Conference Review – Thoughts on the 2020 digital Leeds IMC and the future of meetings and conferences in the age of COVID-19

In this blog post, Victoria Shirley of the Ceræ editorial board shares her impressions of the 2020 virtual Leeds IMC

The 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic has upended the models of teaching students and exchanging research that we have used for decades. Large, in-person classes for most of 2020 have been changed to online classes. Mass gatherings of researchers and students at international conferences are not an option this year without the near certainty of creating new virus hot spots upon the return of the attendees of such gatherings.

However, with the continuation of the pandemic and continuing travel restrictions in many nations, educators and researchers have made adjustments to a reality where free movement is no longer an option for millions. The COVID-19 virus has subsided in some nations, but the world is still experiencing flare ups and smaller outbreaks. While many conferences earlier in the year were cancelled outright after the scale and severity of the epidemic was realized, changes have been made to the format of conferences and meetings to facilitate the exchange of information in the absence of the ability to meet face to face.

Earlier this year Victoria Shirley attended the virtual Leeds IMC and has been kind enough to share her impressions of the conference. The IMC by now was some time ago, however it was one of the larger conferences in Medieval studies this year that switched to a digital event, and in so doing became something of an experiment in the practicality of conducting a large scale online conference.

Leeds IMC team readies for the launch of the congress – via Leeds IMC Facebook

Victoria is a Teaching Associate in the School of English, Communication, and Philosophy at Cardiff University, where she teaches undergraduate modules on medieval and early modern literature. She also serves as our Deputy Editor here at Ceræ.

Reflections on the Virtual IMC, 6-10 July 2020

When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein of earth with that liquid by whose power the flowers are engendered; when the zephyr, too, with its dulcet breath, has breathed life into the tender new shoots in every copse and on every heath, and the young sun has run half his course in the sign of the Ram, and the little birds that sleep all night with their eyes open give song (so Nature prompts them in their hearts), then, as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer observed many years ago, folks long to go on pilgrimages. Only, these days, professional people call them conferences. — David Lodge, Small World

Every year in July, medievalists from around the world attend the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. I have been to the IMC four times since 2015, and I originally co-organised four sessions on ‘The Marches of Britain and Ireland, 1100-1400) for the 2020 congress. However, the in-person congress was cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the virtual IMC was set up as an alternative event in July.

After consulting participants, the IMC committee put together a revised programme for the congress and designed an online platform for the event that was straightforward and intuitive to use. Despite some changes to the programme, I was pleased that two of the four sessions I co-organised still took place, and I am grateful to the participants who agreed to present their papers.

I attended several online sessions throughout the week, including ‘Writing Identity in Liminal Spaces’, ‘Delimiting Territories: Case Studies of Imagined Frontiers’, and ‘Somewhere, Someday, Somehow: Imagined Borders in Narratives of Communities’ (among others). Many of the sessions were well attended, and some included 100-150 participants. One of the benefits of virtual conferences is an increased audience capacity since they are not limited by physical space. Although it is different experience presenting a paper at a virtual conference, the audience were clearly engaged with the sessions, using audio and/or video facilities to ask questions, as well as posting comments and follow up questions in the chat. The sessions were well organised, with IMC staff supporting moderators and assisting with any technical difficulties.

Of course, there are also some disadvantages to virtual conferences. Participants require stable internet connections to attend sessions, and speakers need reliable audio and visual equipment. Online security had to be improved after several sessions suffered from internet trolls. Social events are also not quite the same online as in person. Although I did not attend any of the online networking and social events due to lack of time, I certainly missed having drinks with friends in the Old Bar.

One of the highlights of the IMC is the book fair. Several publishers took part in a virtual book fair, offering discounts on various titles in medieval studies. I usually end up spending far too much money at the book fair, but this year I did not splash out on any books (for which my wallet is very grateful!)

Despite the change in platform, the congress still felt truly international with over 3,000 participants attending from across 60 countries – and several different time zones! As the virtual event was free of charge, the 2020 congress was accessible to everyone, especially PhD students, ECRS, and those on fixed-term or casual contracts who often don’t receive conference funding from their departments.

I commend the IMC Committee for putting together a successful event to share research and to help build communities across medieval studies at such a difficult time.

Victoria Shirley