AARWR’s First Virtual Conference
Prepared by: Anna M. Hennessey, PhD, AARWR 2020-2021 President (4/15/2020)
American Academy of Religion, Western Region (AARWR)
2020 Annual Conference (13-15 March 2020) – Virtual Conference
Implementation, Results, Recommendations
I. Decision to Implement: Due to the fast spread of COVID-19 in California during the months of February and March of 2020, the AARWR Board of Directors voted on March 5thto restructure its March 13-15 2020 Annual Conference, canceling onsite location at Claremont Graduate University (CGU). Several Board members believed that the conference could still be salvaged through a virtual platform, and an honorary Board member (Dr. Susan Maloney) strongly encouraged the action. The Board agreed that these members could attempt this, though little over a week remained for the organization.
II. Formation of a Virtual Conference Organizing Group: Shortly following the decision to restructure the conference, an organizing group for the virtual conference came together on March 6thto discuss the logistics of moving all onsite conference sessions to a virtual platform. This group comprised Brian Clearwater, the Regional Coordinator (RC); Anna Hennessey, the Vice President and Program Chair (VP); and Joseph Paxton, the Conference Manager (CM). The group had exactly one week to put everything online.
A. Creation of a new conference program (merging of the AARWR “Meeting at a Glance” Conference Program with a new shared Google Doc, while also maintaining a link to the original master program):
- The RC created a shared Google Document through which the new conference program could be created.
- The CM suggested utilizing the “Meeting at a Glance” program model he had already developed and made available through the website [an abbreviated version of AARWR’s full program guide, both of which were at the time available to the membership via the website].
- The RC pasted the “Meeting at a Glance” document into the new Google Doc.
- The VP agreed to organize the Google Doc. Both VP and CM agreed to post links to sessions and any other relevant data about them as soon as the information came in.
- The Organizing Group agreed that the Virtual Conference Program should provide a link to the full 2020 program guide (link above) already created, such that users could access full session information, especially the names of individual presenters, which the group decided would not be included on the virtual program due to the need of streamlining the program for viewership and quick output of the program.
B. Communication with unit chairs about how to transfer actual sessions to online platforms:
- The VP agreed to contact all unit chairs through both an initial mass email and then follow-up emails written to individual units to explain how each unit could go online with its session.
- The VP had envisioned using Zoom for unit sessions and transferring the sessions one by one to online rooms at times that matched those on the original conference program. However, due to the short amount of time available for the restructuring to happen (one week), she advised unit chairs that there would be much flexibility in: how they could structure their sessions, the types of technology they could use, and whether they wanted to hold their sessions at the original times listed on the program.
- The Organizing Group also offered chairs the opportunity to hold their sessions as mini-meetings with only a few people onsite at individual institutions in the western region, or as hybrid sessions—mini-meetings with an online component (e.g. pre-recorded videos to be posted to the website, small-group gathering involving online communication with individual members from afar, etc.). This part of the implementation process involved:
a. Encouraging chairs and getting them involved: Reaching out to units one by one was a crucial part of the process. The VP answered individual questions and concerns about how to run their sessions. She also advised them that she or another AARWR member could facilitate their sessions such that those unfamiliar with the technology would not shy away from holding a session. She began sending names of available facilitators to the chairs.
b. Involving chairs in the process of creating the conference: Over the course of the implementation week, the VP reported back regularly to the chairs through the master unit email list, updating them several times on how their colleagues were creating sessions. She also shared tutorial information, primarily related to Zoom technology and some of which had been discovered by the chairs themselves, crediting individual chairs and units for their creativity and work on the sessions. This sharing of ideas and emphasis on communal activity in turn led to the sharing of more ideas, communal work, and increased interest amongst the chairs in participating in the virtual conference and making it a success.
c. Maintaining regular contact with chairs: It was necessary to have a main contact person for the chairs, and that was the VP, the same person who had been their main contact for the regular conference. Over the course of the implementation week, the VP began outsourcing questions to facilitators.
C. Creating a reader friendly conference program similar to the original program but compatible with the virtual modality: The VP rearranged information on the Google Doc such that the session times as had appeared on the CM’s original document would appear chronologically on the left hand side and beneath which would appear a row devoted to each session and which included four basic columns. The goal was to make the program very simple while still providing engaging information about the sessions. The final program may be viewed here:
The four columns include:
1. A “Web Link” with a short description of the type of session, (e.g. standard conference meeting, roundtable, etc.), type of platform (Zoom, GoToMeeting, etc), and any access information needed to attend beyond the link itself (passwords).
2. A “Panel” column, which includes the unit name and the title of the session. This information was taken directly from the conference program (e.g. Latina, Latino, and Latin American Religions: Religious Traditions and Decolonial Rituals of U.S. Latinxs & Latin Americans).
3. A “Moderator” column, which includes the name and institution of the moderator. This person was most often the same moderator(s) listed in the original program. However, on occasion the moderator was not available, in which case the “facilitator” (see III.C.4 below) became the moderator. When not acting as facilitators themselves, the moderators still worked very closely with the facilitators. Moderators were integral in keeping participants involved in the sessions. As in the case of actual conferences, the moderators already had some communication with those involved in their sessions prior to the restructuring of the conference, and they sent Zoom links and other information to the participants before the conference. During the sessions, the moderators’ jobs matched those of a moderator during an actual conference session. They welcomed participants into the virtual room, introduced panelists and papers, kept track of time, led the Q&A sessions, and closed out the sessions when time was up. When time and interest allowed for it, moderators also asked panelists and other participants at the end of the session for informal feedback on how they thought that the virtual modality had worked for their conference presentations.
4. A “Facilitator” column, which includes the facilitator’s name and institution. The facilitators were the key people to maintaining the sessions because they were responsible for setting up the sessions, making sure all presenters had received the Zoom (or other) link and session time (either through the moderator or through the facilitators themselves), and communicating the information back to the VP so that she could add it to the online program. Ultimately, most of the people who facilitated the sessions chose to use Zoom, though other platforms were used, including GoToMeeting and bigbluebutton.
D. Creating a reliable list of facilitators for sessions: As stated in III.B.4 above, the facilitators were key people to the success of the virtual conference. These people acted as leaders in their own right, with the primary purpose of sending the Zoom (or other platform) invitation to the moderators (and participants if the facilitators had the dual role of moderator). The VP, CM, and RC all agreed to facilitate sessions but it was clear that more facilitators were necessary. Early on in the implementation period, the VP started reaching out to Board members and unit chairs, asking them if they had a Zoom account and a firm grasp of how to use the technology. Over the course of the week, sufficient facilitators were found to fill the schedule as needed.
E. Creating online spaces for larger events: The Organizing Group scheduled and implemented in the program the larger events typical of the regular annual conference, including: the AARWR Board Meeting, the AARWR Section Chairs Luncheon, the Keynote Address, the Presidential Address, and the AARWR Business Meeting. All of these events took place through Zoom. For the Business Meeting, the RC, organized votes through Zoom technology such that the membership could vote on incoming Board member positions.
F. Registration fees :Due to the nature of the in-person conference cancellation and uncertain outcome of the virtual conference, the Board agreed to refund all participants the cost of registration. The CM was able to reverse charges easily through PayPal. For future virtual conferences, we do envision assessing a registration fee.
Total AARWR units represented at the 2020 Virtual Conference:23/25 units participated. Overall, we at the AARWR feel that our 2020 Virtual Conference was a success. During the implementation week, the Organizing Group noticed an increase of interest in participating in the event amongst unit chairs and Board members. Here is the breakdown of how units participated:
1. Full virtual sessions: Ultimately, our final program included 28 virtual sessions for the following 20 units: Asian American Religious Studies; Buddhist Studies; Catholic Studies; Ecology and Religion; Education and Pedagogy; Ethics; History of Christianity; Jewish Studies; Latina, Latino, and Latin American Religions; Pagan Studies; Philosophy of Religion; Psychology, Culture, and Religion; Queer Caucus and Queer Studies in Religion; Religion and Social Sciences; Religion and the Arts; Religion in America; Religion, Literature, and Film; Religion, Science, and Technology; Religions of Asia; Women and Religion. Our original program had 60 sessions, but what many of the units chose to do for the virtual conference was to combine their panels into double sessions or large roundtables. Thus, the 28 virtual sessions contained much of the same material that would have been contained in the original 60 sessions.
2. Partial inclusion as a joint session: Additionally, although the Indigenous Studies unit and the Womanist/Pan-African Studies postponed their full sessions, these two units still partook in a large joint session with the Ecology and Religion unit.
3. Participation as a mini-meeting in an onsite location: The Religion, Literature, and Film unit and the Religion and Arts unit held one onsite mini-meeting at Fuller Theological Seminary during a two-hour timeslot on the second day of the program. The Islamic Studies unit scheduled a special onsite small group meeting at Arizona State University.
4. Postponed or canceled sessions for 2020: We only had two units that were not represented in any way at our 2020 conference. These were our Goddess Studies unit and our Graduate Student Professional Development unit. In the case of the Goddess Studies unit, the group had a highly interactive workshop prepared for the conference and decided to postpone it to 2021.
B. Formal Feedback: The AARWR is currently preparing two surveys for our entire membership relating to the 2020 conference. One survey is a general survey, which will examine user sentiments about the virtual modality for our conferences. The second survey is a diversity survey, which will examine questions of diversity and inclusion as they pertain specifically to the online platform.
C. Informal Feedback:The AARWR is in the process of collecting informal data from moderators, unit chairs, facilitators and participants from the 2020 conference. Overall, the feedback has been positive and participants and organizers alike have remarked on several issues of interest:
1. There have been no major technical difficulties reported.
2. Some have commented that a virtual room/space feels more intimate than does the space of a traditional conference room. Some have remarked that they feel more connected to those in the virtual space; thus, this feeling of intimacy is viewed in a positive light.
3. Some have noted that they miss the personal connections made at in-person conferences, as well as being in a physical environment. This is an aspect to consider thoroughly in the case of future virtual conferences. The AARWR also holds special caucuses and receptions, which would not be possible or would be diminished in the virtual setting.
4. Some have remarked that they appreciate the interactive aspects of platforms such as Zoom, which allow participants to post questions, comments, or even book/article references live during the presentations.
5. Some remark that they feel more comfortable presenting their research while physically located in the space of their own homes, and that this level of comfort leads to what they perceive as better presentations.
6. Some remark that in 2020, they felt more likely to attend a session that was not related to their own area of specialization and that this was a positive result of the virtual conference.
1. The main challenge at the outset of the in-person conference cancellation and decision to go virtual was convincing most members that the conference was still going to happen and that it could be a success. Many believed that this would not be possible, especially in the short time allotted for the restructuring. It is important to emphasize this point because once people believed that we could have an online conference, they began to participate and create community around the idea of having the conference online, which in turn led to a successful conference.
Solution:Regular and positive contact with chairs and Board members was key to shifting perceptions and helping people to envision a successful conference online.
2. At the beginning of organization, finding facilitators for the sessions was a challenge. Those of the Organizing Group knew that they could facilitate sessions, but it would be impossible for them to facilitate all of the sessions.
Solution:Reaching out to chairs and finding which ones could facilitate their own sessions. When chairs expressed confidence and ability in doing this, we asked them right away if they could facilitate other sessions. In the end, we had chairs attending sessions they never would have normally attended because they were facilitating the sessions. Some of these chairs have remarked that they found it fascinating to be part of a session that they never would have attended and that they even participated in the Q&A.
3. Familiarizing chairs and participants with the technology: some chairs had never used the technology and were worried there would be numerous technical difficulties.
Solution:The key to this problem was having people available who knew enough about the technology such that they could facilitate the sessions and communicate with participants who might be having problems entering the Zoom rooms. Overall, we were amazed at how smoothly the sessions went and are not aware of any major technical problems that occurred.
4. The Organizing Group did not know what to do about the registration fees.
Solution: In conjunction with the Board, the Organizing Group decided to refund all participants. Had there been more time to restructure the conference, a new participation fee would have been created. However, due to the nature of emergency with the conference, and the fact that we were salvaging it, we decided to make our 2020 conference free of charge.
VI. Benefits of having a virtual conference realized through the AARWR 2020 event: Over the course of the week, we recognized that there are several benefits of holding a virtual conference. These include:
1. The positive impact on the environment (greening), lowering everyone’s carbon footprint since people will not be flying, driving, etc. for the purpose of attending the conference.
2. Inclusivity: individuals who would not typically attend the conference due to the exorbitant cost of attending (airfare, cost of hotels, meals, etc.) can now attend through the virtual modality.
3. As mentioned in IV.C above, some members have stated that they actually prefer the virtual modality and even feel more connection to others in an online room than they do in a physical room at a conference. Others do not feel this way but there are some for whom a virtual setting seems preferable.
VII. Recommendations for future virtual conferences should they occur:
1. In the case of future virtual conferences, the AARWR should create an Organizing Group that has three members whose specific job it is to oversee and implement the virtual conference program. The VP and the CM should both be included since they are the primary members in charge of organizing the conference. The third member can be anyone from the Board who works well with both the VP and CM, including the Student Reps. A Unit Chair not on the Board but who is knowledgeable about virtual modalities could also function in this role. The VP and CM should jointly choose the third member.
2. Adequate facilitators for online spaces (“rooms”) should be designated as soon as possible in the conference planning cycle. A group email list for the facilitators should be created such that they can communicate with each other with any questions, concerns, etc. they might have.
3. The VP or another Board member who has adequate knowledge of the tech needs for the conference should be the main contact person for the facilitators. This person needs to have regular and sustained contact with the facilitators. If a person other than the VP is the contact person for the facilitators, then that person should act as a liaison with the VP during conference planning.
4. For larger events, such as keynote speeches, the speaker could pre-record the speech, which could be posted online. Q&A sessions could then take place live through the virtual modality. UC Santa Barbara Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI) has already held a virtual conference in this fashion and we are researching their model.
5.Separate virtual social spaces that mimic conference “coffee breaks” and “mixers” should be created. Such spaces could include rooms through which scholars meet one-on-one or in small groups. For example, senior scholars could offer timeslots during which they would be willing to meet students, adjuncts, etc. for 20-30 minutes at a time to discuss research or professional issues.
6. As in the case of creating actual conference programs, the VP and the CM are responsible for developing the virtual program.
7. The AARWR should continue to research the wide variety of virtual conference models being developed worldwide at this time.
8. Hybrid in-person/virtual model: AAR/WR Board member Anjeanette LeBoeuf, our Queer Advocate, recently suggested the possibility of a future hybrid conference in which AARWR would still maintain its in-person conferences but create a parallel virtual conference. Allowing for a more robust virtual program would benefit participants unable to attend due to the cost of travel or distant location, while also maintaining the benefit of the in-person community. This is a topic that the AARWR will also research.
9. See the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) new and regularly updated guide to Virtual Conferences: www.acm.org. This guide includes important information on how to create a virtual conference. AARWR’s First Virtual Conference Preliminary Report is also included in ACM’s guide under Experience Reports.