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Teaming Up: Organising a Digital Conference in 2020

Michael Powell-Davis, second-year PhD student at the University of Kent, reflects on the process of organising the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies’ annual MEMS Festival in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, as a 24-hour decision to host MEMS Fest as a digital conference became a reality.

When I volunteered back in October 2019 to help organise this year’s MEMS Summer Festival – a somewhat rite of passage for first year PhD researchers at MEMS – I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself in for. Having completed my previous study outside of Kent, I’d not attended MEMS Festival before, but having heard nothing but overwhelmingly positive things about the event, I was very keen to be involved. Although at this point I had yet to actually deliver a conference paper, and had little experience in attending conferences even as an auditor, after the first committee meeting in the Gulbenkian Café – with the fantastic Fay Braybrooke, Sam McCarthy, and Hetty Taylor – roles and responsibilities were divided, our call for papers was drafted, and I was feeling confident about all that was to come. Unfortunately, the developing global pandemic forced us to make the call in March 2020 to announce the cancellation of that year’s Canterbury-based festival.

Yet, within twenty-four hours of the conference’s cancellation, with the immediate support and encouragement of the MEMS community we began developing plans to host the first ever online MEMS Festival, which went ahead with great success on 12-13 June 2020. Rather than performing my previous role of Treasurer, taking care of matters such as venue deposits and allocating travel bursaries, I found myself composing tweets as the committee member in charge of social media presence and publicity, deciding which hashtags to pair with which particular copies of woodcuts and manuscript illustrations.

After some help from – and slightly panicked videocalls with – the University’s IT team, we decided on a digital platform on which to host our event and began to organise our programme for the festival. Whilst we were all familiar with Zoom, we decided to host the festival on Microsoft Teams, as this allowed us to host multiple streams at once, ensure online security for our presenters and attendees, and host different virtual ‘rooms’ for each panel, workshop, or conversation. Being in charge of the website, one of my tasks was to write a ‘how to’ guide for using this platform, which involved some frantic last-minute learning on my part. However, drawing on the committee’s experiences outside of MEMS working in administrative roles, events management, and the performance industry, we used our collective knowledge to set things up the best we could. And it all went well!

With over 190 registrants joining us from all over the world, the event was a great success, and although we missed some of the more informal interactions and social encounters that physical conferences can facilitate, there was much to learn and take away from the digital conference experience. Encouraging a rich variety of papers and ensuring that MEMS Festival is accessible and open to all has always been at the heart of the conference, and making the move online allowed us to widen participation and encourage discussion between the broadest audience we have ever had for the event.

In my experience, the online academic landscape can be tricky to navigate – with academic Twitter being particularly difficult to work out at times – but the buzz surrounding #MEMSFest2020 was incredible and the festival allowed for a hugely engaging online forum that was characterised by an overwhelming feeling of friendliness and mutual support. I hope that in times when physical conferences are a possibility again, we can take with us some of the successes of the moves online and use a more hybrid conference form to keep on widening accessibility to these events.

Download Michael's guide to using Microsoft Teams for academic conferences.

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Quick-Fire Questions from Anna-Nadine (MEMSlib Editor)

1. What was your role in MEMS Fest (& did that change as things went digital)?

Although I began in the role of treasurer, these committee positions were mostly left behind in the move online and we all pitched in where we could. For the most part, I took charge of the festival website, social media engagement, and publicity.

2. Were you involved in any of the panels or presentations?

In a visible role, I chaired the Literary Tradition and Criticism panel and delivered the festival’s closing remarks, but I spent most of the time behind the scenes trying to provide technical support and make sure the broadcasts didn’t fall apart!

Our full list of panels were Cultural Encounter and Correspondence; Emotion and Embodiment; Patronage, Community, and Civic Participation; Emotion and Embodiment in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Workshop); Intellectual Networks and Early Modern Knowledge Communities; Literary Tradition and Criticism; Stories from the National Archives; and Visual Culture and Materiality.

3. Favourite speaker or presentation (of those you were able to attend)?

I thought that the Literary Tradition and Criticism panel that I chaired was full of fantastic papers, but one that particularly stood out to me was Grace Murray’s presentation on Thomas Tusser and his ‘Mnemonic Jingles’. I found the paper’s discussion of the mutability of texts as they circulate within constantly changing communities of readers particularly fascinating and compelling.  

4. One thing you'd advise future organisers to keep in mind?

I think being really honest with our presenters and attendees about the organising process was really helpful! I think that letting everyone know that the experience was as new and unfamiliar for us as it was for them helped people feel a bit more comfortable, and eased some of the pressure prompted by the new digital environment, rather than provoking a lack of confidence in the organisers. Or so I hope…

5. And, perhaps most importantly, did you have a good supply of coffee-break biscuits?

I set up a conference corner for myself in my living room (pictured left), ensuring plenty of biscuits and coffee within reach at all times!

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