OHA’s 2020 Virtual Meeting: What to Expect

Thank you for your patience as the Program Committee, Local Arrangements Committee, Executive Office, and myself have worked tirelessly to develop the Oral History Association’s first virtual conference.  For a normal annual meeting, planning for the conference starts a year and a half before the actual gathering.   The first vice president forms the Program and Local Arrangements Committees, the program co-chairs draft the CFP and invite major speakers, and the Local Arrangements Committee strategizes ways the conference can effectively engage with the local community.  Normally, we would have let people know whether their proposals were accepted in April, scheduled the sessions in May, opened up registration in June, and sent out the full program in August. But as you know, this year has been anything but normal.

As things shut down in March, no one was certain what the impact would be on the conference, but we scrambled to make contingency plans, researched best practices for hybrid and virtual conferences, surveyed our members, and developed a plan and a budget for a virtual conference.  The Executive Office negotiated with the conference hotel and reached an agreement in late June to reschedule our conference there in 2023.  It was not until we were able to ensure that we would not take a devastating financial hit that we were able to fully commit to an all-virtual conference.  The OHA Council approved a budget for the virtual conference in late June, and from that point we started implementing our plans for our upcoming virtual conference with breakneck speed.

I believe we will have a very creative and robust virtual annual meeting that will enable us to continue to move the field forward and also develop the professional networks that are essential for sustaining our field.  We have reason to believe that we may have the largest number of people participating in our Annual Meeting than ever before.  While we usually have approximately 90 sessions at our conferences, this year we will have approximately 125 sessions.  Additionally, we will have over a dozen workshops and nearly a half-dozen free virtual tours for conference attendees.  Smithsonian Visionary Artist and MacArthur Fellow Joyce Scott will deliver the keynote address. Award winning radio producer Marc Steiner will conduct a live on-air interview with critically acclaimed author D. Watkins for our first plenary.  The second plenary features Toni Tipton Martin, an award-winning food and nutrition journalist who explores the relationship between cultural heritage, cooking, and social change.  The plenary sessions and keynote address will be live streamed from the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore and made publicly available.



From the earliest stages of planning the conference, we sought to ensure that we left Baltimore’s oral history practitioners in a better position as a result of our conference.  By the March shutdown, the Local Arrangements Committee had made significant progress organizing a large Oral History Block Party outside the Reginald F. Lewis Museum that would focus on the conference theme: The Quest for Democracy.  Sadly, that will not be able to happen.  But the committee has still worked hard to cultivate a local sensibility for the conference. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum has opened its doors to us to professionally film and livestream the plenaries and keynote address.  The Maryland Historical Society partnered with us to organize two oral history workshops for those who live, work, or go to school in the Baltimore region and Maryland.  Baltimore Heritage coordinated the development of five virtual tours of Baltimore that will be free of charge for all those registered for the conference. These tours will be accessed through our digital program platform Attendify.  As part of the Diversity Reception, we will hold a virtual dance party featuring Baltimore-based DJ James Nasty, who will highlight the importance and history of Baltimore House music. Pixstori is coordinating a series of local stories that will be featured in our digital program. Red Emma’s, a local worker-owned bookstore and café, will have a “shop” on Second Life, featuring books about Baltimore.  And the committee is organizing a series of virtual “dine-arounds,” informal get togethers that replicate a popular feature of past annual meetings. Perhaps most importantly, the Local Arrangements Committee is organizing a post-conference gathering that will explore the development of a collaborative of Baltimore-based oral history practitioners that can continue well after the meeting.  Together, we expect all these efforts will instill in our conference a sense of place even as we meet virtually.



The Program Committee has responded quickly to current events by developing sessions focusing on the COVID pandemic, virtual interviews, and Black Lives Matters protests.  They have reimagined the structure of a virtual conference by extending it two days and reducing the number of session time slots every day to three. On most days we will have ten simultaneous sessions in the late morning (Baltimore/Eastern time), a keynote or plenary address in the early afternoon, and a set of ten simultaneous sessions later in the afternoon.  Receptions will be held in the early evening located on our new Second Life Oral History Association island.



We have developed a strategy to make this the most accessible OHA conference to date.  The plenaries, keynote, and business meeting as well as several featured sessions will have live ASL translation.  All sessions (not including Zoom breakout rooms) will have an automated transcript, and we are working to develop a list of volunteers to edit those transcripts in real time.  We have provided guidance to presenters so that they can develop accessible visual presentations.  We will be asking that all presenters submit their presentations ahead of time so that they can be posted and viewed by attendees outside of Zoom.



People will navigate the conference by using Attendify, a virtual space where sessions will be organized, session materials such as PowerPoint presentations uploaded, and Zoom links posted.  After the sessions are complete, we will embed recordings and transcripts of those sessions in Attendify so that people can view them asynchronously.  Attendify offers chat features to network with other conference goers, and enables us to showcase our exhibitors, sponsors, and poster sessions.  Registered participants will be able to access the conference materials within Attendify through the summer of 2021.



For the regular sessions, OHA has acquired a package of professional Zoom licenses so that we can host and manage ten simultaneous sessions.  The expectation is that presenters will present their materials live and that there will be live engagement with the audience following the presentations.  While we discourage the use of Zoom breakout rooms since there will be no live transcription in those rooms, mini workshops may have a need to use them.  Our goal is to have two volunteers in every session, one who will serve as the room host and one who will do live edits to the automated third-party transcript. While we have asked all presenters to submit their visual slides ahead of time (to be posted on Attendify), panelists and speakers will also share their visual slides live through Zoom screen share.  Room hosts will monitor the chat for relevant questions and comments, and chairs will call on attendees to offer up questions verbally as well.  For the most part, the panels will run very similarly to how we would run our panels in a live conference format.



While we drew upon a membership survey to determine which platform would be easiest for conference attendees to use for regular sessions (Zoom), we also wanted to develop a more playful way for conference attendees to network.  We have built an Oral History Association island on Second Life where conference attendees can gather during coffee breaks, the poster session, and receptions and communicate one on one, in small or large groups.  On Wednesday, October 21, at our a virtual dance party, you will be able to have your avatar dance much better than most of us can in real life.  Second Life also offers us the opportunity to have shopfronts for our vendors and signage that can promote our sponsors and a place for live synchronous conversations with poster presenters.  The Oral History Association island will be a bustling city that looks a bit like Baltimore might if it was governed and run by oral historians.  Second Life takes a little longer to get used to than Zoom, so we will be holding tours of the island weekly prior to the conference for all registrants.  You will need your own avatar and will have to set your name to the name you use when you register for the conference.  Only those registered for the conference will have access to the main part of the OHA island.



We will produce a .pdf of our traditional print program in order to provide attendees with the documentation they may need to get reimbursed for registration expenses.  The print program will also offer us a way to document the conference long after our licenses for various platforms expire and to recognize those who have worked to organize and support the conference.



We will record all sessions unless panelists explicitly opt out, which we highly discourage. The recordings will be akin to published conference proceedings.  All attendees will be notified upon entering a session that the session is being recorded and that their participation within the session will be recorded.  These recordings will be posted daily along with the transcripts and shared through our digital program platform Attendify.  These recordings will be accessible only to those who are registered for the conference.  Conference attendees will now be able to view sessions scheduled alongside one another and will be able to watch the sessions regardless of what time zone they live in.  Pre-conference workshops will also be recorded, but those recordings will only be accessible to those registered for that workshop.

OHA will reach out to the participants in a select few sessions and seek permission to have those sessions publicly live streamed.  When granted permission, the recordings of these sessions will also be made freely available to the public. If you and all the participants in your session would like to have your panel be open access, please contact the OHA office.



We will host all our digital materials from the conference in Aviary, a cloud-based platform for publishing searchable audio and video content.  The conference collection will only be accessible to those registered for the conference except for the open access sessions mentioned above.



Pixstori will allow people to create talking pictures that they can use for personal profiles in Attendify.  The poster session presenters will also craft their own Pixstoris for their posters, and the Local Arrangements Committee is developing a Pixstori series on Baltimore.  We’re hoping conference attendees will find creative ways to use Pixstori throughout the conference to document this unique time in OHA’s history.

This year’s conference will forever be remembered for the way we came together in the midst of the crisis of the pandemic and the crisis of systematic racism.  The program is more relevant than ever as we address the relationship between Oral History and Democracy in the weeks before a pivotal Presidential election and 100 years following the passage of the 19th Amendment.  Now more than ever is the time to assess what is our role as oral historians.  Please join us for the Oral History Association’s Annual Meeting in 2020.



Dan Kerr
Vice President/President Elect, Oral History Association

P.S. We still have sponsorship opportunities and exhibitor space available. If you would like to be a sponsor or an exhibitor, please contact the OHA office at oha@oralhistory.org.

We also need the help of an unprecedented number of volunteers, and we are especially looking to include people who would not normally attend the conference. Please help us recruit volunteers by sharing this link with them: https://forms.gle/idFZbpDQMsy5eFeC9.




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