by Paulette Kilmer, University of Toledo
The older I get, the more I realize I do not know everything, and, therein, should keep an open mind about possibilities. My attitude colors everything I experience.
Therein, this summer, I decided to travel via Zoom to places COVID had closed for me. I started with University of Toledo training webinars for Collaborate and online teaching. I expected to learn a lot, and I did. I also assumed the speakers would model strategies and show me, rather than just tell me things—and they did.
So far, so good in this armchair safari of the mind.
Next, I checked out Poynter's Teachapalooza and invited a half dozen of my cronies to join me in the $50 all-day training. Tech savvy speakers and inspired writers offered us insights into helping students use technology (old and new) to tell the truth, confront white privilege, and expose wrongdoing. We saw long-form writing in action as well as social media applied to covering breaking news. Al Tompkins reminded us of the values that remain the bedrock of our pursuit, regardless of technology or social crises.
The big three conferences for me all had gone online because of concerns over safety amid the COVID outbreaks. The first one, AEJMC, started with a round of Trivial Pursuit, and playing with the Ohio University (Athens) historians, I won a gift card to Barnes and Noble, one of my favorite haunts. The camaraderie of that venture still makes me smile. I enjoyed exchanging short messages with colleagues from across the nation.
However, one thing surprised me. Virtual reality did not suck the vitality out of presentations as I had feared might happen. One of the best reasons to go to virtual conferences is to see what other scholars are doing. Seldom do my colleagues research news as narrative, literary, mythic expression as I do, but discovering what matters to my peers empowers me to see history from a different vantage point.
AEJMC tends to draw huge numbers of scholars, which makes it hard sometimes to connect with colleagues. The online sessions did not solve this problem for me. I tended to stay too long listening to the questions to make use of the chat rooms since I went to the next session. I liked seeing the faces of the people I respect and consider friends.
I moderated a panel for the AEJMC Ethics Division, and so I learned how to get people on and off the screen and help them present their PowerPoints. I also saw how breakout rooms work, which was very helpful in the fall of 2020 when I had to use them for my classes on Collaborate. I enjoyed moderating, and all went well. A representative from AEJMC told us our session was over, and so we ended a little more abruptly than I had intended, about 10 minutes early. That extra time allowed me to brew a cup of coffee before the next event.
AJHA is always smaller than AEJMC and focuses precisely on history. I missed the chats in the halls, the adventures to shopping or historical sites, the meals with lively conversations, and the laughing with people I enjoy. Still, the online AJHA provided lots of opportunity for me to check in briefly using chat bubbles with friends and to hear the voices of many historians I admire.
I really enjoyed seeing my friends and colleagues at AJHA even virtually. I did not feel as isolated here in Toledo when I participated in the conferences and training workshops this summer. The papers introduced me to the current tides of historical thinking in our field. I noticed a lot of biography, which is not unusual. I liked the critiques of these journalism trailblazers’ support of racism through negative portrayals of people of color based on emotions and assumptions far more than facts. If we do not notice the mistakes we made in the past, we probably are condemned to repeat them.
Because I hosted four days of programming for the UToledo Banned Books Coalition on Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube in conjunction with the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week from Monday through Thursday of the week of the AJHA conference, I was exhausted and ready to relax by Friday morning. I liked seeing people I respect present lively papers, and I was grateful that the timing worked out so that I could fulfill my freedom of expression commitments and also attend the AJHA convention.
Next, in November, I went to the Symposium on the Nineteenth Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression. Once again, I heard colleagues present their findings and liked the sense of fellowship that I felt despite the barriers virtual conferences impose. The Symposium welcomes research ventures that push historical inquiry in new directions and raise questions that often result from interdisciplinary study or international inquiry.
The virtual conferences also let me share in honoring those who won awards at all of the conferences. I liked watching them get recognition for their hard work.
Going to virtual conferences allows one to pop in and out of sessions quite easily, although I tended to go to stuff until each day ended. I found opportunities to do some paperwork with the split screen on my computer, and so multi-tasking is also an option. However, I limited my paperwork to things that do not interfere with my ability to monitor and then deeply listen when necessary.
The Zoom webinars, conferences, and cultural opportunities enriched me during the lockdown when it was not safe for me to go out. I also learned that I can handle far more technology than I supposed before the pandemic. Last March, I taught myself to make videos on my computer, and then when the Google advice did not suffice, I asked a student for help in setting up a YouTube channel so my classes could access my short video of instructions and pep talk each week as well as the lectures for every week. I also figured out how to narrate PowerPoints and use Zoom to meet students.
My most recent Zoom conference took me to Seneca Falls, New York, for the “It’s a Wonderful Life” conference in early December. I enjoyed the virtual tours, the chat with the historian at the women’s history museum about the connections between the “Donna Reed Show” and feminism in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s, interviews with stars from the movie, and classic TV programs featuring actors from the Christmas movie. I had just turned in grades, and so I wrapped presents as I enjoyed my cyber visit to Seneca Falls.
Perhaps, I liked the Zoom conferences because they transported me out my COVID cage into worlds of possibility where historical inquiry continued to thrive. I felt refreshed, ready to work on my projects, and mentor students in the fine arts of perseverance and intellectual curiosity.