Can You Hear Me Now? The Trials and Tribulations of Virtual Meetings

For our last meeting of the semester, the Digital Scholars group met virtually.  We chose a site called TinyChat because it allows simultaneous video, audio, and text chatting.  I was excited to see how the meeting would go.  While we were able to have a productive discussion, I think it might have gone more smoothly if all the participants had tested out the site beforehand.

Two out of the four of us who were using webcams had trouble getting the audio channel to stay open long enough to say more than three words.  I quickly resorted to typing only, but I left my video window open, which left me with an uncomfortable sensation of being watched while being unable to contribute through that medium.

For my own part, I was also somewhat uncomfortable with the virtual venue because I use chat programs mainly to connect with friends, and have done in some form for more than a decade.  In fact, it was my need to keep up with the speed of instant message conversations that taught me to type much more effectively than Mavis Beacon ever could.  In the virtual meeting, I was in a space that I perceive as casual, while interacting with people that I know professionally.  It was, well, weird.

As we sorted through our technical difficulties, we discussed how we felt the venue was affecting us.  We noticed that there were at least two threads of conversaton, one happening on the webcam/audio level and one in the text chat.  But of course, there was also feedback between the two, especially by those of us who were mainly or completely communicating through the text portion.  Some members of the group had trouble following the multiple threads of conversation, which led to a discussion of online teaching practices and the suggestion that the TinyChat text functions were minimal at best (true).

Eventually, we discussed the meeting topics of un-conferencing and underconferencing.  Ryan asked “But will an unconference get me tenure?”  It was joking, but I think the question does identify one of the main difficulties with doing academic work in new ways and new venues.  As scholars we do have to be concerned with very real questions of how our activities will further our careers.  Presenting at a traditional conference has a recognizable weight to it.  It’s a safe way to go.  A virtual conference may be much harder to place in terms of its value.  However, it’s hard to deny that nearly everything is going virtual.  Who will make the first steps into validating new formats?

I think part of the problem is that the internet has a completely different way of distributing knowledge and establishing credibility than academia does.  I certainly think that academia can and will move into this new medium (and already is in many ways) but how much can we compromise with online modes of making knowledge without sacrificing what’s valuable about old models of scholarship?

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