The conference organization faced a difficult choice: should they cancel the call, and call off the event, or hope for the best and continue with the preparations? Should the conference take place online, or maybe as a hybrid? Online conferences were not unheard of, but would the small – and overworked – team of researchers be able to transfer the massive event of 400 participants to a virtual format in eight months?
— This was supposed to be the 20th anniversary of the Aleksanteri Conference, a special occurrence. We had a very topical theme – Eurasia and global migration – and wonderful keynote speakers. Improvising something comme ci comme ça didn’t feel right, says chair of the organizing committee, discipline coordinator for Russian and Eurasian studies, Dr. Anna-Liisa Heusala.
To migrate or not to migrate
Hours of MS Teams meetings and dozens of emails later, the committee decided to continue the call and make the decision as soon as the official estimations of the likely duration of the pandemic were published.
— I had a hunch we were maybe being too optimistic, holding on to a hope that it would all be over by October. However, we knew that many colleagues were eagerly looking forward to this conference, and didn’t want to ruin their plans by overreacting, Heusala explains.
By May 2020 it was clear that late autumn was not going to be a good time to bring hundreds of people from around the globe to crowded lecture halls. The conference had to either migrate online or be postponed.
Abundant choices, deficient resources
During the spring months, the conference team had explored the possibilities of building Aleksanteri Conference into a virtual event. Different online platforms were emerging weekly, but they all seemed to require a bigger budget and considerable amount of technical support.
— On one hand, there seemed to be no end of possibilities: chatrooms, virtual coffee breaks, avatars - anything, explains Dr. Ira Österberg, who is responsible for the practical coordination of the conference. On the other hand, there were various technical requirements and restrictions, and it was practically impossible to compare the different products and services. Not to talk of the money, of course.
Postponing was grim — but also fair
A video greeting by Anna-Liisa Heusala was published on the 1st of June, announcing the postponement of the conference to October 2021. In her address, Heusala emphasized the will to guarantee a safe and equal opportunity to participate for everyone in the international academic community. Those who had submitted their proposals for panels or papers were contacted beforehand by individual emails asking if they wished to use the same proposal for the coming year. Some did, some didn’t. There were also those who continued to be optimistic and kept planning for a trip to Helsinki.
— It felt really bad. It’s hard to imagine a less motivating task for a conference coordinator than having to inform your colleagues that there will be no conference this year, says Ira Österberg. Luckily people were really understanding.
Good things follow, too
Plans for a virtual conference in October 2021 were launched straight away. Now that there was abundant time for consulting the University of Helsinki Conference team and scouting the diverse options, an online event started to look as a surprisingly good option.
— With an online conference, you do not need to worry about the number of seats in a lecture hall, for instance. There is no jetlag, no risk of flights being delayed, no endless queues for coffee, no bad weather and no guilty conscience about the amount of C02 from flying. But what’s really great is that there are all these new things you never thought of when organizing for a on-site conference, Heusala rejoices.
Thanks to the online format, the 20th Annual Aleksanteri Conference now has one more excellent keynote speaker, Professor Marlene Laruelle, who can now give her keynote lecture without leaving her office in George Washington University.
Other considerable bonus is that all presentations can be recorded. This might not sound like a tempting opportunity at first, but everyone who has dragged themselves to a god-forsaken conference location to give a paper at an inhumane time in the morning only to find out that the only other person there is the drowsy chair-discussant, probably values the possibility of at least some genuinely interested colleagues being able to follow their presentation at a later point.
What about the cultural and social aspects?
The Aleksanteri Conference has become known not only for its high academic content but also for its cultural side programme. In previous years this has included live music performances, film screenings and guided tours in the unique Slavonic Library. There have also been plentiful receptions and other networking opportunities. What will happen to this part of the conference experience?
— We are definitely working on the cultural and social programme, promises Heusala. Online environment provides a platform for different kinds of interactive experiences, and the team is looking into the various possibilities as we speak. Social aspect is an important one. Having said that, what still remains the main priority is the academic quality and diversity of the conference. The main thing this moment is, that we have now re-published the call for papers and are looking forward to excellent proposals!
Call for Papers is open until 30 April. Welcome to the Conference!
The 20th Aleksanteri Conference, Eurasia and Global Migration, will take place online on 27-29 October, 2021. Call for papers is open until 30 April, and letters of acceptance will be emailed in late June. Details of the conference programme and side events will be updated at the conference site throughout the year, and a special podcast will begin introducing the themes and key questions already in spring.
The pandemic might have delayed the much anticipated conference by a year, but at the same time it has boosted the development of the Aleksanteri Conference into a more accessible, equal and inventive academic gathering. Many of the features developed now out of necessity, would have been invented at some point anyway, and many of them will become standard procedures in the coming conferences, even as we eventually gain the luxury of meeting in person again.