2020’s Mendocino Coast Writers Conference was entirely online. Zoom provided the backbone of the event, used for the morning workshops, the afternoon talks, readings and Open Mike, and as far as I know the consultations.
There were some surprising bonuses to an online conference. I’ll break them out below, but I want to call out one right now. People from Maine, USA, Britain, France, and Taiwan participated in the conference. (I think the person from Taiwan was getting up to start the “morning” workshop at midnight their time.)
Before I get into the pros and cons of an online conference, I want to mention the entire MCWC staff and their excellence. At the top of the list is Amy Lutz, who managed the logistics brilliantly.
I touched on access, but physical distance and travel wasn’t the only obstacle brushed away by technology. The conference is not terribly expensive for a conference, but in person you pay for three (possibly four) nights of lodging in a well-known resort town at the peak of the season. And you buy at least a few meals. MCWC2020 was instantly more affordable.
I didn’t have to wear shoes. It was nice to sit in my library in a comfortable chair rather in in a classroom three hours a day. I could refill my coffee or brew a cup of tea without worrying I was disrupting the class or missing anything vital, because I could hear the workshop from my kitchen.
Often presenters use a whiteboard or a chalkboard. In the in person morning workshops, this works well. In the larger in person afternoon talks, visibility can be dicey. With screen-share, everyone could see the material equally well.
Chat is a feature on every video conference platform I’ve seen. The conference encouraged the use of it during the sessions, with it set it to Everyone and Host. Those were the people you could chat with. Chat has a feature that lets you share with individuals only. It doesn’t show on the Chat screen, but it is not private. By setting the switch to, basically, Public, the conference made sure everyone knew that what they chatted about would be seen by everyone in the session.
And Chat was a great workshop feature! You could repeat names of titles people missed the first time around, clarify points, and post links without interrupting the group. Anyone having problems with their audio, which happened once or twice, can use Chat as an immediate backup. Chat gave an elegant pathway to agreeing with another participant’s comment, without slowing down the group.
If you really have to share something snarky with a fellow participant, well, that’s what texting and email are for.
My morning workshop experienced almost no technical problems. Yes, a few individuals had momentary glitches, but the software and the internet delivered, and that went a long way to making the conference a success. And again, kudos must go to the people working behind the scenes to make this experience seamless.
MCWC2020 was a great online conference and I’m glad I participated. It wasn’t the Mendocino Coast conference though, because the Mendocino coast wasn’t present. Here are some other things that didn’t work as well for me.
Channels of Data Closed Off:
Weird subheading, I know. I learned a lot about how I take in information about other people. I think of myself as someone who processes information primarily visually. I don’t engage easily with audio-books. I like words, pictures, movies, plays, TV, slide shows and written instructions. Theoretically, then, video conferencing should be a good match for me. I only realized how much information I extract from nonverbals and non-audibles when I couldn’t access them.
I don’t even know what I was missing, exactly. The sense of connection to the group was tenuous. I couldn’t read body-language, of course, but somehow there is a whole cartload of cues I pick up in person that just weren’t there. And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one.
Losing the Margins:
Great conference stuff happens in the margins of the formal events—a conversation at breakfast, a few minutes in the classroom before or after the workshop, a meeting in the bathroom or while out on a walk. Those things didn’t happen online.
The conference staff know how important those peripheral moments are, and they tried to model them with a breakfast meeting and some breakout rooms. I never used those breakout rooms, but another attendee did. She said it worked well for her. For me, the breakfast room experience was mixed.
I had two experiences that approximated the marginal ones; a scheduled Zoom lunch with two friends on Friday, and a random chance to visit with another friend when we both went to one of the breakout rooms and no one else was there for a few minutes.
Ignorance of Etiquette:
I am ignorant of the etiquette of leaving a large group, like the breakfast room, and moving to a breakout room, without looking rude. This, in part, kept me from doing it. I hope by next year I will know a little more about Zoom etiquette. (There’s a project.)
No Immersion/ No Buffer:
Yes, I could wander into the kitchen at any point during the workshop and make some tea. I could also wander in and start washing dishes or be bombarded by the latest political atrocity before almost before I drew my first non-workshop breath. No walk back to the inn, no stroll on the headlands while I let the morning’s material settle in my mind. No immersion.
I did build in a walk after the morning session the first two days. That was good for my physical health but did not create the illusion of immersion. It was much too easy to leave a session and start a load of laundry or go grocery shopping.
This leads to–
Self-care and Zoom fatigue:
Somehow, sitting for hours staring at a screen is physically exhausting, a fact which still surprises me after all these years. A participant friend said she was at the level of exhaustion collapse by Saturday night. She participated in more events than I did, and was not able to build in a walk or other physical activity. “I’ll need to prioritize self-care next year if it’s online,” she said, and so will I.
Zoom fatigue is a thing, and I needed to adjust for that too.
- I trust the tech more than I did before the conference.
- Learn online etiquette. If next year’s conference in online (most likely it will be) I’ll be more assertive at seeking out the breakout rooms and figuring out how they work the best for me.
- Create the environment. Surprisingly, the village of Mendocino is open to tourists now. Next year, as long as I wear a mask, practice social distancing and honor the innkeeper’s rules around sanitizing, there’s no reason I couldn’t go to Mendocino and participate in the conference from my room. It wouldn’t be a perfect replica, but it would be close.
- Embrace it. Intellectually, of course. The online conference is a new experience for me. Now I’ve compared and contrasted it, I need to embrace the new.
Part of embracing the new is trusting the board, faculty and staff. They rose to the occasion in 2020. I trust that they will make #MCWC2021 the best conference possible.