I recently had to cancel a trip to a conference. My panel is continuing without me; the chair has graciously offered to read my paper in my place. Partly because of this, I am doing something I haven’t done before: putting together a companion webpage for the presentation.
Making companion webpages does not seem to be a widespread practice yet at history conferences, but I do know historians who have done it. For other people who are interested in the idea, I thought I would talk through what I am doing, keeping in mind that many presenters may not have extensive experience making webpages.
First, I should explain my rationale and goals. As a conference-goer who is not a very good auditory learner, I have often wished to have certain written resources during someone else’s presentation—the correct spellings of characters’ full names, longer excerpts from documents quoted in the talk, and so forth. Setting up a webpage for the presentation—taking advantage of the smartphones and laptops that many people in the room are already using—seems like a flexible way to meet these needs.
It could also establish a kind of virtual middle ground for anyone trying to follow the conference remotely on social media—which, in this case, will include me.
To meet these needs, I am setting up the companion webpage as part of my existing professional website. (If you don’t have a professional website already, setting one up is fairly easy with a drag-and-drop website builder service, even if you don’t have much experience.) Alternatively, you could accomplish the same thing by putting up your companion webpage as a post on a weblog. Because the companion webpage needs to be available to people sitting in a physical room and listening to my paper, I am making sure to meet the following criteria:
- A companion webpage should be easy to find, even for people who don’t have the URL (the web address) in front of them. Therefore, I am putting the companion webpage in a prominent section of my website. If someone at the conference simply searches the web for me, using the information in the conference program, they can probably find the companion webpage with only a few clicks.
- There should also be a short URL available to take people directly to my companion webpage. I plan to use a free service like tiny.cc to make a customized “shortlink” that people can easily copy down or remember when they hear it. (These links are case-sensitive, so I will make sure the phrase I use after the slash is all lowercase to prevent confusion.) I will ask my chair to announce this address at the beginning of the paper.
- The companion webpage should be organized in a way that will make sense to people listening to the oral presentation. Therefore, I am sorting the elements on my companion webpage into well-defined thematic sections. Within each section, I am also trying to place these resources in approximately the same order in which they appear in the paper.
Beyond these key principles, what will my companion webpage look like? I’m still working on this, but here are some ideas I am playing with:
- The abstract I sent to the conference organizers
- A dramatis personae with the full names of main characters and links to short biographies on other websites
- Full citations for a few of the most important primary sources discussed in the paper, including long excerpts or links to transcripts (when available)
- A timeline of key events mentioned in the paper
- A list of major locations, with contextual information that may be useful (e.g., city population sizes at the time of my narrative)
- A selected bibliography of secondary sources, especially those written by authors I mention by name in the paper
- Recommendations for non-academic background readings
- Charts and tables for quantitative data
I can also think of some other elements that probably are not relevant to my paper this time, but which could be useful for other presentations:
- Links to high-quality images of material artifacts and works of art
- A glossary of terms
- Links to maps
- Citations and links to scholarship the presenter has published on related topics
- A list of related presentations at the same conference
- An acknowledgments section
- A formal disclosure statement for possible conflicts of interest
The point is to add new dimensions to the paper—to extend it for the audience in the room, and perhaps to provide partial access for people who are not in the room. Of course, most presenters will want to be very selective. Conference papers are works in progress, and anyway, a relatively terse webpage is probably more useful to most audiences than an exhaustive list of resources would be. The companion webpage should provide a taste, not a full meal, and it may be wise to take it down after a certain amount of time has passed.
If anyone has experience putting together a companion webpage like this, and would like to discuss what worked or didn’t work, I’d welcome that discussion in the comments.