Place and Placelessness: “Coming at you from everywhere”

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Will Knight and Lauren Wheeler

Map from the virtual field trip on car culture around the world
Map from the virtual field trip on car culture around the world

We’ve all been to conferences that cost a thousand dollars in travel, lodging, and expenses, all for the privilege of watching presenters read papers aloud. Conferences, of course, offer other opportunities, but for graduate students the cost-benefit analysis is not always positive. Last weekend, however, 25 graduate students tested the new model of online conferencing and convened an international conference that cost almost nothing, yielded rich intellectual and social benefits, and involved zero travel.

Place and Placelessness was billed as a collaborative workshop for graduate students in environmental history, and was entirely conducted—from initial organizational meetings to the final plenary discussion and field trip—online.

As the organizers, we were nervous beforehand. We knew that online discussions worked: in August 2009, the New Scholars group launched an online reading group that proved the concept. The infrastructure was basic and cost nothing: a Google Groups site to distribute papers and coordinate meetings, and Skype, the popular online telephone service, to host monthly live discussions.

But could it work with a broader cross-section of graduate students, including those who did not necessarily practice environmental history? And could it work across multiple international time zones and with participants who had paid no fees and were thus under no compulsion to attend?

The answer was an unqualified yes. After months of planning, the workshop was successfully hosted on Friday October 1 and Saturday October 2. Eight papers were discussed in seven sessions over the 36 hours of the workshop. Some sessions stretched across two oceans and several time zones. On Friday night, for example, participants in Australia, Japan, England, and Canada were linked through remarkably clear audio connections to talk about lake fisheries in Ontario and Australia.

Co-chairs Will Knight of Carleton University and Lauren Wheeler of the University of Alberta led the workshop committee that comprised New Scholar members Sean Kheraj, Jay Young, Colin Tyner, Linnea Rowlatt, and Adam Crymble. Planning for the workshop began in January with the call for participation going out in late May in time for CHESS. By mid-July, the workshop was fully subscribed and organizers had in hand an interesting selection of abstracts. At the end of August, all the promised papers arrived on deadline, time zones were juggled into a feasible schedule, and the countdown to the workshop began. With only two participants withdrawing, the workshop experienced a high level of engagement and satisfaction, which bodes well for future events.

Engagement was easy to achieve given the rich, innovative topics that came in from across the globe. The papers discussed touched topics ranging from perceptions of climate change in fourteenth century England, to considering the mountains of Montana as part of the Western Interior Seaway, to the intellectual legacy of ecologist Eugene Odum on the American South. There was even a fantastic double session that considered fisheries, tourism, and aquaculture on Ontario’s Lake Ahmic alongside a paper that dealt with the remaking and re-imagining of Lakes Entrance in the Australian province of Victoria.

Participants also ran the gamut. Many identified themselves as environmental historians, but several came from other disciplines, including education, environmental science, and landscape architecture.

Audio was generally very high quality: only one session experienced some problems when French graduate student Elsa Devienne had internet trouble. This was frustrating, but since Skype also offers a synchronous chat function, session participants were still able to talk with her. Live-blogging and Twitter were also used to maintain other communication channels that helped break down the silo effect that separate online conversations can create.

The workshop concluded Saturday afternoon with a plenary involving 12 participants. In a previous test session, we learned that online conference calls start to falter when more than 10 participants are involved. But we decided to forge ahead and it turned out to be the right call. This session ran over two hours and in addition to considering future ideas for similar meetings also engaged in that favourite pastime of environmental historians, a field trip.

The field trip was conceived as an experiment, but with Sean Kheraj’s help it turned out to be one of the workshop’s most exciting aspects. Participants were asked to upload photos and short texts to a Picassa photo album, all to illuminate the field trip’s theme, the ubiquity of the automobile in global landscapes. Sean even produced a nifty slide cast instructing people on the intricacies of geo-tagging their photos.

Once tagged, the photos were displayed on a Google map—but the big surprise was when participants opted to view the map in Google Earth mode. Clicking into that mode resulted in a moment of audible awe as a surprisingly effective visualization came into view. In several sessions, the field trip map was brought into the discussion and helped situate participants to locales mentioned in the papers.

The feedback from participants has been positive and several have already joined the reading group. David Harris, the workshop’s Australian delegate, commented that “for the space of two days an entirely new network existed in environmental history powered largely by the energy and ideas of the participants but with the smallest of eco footprints.” Indeed, the workshop’s small carbon footprint was one of the key attractions, not to mention that the cost to participants was zero. Moreover the workshop gave good swag: each participant received, thanks to NiCHE support, a noise-cancelling headset that allowed the discussions to flow with a minimum of disruptive background noise.

After all the sessions were done and we’d hung up the plenary call, we could say without hesitation that Place and Placelessness had been a success. Without anyone boarding an aircraft 25 new scholars had met and exchanged ideas in a meaningful way. Everyone involved was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to have discussions without being in the same room and how seamlessly the entire conference went — no one more so than the organizers. All the positive feedback give us hope this virtual conference will be the first of many.

Will and Lauren, on behalf of the committee, would like to thank everyone who participated in Place and Placelessness. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Participants List
Sean Atkins, University of Alberta, Edmonton AB
Jim Clifford, York University, Toronto ON
Rosemary Collard, University of British Colubmia, Vancouver BC
Michael Del Vecchio, University of Western Ontario, London ON
Elsa Devienne, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris France
Crystal Fraser, University of Alberta, Edmonton AB
Jennifer Griggs, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque New Mexico
David Harris, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia
Sean Kheraj, Mount Royal University, Calgary AB
William Knight, Carleton University, Ottawa ON
Julia Lane, Trent University, Peterborough ON
Shane McCorristine, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Dublin, Ireland
Neil Prendergast, University of Arizona, Tuscon Arizona
Rebecca Rahey, University of Western Ontario, London ON
Linnea Rowlatt, University of Toronto, Ottawa ON
Jeff Slack, University of Northern British Columbia, Whistler BC
Henry Trim, University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC
Colin Tyner, University of California Santa Cruz, Kanagawa, Japan
Levi Van Sant, University of Georgia, Thomson Georgia
Lauren Wheeler, University of Alberta, Edmonton AB
Jay Young, York University, Toronto ON
Daniel Zizzamia, University of Montana, Bozeman Montana

Friday October 1, 2010
Session 1: 11am EST Jennifer Griggs, “Co-here-nces: Nature Writing, Avian Architects, and Technology?”
Session 2: 1pm EST
Levi Van Sant, “Southern Regions Revisited: Eugene Odum, Ecological Research, and the Fallacy of Placeless Knowledge”
Session 3: 4pm EST
Linnea Rowlatt, “The Impact of Climate Change on Late Medieval English Culture”
Session 4: 8pm EST Michael Del Vecchio, “Engineering an ‘Aquatic Garden of Eden’: Aquaculture, Angling, and Lake Ahmic”
David Harris, “Space, Place and Lakes Entrance.”

Saturday, October 2, 2010
Session 5: 9am EST
Shane McCorristine, “Representations of the West of Ireland, 1817-1852: Wilderness, Suffering, and Civilization”
Session 6: 11am EST
Daniel Francis Zizzamia, “Mining a Shallow Sea of Deep Time: Imaginings and Socio-cultural Interactions in the Western Interior Seaway”
Session 7: 1pm EST Jeff Slack, “Landscapes of Discovery in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains”
Field Trip and Final recap: 4pm EST.

Featured image: Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

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William Knight

Curator at Canada Science and Technology Museums Corp.
William Knight is curator of agriculture, food, and fisheries at the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation in Ottawa. He wrote his dissertation on the Canadian Fisheries Museum.


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