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Bringing “Dissent” to Penn State—Virtually!

By Eunice Toh, the CALS Graduate Research Assistant. A preview story of the sixth biennial conference of C19: the Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, virtually hosted by Penn State over the weekends October 16-18, and 23-25, 2020.

A month out from the highly anticipated C19 “Dissent” conference in April, news of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States threw the Executive Committee’s plans into disarray. Despite the swift postponement of the conference, the possibilities of an in-person meeting in October grew increasingly unlikely as virus conditions persisted. “We initially thought we could still hold the conference in Miami," suggests C19 President Meredith McGill, Professor of English at Rutgers, "but we didn’t know much about the virus then; we couldn’t foresee how we would all be living right now.”  

Thanks to the ambitious and dedicated efforts of the Committee, however, the sixth C19 conference will be taking place in just a few weeks. And, in an unexpected but groundbreaking way, C19 is returning to Penn State, its founding home, a decade after its inaugural conference was hosted under the auspices of CALS. Here is the story of how the virtual “Dissent” came together. 

When COVID-19 first delayed this year’s conference, the Committee decided to keep Coral Gables as a future site in 2022. This meant looking for other options so as not to tax the Coral Gables’ site coordinators with organizing both a live gathering and a virtual conference. Enter Penn State and a team helmed by Hester Blum, Professor of English at Penn State, who along with colleagues Chris Castiglia and Sean Goudie co-founded C19: the Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists.

According to the Society’s by-laws, C19 returns to Penn State every third biennial conference and the university was on track to host again in 2022. “What we have done is essentially flip the 2020 and 2022 site locations,” says Blum, who also spearheaded the organizing effort when the Society’s biennial conference was held at Penn State for the second time in 2016. In taking on the role of Virtual Site Coordinator for “Dissent,” Blum works with the College of the Liberal Arts’ Digital Pedagogy and Scholarship (DPS) and IT staff to ensure that the virtual conference platforms are “accessible, easy to use, and responsive to conference participant interactions.” Hosting and supporting a large virtual conference within a tight timeframe is no easy feat, and she credits DPS Director Kevin Conaway, IT Tech Consultant Marc Kepler, and graduate student worker and former CALS Graduate Research Assistant Miriam Gonzales as crucial partners in this development.

Conaway brings to this event his expertise in digital innovation and project management. “This C19 project to my knowledge is the biggest virtual event the College has supported before or during this unique time,” Conaway notes. Yet having worked on large-scale programs at Penn State such as the National Autism Conference and Ted Talks PSU, he was confident about drawing on these previous experiences as well as other models to “build something that made sense for the conference.”

The move to a digital conference has been challenging for the Virtual Program Committee (VPC) as it seeks to integrate the traditional programming of panels, seminars, and roundtables into a virtual format. While special events such as Nikhil Singh’s plenary lecture, “Racial Capitalism, US History, and the Present Crisis,” and a CALS-sponsored “Celebration of Authors” reception remain in place, much of the VPC’s focus, according to member Gretchen Woertendyke, Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, has centered on how best to “keep the spirit and depth of the original program without placing unnecessary burdens on presenters and attendees.”

Recognizing that participants might have less time to devote to the conference weekends than if they were attending in person and in order to accommodate different time zones, the VPC opted for shorter paper lengths across the board. For example, panel participants now have eight minutes each to speak, or half the time of an ordinary conference presentation. Also, panelists have the option of delivering their talks asynchronously, thus allowing for extended Q&A sessions. “The changes in format were meant to be as inclusive and as flexible as possible,” Woertendyke suggests, while maintaining “the energy of the original program.” While some of the “happenstance encounters” at ordinary conferences—running into friends, seeing former students, wandering into various sessions—may not be feasible, McGill is hopeful that the digital space will allow for new possibilities of reproducing these encounters. “There’s a strange intimacy to seeing so many faces, close up, on your computer screen,” she notes.

Attendees at a Recent Digital Conference Fellows Meeting: Top Row (L-R): IT Tech Consultant Marc Kepler, CALS R.A. Eunice Toh, Justin Smith (Penn State), Tori McCandless (UC Davis); Middle Row (L-R): Zoë Colón (U of Delaware), Virtual Site Coordinator Hester Blum, Yi-Ting Chang (Penn State), Miriam Gonzales (Penn State); Bottom Row (L-R): Leroy Myers (U of Oklahoma), Jess Cowing (William and Mary), DPS Director Kevin Conaway, Rebecca Cheong (Penn State).
Given the heavy tech components of the conference, including utilizing a previously unfamiliar conference management software platform by Ex Ordo, conference organizers recognized the need for additional virtual support during and before the sessions. Thus, the idea of a Digital Conference Fellow (DCF) was born in order to help facilitate conference sessions and ease any technology concerns conference attendees might have. Four DCFs were recruited from the Penn State graduate student community and six additional DCFs were appointed from the wider C19 early career membership. Each DCF will receive an honorarium for their service, along with the invaluable experience of organizing and facilitating a digital, professional gathering. “We expect that the virtual format will be here to stay for a while," Blum advises, "and the DCFs will have expertise in this new world of intellectual exchange.” 

Indeed, one of the greatest opportunities of this new medium is the added accessibility that it affords. This criterion was a priority when thinking about the virtual format, according to Conaway; organizers were mindful of the conference-goers’ health and safety and the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on economic conditions at institutions of higher learning. Thus, for the first time in the Society’s history, C19 will be opening the panels, roundtables, and a variety of other conference events to anyone who wants to join in (non-presenting C19 members can register for $10 and non-member auditors for just $20). “I love that this conference is more accessible than most,” says Blum; “Those not on the program need not incur the expense of travel in order to listen in on the sessions. Conference fees for presenters are lower, too, which aids accessibility.”

As the countdown to “Dissent” intensifies, VPC members are excited to see the fruits of their labor. Woertendyke, who acknowledged the many challenges involved in converting to a virtual conference, is eager to experience this new format: “The more we worked on it, the more I was able to find advantages, though of course my heart still hurts from the loss of our original program and from the inability to engage each other’s work—and break bread—in person.” McGill, too, wonders about “the possibilities and limitations of video conferencing as a site of dissent.” Yet even as she recognizes the usual avenues for expressing dissent, such as marches and sit-ins, have made it difficult to participate during a pandemic, McGill draws inspiration from the history of nineteenth-century dissent: “The nineteenth century teaches us how creative one must be under extraordinary circumstances such as the ones we find ourselves in.”

A presentation at the inaugural 2010 C19 conference hosted by CALS and Penn State at the Nittany Lion Inn.

Having spoken with counterparts who have witnessed virtual events grow to thousands when compared to attendances of previous in-person events, Conaway has high hopes for the virtual environment’s often “unexpected positive results.” “It will be interesting to see how this virtual conference transforms the C19 conference moving forward, he surmises. For Blum, a past President of C19, this virtual homecoming to Penn State has been an “illuminating” experience: “I’m very glad that we can highlight the excellent work being done in American and African American Studies at Penn State, as well as feature CALS and our library's collections through the ‘Main Stage’ videos on the conference platform.”

And with Conaway, Woertendyke, and McGill, Blum is hopeful that “Virtual C19: Dissent will show the inclusive possibilities for future digital conferences.”