This past Spring we celebrated Virtually Connecting’s birthday. It was the one year anniversary of Rebecca Hogue agreeing to be Maha Bali’s onsite buddy for a conference that she intensely wanted to attend in the flesh, but could not due to the resource strain from a several thousand mile distance and family concerns. The Virtually Connecting community grew from this one event, and began to offer those of us that could not make it to these epicenters of knowledge sharing a way to not just view the content of the conference, but have a seat at the table — if even only in a small way.
I’m just coming back from the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute at the University of Mary Washington where I had the honor of being the Virtually Connecting fellow. One of the workshops that we offered was entitled the “Praxis of Virtually Connecting.” I facilitated the session and was responsible for tech setup, but we had a lot of collaborators and there was not a lot of time for me to express why I do this work. I’m hoping that in this article I can start to articulate a little about why I do this, how it manifests itself, as well as how it can be supported by the community.
In those early hangouts when I first joined as a virtual participant, I often felt awkward when we were talking to a “big shot” academic of some kind, as I may have only Googled their name an hour before and perhaps only read one article that they wrote. Many times I was too shy to really say much — not only did I not know these people but the whole thing was being recorded. In those first few hangouts I was even too shy to listen carefully with my brain on fire from context collapse, shifting and racing around who these people were and where I might have known them or under what circumstances I could know them someday. Should I already know these people and these things that they are talking about? I’m a first-generation high school graduate let alone college graduate and I’m older than I should be — I’m still learning in many ways — did I seem out of place? Who might be watching and what might these invisible watchers’ positions be on the conversation that we were having? What about the future and all the possible contexts and personalities of others viewing the recording could someday exist?
Maha kept offering me space in these meetings and I kept accepting. I found that though I wasn’t saying so much I was learning a lot just from listening and even though the recording was a part of my anxiety I could use it toward my advantage by going back to re-listen if I was too caught in the headlights during the live conversation. I began to realize that I was developing a much more nuanced view of my field. By having these little moments with people, I became interested in their work and I would often go further to search out more of what they had published. Sometimes, I would realize in the middle of a meeting that I did know someone’s work! It was just in another context and I hadn’t put the pieces together in a way that would let me recognize them. A few months went by and I tried my hand for the first time at what we in the VConnecting movement call buddying (hosting) a session from the virtual side — that is not actually being at the conference. I was co-virtual buddy with Apostolos K for the last hangout of the first Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute in Madison, Wisconsin with Amy Collier and Chris Friend.
This year as I attended the second Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute at the University of Mary Washington as the Virtually Connecting onsite fellow, it sort of felt like my own personal VConnecting birthday. I’d come a long way with this movement of digital educators subverting time and space to come together for informal conversations at these formal gatherings of knowledge sharing over the past year. I must have attended conversations at over 25 conferences (some onsite and some virtually) from all over the world. I’d learned so much — yes, gleaned from the conversations that I had, but also from the friendships built and the sheer act of being at the table.
And now it was a year later and I was attending DPLI in the flesh as a fellow representing Virtually Connecting. I’d chosen the Action track led by Audrey Watters, in part because I wanted to make some sense about how to be in light of expressions of disapproval that we had received in doing this work. I’d not thought of this work as activism at first. I just wanted a spot in the conversation (if there was one available) even if I was only going to listen; and when I got a taste of that, it made me want to advocate for those seats for others — especially those that struggled to have their voices heard for lack of resources or even anxiety. There have been several instances where our work was thought of as intruding in on something more formal, legitimate, and often monetized because it was in-person. (Plenty of instances where our work was celebrated too, which I must admit has been the majority.) Maha and Rebecca do an amazing job of responding to these negative judgements through community action of self-reflection and readjustment — the Virtually Connecting manifesto was born out of a collective action from responding to criticisms. But I wanted to better understand how to respond for myself.
The Action track was exactly what I needed. Of course it was action filled with practical tech stuff: we built Twitter bots and learned how to use GitHub for code and for text, we used software to look at all the calls and requests that our computers were communicating out to the internet. But we also talked about self-care as an activist, and techniques for when you have to deal with difficult situations. It was a little strange, though, because here I was experiencing the antithesis of that negative feedback. Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute really understood the importance of the virtual participants. They showed this through welcoming Virtually Connecting like few other conference organizers have, first by creating the fellowship, and also by providing not just space but equipment for us to use, and attending and helping out directly in our workshop sessions. Besides Virtually Connecting, DPLI showed a real conscientiousness for the virtual participants by streaming the keynotes for free and encouraging active participation on the web. It is not just the fact that they encouraged this kind of participation, but the way that they did it. They have a way of encouraging this participation that is not just searching for media hype, clicks, and advertising. These are educators who when they invite everyone to come and learn together they recognize that the more diverse and intersectional voices that we can get into the collective conversation, the better. It seems, to me anyway, that they are focused on generating and disseminating knowledge, awareness, perception, laughter, introspection, and all the nuance that comes from intricacies of human interaction at these events — no matter if your body is in the room or not.
Through this work I’ve become keenly aware of the privilege that I enjoy even when I am participating virtually. For starters, I’m a white, cis, able-bodied United States citizen. Yes, I’ve woken up at 3 or 4am to participate virtually in a VConnecting session, but not really that often. Mostly I’m within a few hours of the local time for the conference because most conferences in our field seem to be in the Western Hemisphere. I have really good access to high speed internet from multiple locations, including my home and work, and I have multiple devices that I can connect from and I have a good understanding of how these tools work. I speak English as my first language and so communication comes easy (when I can get out of my own head enough to speak). This work is difficult, but I am in a particular situation where it is vastly easier for me than for others. Technical issues always abound and troubleshooting is non-stop, but it is harder when you don’t have good infrastructure, or if digital literacies need development. Scheduling time around other obligations is tricky, but it is harder when you are juggling family obligations or health issues. Once I get access to a conversation, I have to navigate dealing with louder and more privileged voices than mine, but the truth is that my native narrative is the loud one that many have been hearing over their own stories for a very long time.
I’m still learning and listening. Kate Bowles reflected on a Virtually Connecting session that we had on international perspectives where she called out the importance of those from diverse perspectives to show up. But it is not enough for those of us with privilege to just show up — we have to use our privilege to create the spaces for those lesser heard voices. Sometimes that means listening and empathizing before speaking. Sometimes that means providing someone else with the means to have their voice heard. Sometimes that means doing something unconventional like supporting a small group video chat in the middle of an on-ground conference. Not because you want to have a web presence for the conference or generate a bunch of clicks for your personal brand, but because you want to have human connections and advance your own understanding of the larger context for the work that we do as educators.