Rip Van Digital

virtual-conference-loungex1Last 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.

7 responses

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:

    Conferences are a hallowed tradition in academia. It is place for young scholars to present papers, academics to meet with publishers, and elder scholars renew ties with their longtime academic colleagues.

    Unfortunately, these conferences are becoming cost prohibitive for a faculty. Increasingly, colleges and universities are shifting the cost burden to attend these conferences to the tenured faculty. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article highlighting this shift.

    Additionally, universities are hiring more contingent and adjunct faculty. Contingent faculty have never received much support from their institutions and are paid so little that it makes little sense for the attend conferences. As universities replace retiring faculty with contingent faculty, organizations will most likely struggle to even sign up members much less convince academics to attend their conferences.

    Next, conference costs have not declined to adjust to this new landscape. National conferences are still quite expensive across most academic fields. Depending on where you live your conference costs can climb even further. Faculty on the West Coast or the Rocky Mountain region are often faced with daunting travel costs to attend conferences in the New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. At some point, western universities will stop funding conference costs entirely.

    Finally, younger faculty are not nearly as diligent at signing up or maintaining memberships members in professional organizations as their older colleagues. This has become increasingly apparent in other industries. Performing arts organizations struggle to convince younger people to subscribe for season tickets. These companies are forced to spend more and more money marketing to younger people to convince them to buy single tickets. This places an enormous amount stress on these organizations and is not cost effective This problem also confronts academics organizations. Ultimately, the current conference model is unsustainable.

    Michael D. Hattem at the Junto has posted an article entitled Rip Van Digital that addresses some of these issues. He envisions waking up in a world where conferences can either be attended in person or are available for people to attend digitally. Not only would national conferences be available digitally, but so would regional seminars. He also offers an alternative to existing journals. Check out Hattem’s post. It has some intriguing ideas for the future.

  2. The Digital/Physical Conference and seminar ideas are excellent. I think they would be productive, lucrative and encourage open-access to scholars. I am a little more hesitant about the changes to peer-review digital journal publishing that you propose. I know other fields do this, but the nature of their scholarship allows it to work. I think part of the reason why it might not work is because history intersects with so many other fields. I send articles to mostly non-early Americanist journals. I do this partly because I’m not interested in getting feedback on my research (I’ve already done that through peer-review and conferences). When I’m publishing an article I’m trying to inform a broader segment of the scholarly community- people who look at different places and times. I like the idea of online peer-review journal publishing in general (I’ve even done it), but this one has more hurdles, I think, than your first two ideas.

  3. Note that in your “dream” the questions asked of the panel are restricted to one, and that is filtered through somebody who has the chance to first select and then reword in ways of their own choosing.

    Nuthin’ futuristic about that little nightmare.


    • As I wrote: “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.”

      Please note that there is still a physical audience there who still get to ask the majority of the same number of questions of the panelists as they do today (one of the benefits of being a physical rather than digital attendee). This was not a dream about an all-digital academia but “an integrated combination of the physical and virtual,” as I wrote in the piece. And I don’t know if my default assumption of most conference panel chairs is that they harbor a sinister desire to miscommunicate others’ thoughts or questions. And if they did so, it would be obvious in the permanent archive of the panel because, as I said in the post, even the online chat during the panel (where the questions are posed) is archived on the website and available to be seen.

      • Michael,

        You pose the satirical proposition “And I don’t know if my default assumption of most conference panel chairs is that they harbor a sinister desire to miscommunicate others’ thoughts or questions.”

        My observation is that from time to time “moderators,” of all sorts and professions will screw things up viciously — usually, or at least often, with the best of intentions. Your live audience are no solution to this, since they are the ones most under the influence of, and most easily sized up by, the miscreant we’re trying to work around.

        On the other hand the Internet is teaching us by the microsecond that free and unencumbered expression isn’t any certain promise of anything.



  4. This is a fascinating vision of a future that is both exciting and scary. I wonder what such a scenario would mean for evaluating academics who come up for tenure–if tenure continues to exist in the future. What troubles me more is that it minimizes the extent to which personal conversations, contacts, and bonds forged at conferences can have a tremendous impact on one’s scholarship and the trajectory of one’s career. Conferences are not only–and maybe not primarily–about attending the sessions.

    • Rosemarie, there are still physical conferences in the post. What is primarily happening is that the interactive benefits you are describing of physically attending a conference (which I agree are sometimes more important than the panels) are being extended to virtual attendees. The personal conversations that occur outside the panels can still occur for the virtual attendees through a virtual “hotel lobby.” If you see the picture accompanying the post, that is a virtual hotel lobby of a marketing conference, i.e., this is already being done. So virtual attendees would be able to watch and discuss live panels (and even offer questions for the Q&A) while also having the chance to interact with other virtual attendees in between panels and after the sessions are over in the virtual hotel lobby. So I would argue that the vision above actually maximizes the potential for personal conversations between people without the time or means to physically attend the conference.

      *One could see how multi-person chats could be started with people in the lobby by clicking on their names or joining a chat already taking place. Also, one could easily see the functionality to allow users to turn those text chats into multi-person video chats.


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