Thirteen English department faculty and graduate students present papers at the Modern Language Association’s first all-virtual conference

March 15, 2021

Thirteen English department faculty and graduate students present papers at the Modern Language Association’s first all-virtual conference

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Whether it’s a Zoom family holiday, a virtual Super Bowl watch party or a work happy-hour moved to video conferencing, many of us have had to endure the shift from in-person to virtual events over the past year. While many of us would like to gather in person again, the scholars presenting at this year’s Modern Language Association (MLA) conference found the silver lining in a virtual event.  

Graduate student Sean Yeager, for instance, found the all-virtual format to be more accessible. Yeager, who was a part of the Disability, Mentoring, and Independence panel and presented two papers at the conference said, “I’m thrilled that I can go back to catch recordings of sessions that I needed to miss due to scheduling conflicts. I’m still playing catch-up! And though I love in-person conferences, I also find them to be incredibly overstimulating; sitting at home with a cup of tea is much more accessible in so many ways.” It’s not surprising that virtual conferencing and increased accessibility go hand-in-hand; as Yeager stated, “The innovations of online conferencing were first developed by disabled people as a response to ableism in its many guises.”   

Assistant Professor Amrita Dhar, who presented on Panel 277—Shakespeare, Identity, Aesthetics: Race, Genre, and Disability, also found that the all-virtual setting offered added accessibility benefits. Dhar stated, “Immunocompromised persons, caregivers with multiple responsibilities, and so on, actually found the virtual format more accessible. Also, since so many scholars’ research budgets have been slashed this year, not having to travel (and do hotel, flights, etc.) actually made it possible for them to attend.”  

Additionally, some participants found that the virtual format made it easier to engage with panelists and presenters during sessions. While a panel was taking place, audience members utilized the chat function in Zoom to ask direct questions and gather important information. PhD Candidate Jack Rooney, who presented one paper at the conference and organized the Deathly Persistence: Lessons from the Intractable Dead panel said, “I daresay the chat function’s affordances in the way of logging questions as the panel proceeded and sharing files seamlessly in fact made the discussion richer than it had been at some of my prior, in-person panel experiences.” 

However, it can be difficult to forge a connection with other scholars online. Some panelists mentioned that they didn’t have as many interactions with other scholars this year as they did in the past. In past conferences, scholars were able to chat and gather outside of sessions, in the hallways, over a coffee or meal. A completely virtual conference made networking a difficult task.  

To counteract the difficulty of networking with other scholars, many participants gathered contact information for future meetings. PhD Candidate Clint Morrison, who presented one paper at the conference and was a part of the Abstraction panel (organizers: Middle English LLC), says, “I had a lot of conversations on Twitter and made a lot of promises of future coffee chats when we can safely return to in-person conferences. I am very much looking forward to these future coffee conversations.” 

The scholars who presented their work at the MLA conference went above and beyond to make the best out of the current situation. They showed it is still possible to overcome and flourish when entering a potentially challenging new atmosphere, and how important it is to adapt in times of change. 

The Department of English would like to congratulate the following participants for their perseverance in presenting their research during a pandemic.  


By Joseph Stokes

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