A Bit of Brainstorming About Holding The CCCCs (and other academic conferences) F2F and Online

I’m not that worried about getting and dying from Covid-19 (though I don’t know, maybe I should be), but I can understand why people are concerned both for themselves and for others, and I can understand why there have been travel restrictions and school closures and all the rest. So while it’s probably too late to contain coronavirus and perhaps we’ve all already been exposed to it anyway, I do get why events are getting cancelled and why potentially sick people are self-quarantining and the like.

Which brings me to this year’s annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, scheduled to take place March 25-28: perfect timing for Covid-19 to have everything cancelled and all of us home and alone and and constantly washing our hands, and not conferencing in Milwaukee. Well, potentially; and if the conference goes on as planned, I’m still planning to go. But that’s all still a big “if.”

Now, one of the things that’s come up a lot on Facebook and Twitter and the like is the idea of “just move it online.” I’ve been saying a version of that myself, though though long before coronavirus. I know first hand that “just move it online” is not something that just happens magically, quickly, easily, and for free. But I also have some ideas on how this might work, and because it came up on Facebook (Julie Lindquist, who is chair of the conference this year, asked me to share my thoughts) because I’m procrastinating from grading, I thought I’d write about that.

The TL;DR version: the conference should have a web site and allow online participants to share links to their online presentations on that web site.

A few disclaimers. First, I don’t have much of a dog in this fight because while I’ve been going to the CCCCs off and on my entire career, it’s just not that important of an event for me any more. Second, I have systematically avoided getting involved in some kind of CCCC or NCTE service and I’m not planning on starting now. Maybe that is a mistake on my part, but it is what it is. And third, I’m not talking about doing away with the face to face conference. I think that’d be a bad idea. Rather, I’m just talking about giving people the chance to participate while not actually being their physically, and I’m talking about a way of preserving and sharing presentations beyond the moment of reading a paper and pointing at a slide show in a nearly empty room at a conference hotel.

Fourth– and this is an important one– the CCCCs can’t “just move it online” in less than three weeks. It is simply not enough time. Yeah, it sucks and it sucks a lot, and maybe participants could try to use Google Hangout on their own (see below), but I think it’s too late for the CCCCs organizers to systematically create an official online presentation mode. What I’m talking about here are ideas to think about for next year and beyond because there are lots of reasons to make academic conferences more accessible beyond a pandemic.

With that, some brainstorming/ideas:

The first thing that needs to happen is organizations, participants, and institutions are going to have to accept that online attendance/participation in a conference will “count” just like going to a conventional conference. Most academic organizations like the NCTE/CCCC make their revenue from the fees people pay for membership and the fees they pay for attending the conference. Most attendees of academic conferences have to be included on the program as a presenter of some sort in order to get funding from their institution to attend that conference. So in order to sustain this arrangement, universities have to agree to fund online participation, and participants have to agree that an online presentation at a national conference is just as valuable in a tenure/promotion process as a face to face presentation.

I think making these shifts could be tricky. Organizations like the CCCCs have A LOT of their identity and value tied to a big gathering of thousands, so I can imagine why a lot of the leadership might not want to give that up. Plus I am sure having a conference where a significant percentage of participants are not physically at the event would throw a huge wrench into the deals the organization negotiates for conference hotels. Every university funds these things differently, but I can imagine a scenario where my university isn’t willing to fund an online conference at the same level they fund a f2f one. And if there’s anything that was learned from the experiments that the Computers and Writing Conference conducted years ago with running an online conference parallel to the f2f one, I can imagine that a lot of participants will see participating online as not being as real and credible as f2f participation.

At the same time, I think we’re at a moment where making this kind of mindset shift has never been easier. As the saying goes, “never waste a crisis,” and one thing that’s clear about Covid-19 is it is very suddenly making a lot of academic-types give online conferences and online teaching a second chance. Plus I think it’s fair to say that the technology to support this stuff has improved dramatically over the five or ten years. So I think the moment is right, but doing anything new and different is always difficult.

The second critical thing NCTE/CCCC needs is to be better– A LOT better– with the technology. Quite frankly, this shouldn’t be a major problem, but given the organization’s terrible handling of basic web stuff for decades, I don’t have a lot of confidence that they’re capable. I experienced this incompetence first hand when I had an article in the first version of the CCCs Online in 2002 disappeared by NCTE when they didn’t transfer that one issue journal to permanent server space, and when they tried to find a new editor for the second version of the online journal.  And the current NCTE website is a mess.

I don’t want to come across as holding a grudge because most of that is in the past, and I know things have changed– though the web site still sucks. Nonetheless, before the NCTE/CCCC can successfully have an online option for their conferences, they need to get their tech shit together.

Having said that, this doesn’t have to be complicated. It could even be something as simple as a web-based version of the program with links to online materials. When Derek Mueller and Bill Hart-Davidson and I hosted the free, local, and very loose WIDE-EMU conference, we invited people to send us links to materials they wanted to share and then we put them up on a web site, one hosted by Google. It’s not fancy at all and it required the labor of posting those links (mostly a lot of copying/pasting), but it worked for us, and it might even work for the CCCCs. And because it’s Google, it’s free.

Or maybe the movers and/or shakers of NCTE/CCCC should talk to folks at a company like Instructure, which owns Canvas, and see if they couldn’t make a deal. Seems to me a platform like that might work well and provide a lot of useful features not available with just a web site. Plus it’d be good PR for Instructure to either do it for free (with prominent “sponsored by Instructure” kinds of advertising of course), or they could give the organization a break on the costs. I mean, the conference is made up of thousands of people who are either already using Canvas and/or people who are a part of the decisions universities make about Canvas versus a different LMS. It seems like it could be a win-win arrangement, not unlike the conference’s long-standing relationship with the now fading textbook business.

Third, folks need to get past the concept that moving an academic conference online means the organizers are going to live stream the whole thing from the f2f venue to the rest of the world in a big and elaborate way. Never mind the expense of the audio-video equipment or the subscription to Zoom or whatever software (though again, maybe NCTE/CCCC can make some kind of deal) or the technicalities of setting all this up. The CCCCs has 50 concurrent sessions for pretty much every time slot of the conference; I am no expert at this, but I would guess that most conference hotels do not have wifi networks that could broadcast half that number of sessions simultaneously. Well, at least that’s true for the next few years; once 5G really rolls out, that’s potentially a different story.

Besides, elaborate live streaming is probably not the ideal solution for most conference sessions anyway. It seems to me that live broadcast of sessions from the organizers should be limited to sessions that are likely to attract a decent-sized audience. Not to be too glib or dismissive about all this, but what’s the point of spending a lot of money and resources to broadcast to the whole world a session that can’t even get a dozen people into the room?

So rather than the organizers broadcasting everything, I think what the CCCCs wants to do is to allow individual participants/panels of presenters to broadcast themselves. This would actually be pretty easy to do, especially for folks who are not on site and clogging up the conference hotel’s wifi network. Google Hangouts allows users to live stream a synchronous gathering  with hundreds of participants and thousands of viewers. Google has made the advanced features free until July for everyone. For those of us at universities where G Suite is already the way we get our email and such, this is and will remain free beyond July. Granted, Hangouts can be a little clunky and we’re talking mostly about video presentations that will end up being people’s faces staring into their laptop cameras with maybe a slideshow going. It’s not like watching Netflix or something. But again, free and easy.

Beyond thinking synchronously, I think most individual presenters (online or f2f) would be much better off doing what I’ve been doing for years: put some version of the talk up online and share that link with the world. It’s not complicated, though it does require someone to actually write down a presentation. We’ve all seen that presentation where the speaker just “wings it” and does it poorly; this would not go well online at all. Then again, it doesn’t go well in person either.

Anyway, I did this most recently for my talk at last year’s CCCCs (a session where one of the presenters was gone and where we had an “audience” of one), it’s what I did with my talk at Computers and Writing in 2018 (which was a session where I was the last speaker and the first two both rambled on for 30 minutes, meaning I had to speed read this), and it’s what I did at the CCCCs in 2015 (a session where an overzealous session chair cut me off at 15 minutes even though I had assumed 20). And the nice thing about providing materials like this is they have at least some shelf life after the conference, too. I don’t really know how many people have clicked on these links or looked at these materials, but I guarantee you it is at least as many people who showed up to the actual presentation, probably more.

Okay, to sum up:

  • The problem isn’t the technology. It is possible to do this. The problems are the institutions and the people.
  • The NCTE/CCCC needs to get its tech act together and they need to make this a priority.
  • There’s no reason to live stream everything to everyone.

So here’s what I’d do:

  • Keep it simple and fair, and make online presenters pay the same registration fee as f2f presenters. After all, the organization still needs to collect money to run the conference and organization regardless of how they’re participating, and online presenters are already saving a bunch of money by not having to travel. Plus if everyone pays the same registration and if everyone has the ability to participate either in person or online, then everyone has flexibility. You could have people participating only online and people participating both online and f2f, and organizers could just stick with one registration process.
  • Figure out a platform. On the “fast, easy, cheap” end of things, that could be something as easy as a Google Sites page with the program and links to presenter’s materials or Google Hangout sessions. This would probably require people to actually add links from presenters, and that could be a fair amount of labor. On the higher end of things, this might be a more dynamic and powerful platform, maybe one that allows individual users to post links to materials themselves. It would allow the CCCCs more easily to put stuff behind a firewall so you could limit access to certain things to people who registered for the conference or who are members of the organization.
  • Other than some of the bigger “ballroom” kinds of events, require would-be online participants to do it themselves with Google Hangouts. It’s far from a perfect solution, because it would require participants to figure out how to use Google Hangouts and to provide a link to materials to share with the rest of the conference, plus I’m sure there are folks who would object to doing business with them for some reason. The same would be the case with any other easy and “free” solution. But it would work. Probably.

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