Humanities at Large

What’s a Circle of Fellows Like When You Can’t Meet Anymore?

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on May 06 2020.

by JHI Associate Director, Kimberley Yates

Until COVID-19 procedures called for our social isolation, the JHI depended heavily on the personal and social interactions that took place between our fellows. These interactions took many forms – nights out together, shared film screenings, chats in the kitchen, drop-in conversations with that one person who could explain how to find a resource, and most of all, the weekly lunches. At each lunch, one fellow would present their research to all the others, and then there would be a space for a group discussion. The fellows who listened would respond with their thoughts, suggestions, critiques, ideas for further exploration, and resources that might be helpful. Each presentation was good for everyone, and the chance to present one’s own research was invariably a huge boost forward for the researcher, who came away with ideas and a sense of how their work would be understood across many fields.

How do you replace that?  The exhaustion of constant long zoom meetings is already well-documented. No one really enjoys seeing their face in a tiny box for two hours, and the temptation to zone out and ignore the proceedings is real. As well, at the time when the decision had to be made, zoom was experiencing serious data breaches and attacks in the form of Zoombombing.

The last six presentations that were lost to COVID-19 were the undergraduate fellows, who always get the final presentation slots in order to have the longest possible time to prepare their research projects.

It was important to find a way to keep the group together and engaged, and to keep the undergraduate fellows safe from external attacks when they presented their work. Since they already knew each other well at this point, seeing faces seemed less important than clarity of expression, and the capacity to preserve the conversation for future reference.

We went with Slack, a text-based platform that allows for document sharing. Our undergraduate fellows rose beautifully to this challenge, with presentations that ranged through a variety of methods: recorded PowerPoint files, word documents, and shared readings helped them to convey their ideas to the group.

The discussions easily filled the two hours each week; in fact, given that no time was lost for lunch, they were longer than they would have been. The responses were vigorous and fast-paced. One challenge was that the conversations came quickly and often out of order. Many of the fellows noted that they really enjoyed using emojis to instantly indicate their reactions. Another advantage was the capacity to share links and documents while the conversation continued; this was helpful to the undergraduate fellows who were presenting and could collect these useful references as resources for their work.

A disadvantage of Slack turned out to be the mercurial quality of the conversation; the topic could easily turn to another subject before a question had been thoroughly explored, and sometimes the responses were shallow. As a medium for serious scholarly discussion, it was a bit distracting.

Most of the fellows, and each of the undergraduates who presented, said that they had enjoyed using Slack. I think that it worked because they knew one another well, and because it had a certain novelty value, in that most had never worked with Slack before.

In the coming year, we will face the challenge of bringing an entirely new group of fellows into conversation with each other, and we will probably be using MS Teams to do this because they do not know each other yet, and it will be helpful to see faces. We are all learning as we move forward about how to stay intellectually and relationally connected in this strange new world. There are many possibilities: if one medium isn’t working for you, or your circumstances change, it is always possible to try something new.