Going global, going regional

A few months into co-chairing the DH 2023 conference, it turns out to be more complicated to proceed with the conference setting I had in mind when this whole adventure started than I first imagined. In this post, I want to explain exactly what I have in mind – at the risk of having to admit that I did not manage to keep up with my ideals at the end of the day when the conference comes up and compromises have wiped away the most idealistic options I lay out here.

Trying to conceive a somewhat environmentally friendly conference is a contradiction in terms. In all of the readings that I have done on this topic over the past months, the main conclusion I can draw is that we, collectively, need to do much less – of everything, if we want our planet to be able to cope with our activity. With that baseline in mind, the challenge is to find a way to make sense out of what is a major scholarly event: a conference that takes place once a year on one continent but addresses attendees from all around the globe.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, I have met scholars who said to me “there is no turning back now that we are used to videoconferencing, we can attend so many events virtually” – and yes, this is an unexpected consequence of the pandemic, a good and horizon-opening consequence for many Academics individually as well as for Academia in general: we won’t keep flying in people for 2-hr meetings, which is really good. But I have also met scholars going “I can’t take all the videoconferencing anymore, I need to meet with real people, you can’t communicate properly when it is only virtual”. And this analysis is absolutely valid too. On the one hand, we need videoconferencing; on the other hand, we need less videoconferencing. And we need to keep our environmental footprint as low as possible. This is the hand I have been dealt as co-chair for the DH 2023 conference. (And I am writing this while the TEI2021 conference is running, and I must say I have probably never felt that much of a community feeling, of an “us” getting together almost in the manner of a family gathering, than during this conference.)

There is a consensus that besides not having conferences, the best way to have them is in a hybrid format (which is also known for being the most complex format to set up from a logistical standpoint), meaning that some people attend in person and some others attend remotely. The main advantages of hybrid formats is that they allow for the remote attendees to either be, well, alone at home behind their computers, or find a way to gather together in order to participate to the conference in a more social setting. This makes it possible for instance, for a conference that would take place in Japan, for European attendees to travel by train to Paris, Rome or Berlin, and have a common venue to take part through videoconferencing instead of flying to Japan. Time zones are a problem there, I grant you that. One of the first big conferences that has been working with this kind of format (as presented on the eco-friendly conferences wiki) was a 24h event delivering on all time zones, from different places around the globe, for several days.

I know operating around the clock is not doable for the DH 2023 conference, so I gave up on this kind of schemes quite quickly. The strength of the DH community though is its grassroots approach: it lives from many local initiatives that impulse regional dynamics, which in the end come together as the big movement that is DH globally. So my thought here was: if we think this hybrid format through for the DH 2023 conference, the best way to implement it would be to connect to the local antennas, to the strong (albeit small, in some cases) DH centers that exist in Universities and libraries all around the globe. And here you have what I am aiming at now: motivating even small DH centers to offer remote conference hosting for students, librarians and scholars to attend the conference from local, regional hubs. This means that you would not necessarily have to travel to Paris, Rome or Berlin, but could as well go to Nantes, Bielefeld or Pisa to be able to participate in the conference, meet with DH colleagues, and present your research. My big dream is that each of these local antennas would take advantage of the workshop days (July 10-11 2023) to set up local events (in the local language!) in order to strengthen regional DH dynamics: workshops, poster sessions, or even more creative formats. After these 2 days, they would be able to attend virtually the conference from this same place, ideally with several videoconference rooms making it possible to choose between parallel sessions. In addition, I am thinking of a gathertown- or speed-dating-like format that would give more virtual space to individual meetings between people at the conference and people attending from a regional hub.

In order to make this beautiful idea of small DH groups all around the globe gathering around the annual event, I am currently working on three challenges. One, there currently exist no funding schemes to attend a conference if you don’t actually attend the conference where it takes place. We need policy makers, funders and Academic administration to be more flexible on this, because bringing people together to a regional hub is less expensive than flying them to the end of the world, but a) they still have to reach the meeting place and stay there for a week and b) the goal is not to address the two scholars who would have attended the conference anyway, but all those who would be interested in it. Second, it requires a lot of logistics to set up such a regional hub, and yet the people who will do it won’t be considered as “conference organizers”. There is a problem of Academic recognition to address if we want to be able to foster this type of formats in the future. Third, not every regional hub will be able to provide the infrastructure needed for parallel sessions/workshops/collective gathertown meetings: we need to be able to offer low-resource solutions as well.

Yes, we still have a year and half ahead of us to conceive and implement this conference. But helping local antennas set up infrastructure and funding could potentially take years, so we need to move now. I have already met with several actors of the DH landscape in France and am happy to report that 3 hubs are in preparation. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you think this might be a challenge worth a try for you or your local DH center.

And DH 2022 will already have a virtual part. You have until November 30th to send in your proposal (see the Call for Papers), don’t miss this great opportunity!

(Illustration: CONDITIONAL LOVE by Sarx404)


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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