absence, we might do well to consider at least how we might begin to use the digital tools now at our disposal to achieve broader participation, greater transparency, and, hence, a more level playing field by affording greater access to the immense value of the institutional life of academic early American history.