Moving the SSPP Online During the Pandemic

Overall, there are pros and cons to a fully online conference, for sure. In-person meetings provide forms of interaction that are difficult to duplicate online. But our main takeaway is that the virtual format worked surprisingly better than we expected, although this could be in part due to our special circumstances and assistance. In any event, we’re eternally grateful for all the hands on deck. James Pate reports that the only other time the conference was canceled was in 1918 due to World War I (the 13th annual meeting). COVID-19 may have made us postpone, but we found a way.  
The conference program looked pretty much identical to any other SSPP, with mostly concurrent sessions along with some plenaries. We simply ported over our in-person program to Zoom. We were extremely fortunate to have (paid) help from the magnificently proficient and efficient, Ege Yumusak, a grad student in Harvard’s Philosophy Department. Among other things, she worked with Harvard’s IT department to provide tech support for the conference, as well as a Zoom session before the conference to train session chairs. Harvard IT also supplied staff during the conference to make sure chairs got assigned as presenter for each session. This also allowed us to use Harvard’s Zoom account, which meant we could have many users logged on simultaneously, beyond the limits of a free account. Our other main piece of tech was Google Docs, which we used to collaboratively build the program and the Virtual Conference Guide, which contained the Zoom links for each session. 
It worked. Many participants remarked to us that it felt like a “real” conference. So we’d like to share our (learning) experience in the hopes that it will help others.
The online format made the sessions themselves more flexible and accessible. Given the circumstances, the SSPP leadership allowed anyone to join the Zoom sessions without having to pay a registration fee. So we had people joining sessions who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to participate, particularly those for whom an in-person trip is financially prohibitive, such as grad students and those residing in other countries. Opening up the conference like this also likely helped us avoid the problem of low attendance some have experienced in the virtual format. It is, after all, difficult to be completely free from family responsibilities, and even teaching obligations, when one isn’t actually out of town. Screen fatigue is also a real phenomenon that keeps people from wanting to sit on Zoom all day. The virtual format, however, did also provide the benefit of more robust forms of engagement. As many of us have experienced now, more people are willing to chime into a Q&A if they can just pop a question into the chat box or share a relevant link.
Josh May & Susanna Siegel (philosophy program co-chairs)
Jill Shelton & Emily Elliott (psychology program co-chairs)
So we had an unusual bounty of resources for a relatively small society. Another unusual factor that may have contributed to a positive conference experience was a feeling of shared ownership and commitment among the participants. The conference was postponed at the 11th hour in response to a global pandemic, so we worked together through a distinctively anxious time. Going through that shared and trying experience may have brought a feeling of solidarity. In this vein, we also tried to communicate well with the participants throughout 2020, including polling everyone multiple times to get their input on the options before us.
Although the virtual conference went well, certain aspects of an in-person meeting were missing. Participants couldn’t continue conversations casually over dinner or drinks, catch up with old friends, and have those chance encounters that lead to new connections. So one thing we could have done better is organize virtual get-togethers or social hours. Some people informally set up Zoom links for that, but there was no centralized planning. That’s tricky to do well and can’t quite mimic the In Real Life scenarios, but the lack of social events was probably most stark, not the format of the sessions themselves. 
The Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology was set to hold its annual conference in Louisville from March 12-14, 2020—right when the coronavirus pandemic was hitting America. In the weeks leading up to the event, we thought we could still pull it off by just bringing plenty of Clorox wipes and all the ingredients for “make your own hand sanitizer” stations. Let’s make lemon-scented hand sanitizer out of these lemons, we thought! Of course, in early March, it was clear we’d have to call it off. Eventually, in what was largely a grassroots effort fueled by gumption (or was it hubris?), we held an entirely online conference in early December.