“Turning a massive ship”: U of A set to host massive virtual humanities conference next week

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The University of Alberta is preparing to host thousands of attendees at an online humanities congress next week in what is being billed as the largest academic virtual gathering in Canadian history.

Michael O’Driscoll, a professor with the school’s English and film departments and the convener of the congress, has been working for the past half decade to bring the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences to Edmonton. The University of Alberta was selected to host the event several years ago and with the selection came expectations of over 5,000 participants descending on Alberta’s Capital.

However, O’Driscoll said that with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to restrict gatherings and strain the province’s health-care system, his team made the decision in November to move everything online.

“This has been a matter of turning a massive ship in the right direction,” said O’Driscoll. “To deliver a high-impact, sustainable, affordable, accessible conferencing experience for the thousands of people who will be in attendance at congress this year.”


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He said they are expecting 5,000-6,000 people to tune into the forum running from May 27 to June 4. In order for the show to go on, the school has partnered with several other agencies to hold up to 1,600 different events that will run over the nine days, with up to 128 events taking place at once. There will be around 400 technical staff working in the background to ensure everything runs smoothly.

“This means we’re delivering what will be the largest virtual academic conference in Canadian history, right here from the University of Alberta and from the city of Edmonton,” said O’Driscoll. “That is an impressive and massive undertaking that has been a real joy to be a part of.”

This year’s theme is Northern Relations as keynote speakers will be touching on climate change and indigenous relations and reconciliations, as well as anti-black racism. The forum will focus on how these issues affect northern Canada and how they ripple throughout the country.

“We’re thinking about education, we’re thinking about climate change, we’re going to be having conversations about Indigenous governance and language vitality. We’re going to be thinking about food security, and all kinds of things around that,” said O’Driscoll.

Gabriel Miller, president and CEO of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, said the University of Alberta was chosen to host this year’s forum in part due to regional balance but also because of the northern relations theme and the ability to hold such a wide scale event.


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“When you consider when you look at (the issues) from a northern perspective, that’s a way to bring a new light to some issues that, you know, we’ve been talking about for a very long time,” said Miller.

He said the move to the virtual conference will be important, not only for 2021 but for coming years as well. Miller said that it will be a template for how to incorporate online parts of the forum to allow for more people to attend in the future.

“What’s been so unique about this experience is you’re writing the manual at the same time that you’re reading it,” said Miller.

Community members can register online to attend open portions of the forum for $25.



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