Learning while doing: engagements and interactions during a virtual conference

by Dani Shanley

As the 2020 EASST4S conference ever closer, my colleagues and I became ever more bereft at the loss of our much anticipated pilgrimage to Prague. We bemoaned the loss of bustling from session to session, exchanging panel reviews over coffee breaks and lunches. We banged on about how great it would have been, how so many people we knew would have been there, all coming together for this short time in the same space. Most of all (of course) we bewailed the loss of early evening beers sat gossiping on sun-drenched squares, and as nights progressed, the dinners and later libations, which so often serve to cement new friendships and ignite new collaborations. Though this was to be my first EASST4S conference, I had heard plenty of stories from previous conference goers. So, I wondered, how was this ‘fully virtual’ version going to measure up? While virtual conferencing will undoubtedly fuel more thorough STS analyses in the future, in this review I will briefly outline some observations regarding my own practice(s) of listening and the different ways of engaging and interacting that virtual conferencing affords.  


Figure 1: Conference engagement: at work (while at play?) Image courtesy of Christian Katzenbach.


Attending the conference fully virtually meant quickly becoming aware of the spaces that participants occupied both online and offline simultaneously. From day one, I noticed how for many conference going had become a family affair. I witnessed the demands of those with care responsibilities delicately juggling conference participation with moments of play (see figure 1). While for others, the ability to be in two places at once meant no reprieve from the daily tasks of academic life. For example, a post on Twitter read, ‘Pros of online conferencing: Attending a panel while writing a grant proposal. Cons of online conferencing: Attending a panel while writing a grant proposal’. As the days progressed, I saw other activities becoming a part of the conference experience, from cooking and child-care, to (home) hair-cuts and gardening. Pragmatists like John Dewey suggest that nothing has meaning in itself, but only in the context of a larger social practice, which accentuates the importance of what we are doing, and where we are doing it. Of course the notion of learning by doing, or learning at play are nothing new, each being part of an enormous literature which spans multiple disciplines. But what about learning while doing? That is, how we make meaning and process new information, while simultaneously engaging in habituated, perhaps mundane tasks, like walking, gardening, or cleaning the house?


Figure 2: A walk in the woods and hands in the soil—listening all the while. Images taken by author.


By the second day of the conference, already experiencing zoom fatigue, and tired of staring into my monitor for hours on end, I found myself doing general chores while listening to Langdon Winner’s Bernal Prize Lecture. Every now and then I found myself stopping what I was doing, pausing to sit down and listen more carefully. I noticed how, without thinking, these very immediate bodily responses told me something about my relationship to what I was hearing. 

The next morning, I explored the ‘Making Clinical Sense’ sensory exhibit, one of the numerous ‘Making and Doing’ sessions available throughout the conference. The ‘sensorially-immersive (online) installation’ only heightened my sensitivity to my own movements, as well as to the sights, smells and sounds around me (Making Clinical Sense, 2020). Providing snapshots of three research sites through videos, drawings, photographs and soundscapes, the project primarily seeks to explore the ways in which bodily knowledge is communicated in medical education. However, it also asks questions about how we, as STS scholars, produce knowledge. How do we enter our research sites? What do we attend to and what do we ignore? And what modes of storytelling (such as creating sensorial exhibits) do we select?

Later that day, I tuned in to the panel on ‘RRI Beyond Growth: Can a Case be Made for Responsible Stagnation?’ While listening, I sat pulling weeds in my garden, turning the soil that had recently produced the last of the summer lettuce, and to which I would soon be introducing the next crop of garlic, onions, and shallots (see figure 2). Feeling the earth in my hands, I heard questions about stagnation and de-growth, and critiques about the pro-innovation bias (which still seemingly underscores ideas like that of ‘responsible innovation’). Doing so, I became increasingly mindful of my own practices of maintenance, repair, and care. The combination of listening and doing reconfiguring my thoughts about the relationships between work and play, theory and practice, thought and action. 

The following afternoon, I listened to the panel on ‘Affects, emotions, and feelings in data, analysis, and narrative’. Like the Making Clinical Sense team, many of the panellists questioned the production of ‘clean, linear and self-sufficient texts’ as the final output of complex, messy, and affective research experiences (Ghergu, 2020). Listening, as I walked through some nearby woods, I noticed the bright sun flickering through the leaves above me. Dappled shadows being cast beneath the canopy which hung high above my head (see figure 2). As I walked, I became highly attuned to the crunch of gravel beneath my feet and to the cool breeze that provided a few moments respite from the relentless heat of the August sun. As speakers paused, I tuned into the rhythm of my steps, becoming aware of my physical movements, and the environment through which I was passing. I also began to think more about how I felt—as I listened. About the ways in which I was responding to what I heard. I noticed the moments at which I had started to walk faster or at other moments, how I appeared to have slowed to a shuffle. I recognised, as Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst write, that ‘the movement of walking is itself a way of knowing’ (2008: 5). As in the garden the day before, the combination of familiar experiences (listening to a conference presentation and walking), now in a somewhat unfamiliar constellation, appeared to produce new ways of making sense of what I heard. 

My listening practice throughout the conference would likely be described as ‘distracted’, given that I was engaged with other activities at the time. As Karin Bijsterveld explains in Sonic Skills, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most taxonomies of listening deplored ‘distracted listening’, advocating ‘attentive’ or ‘absorbed listening’ as the ‘gold standard’ (Bijsterveld, 2019: 63). Taxonomies of listening have since evolved to include a variety of modes: ‘exploratory listening’ resonated most with my own practice. Exploratory listening refers to the way in which we listen out for something new, described as an exploration of the unknown, requiring focus and attention in order to identify novel, rare, or unique sounds or information (Douglas, 1999; Bijsterveld, 2020). Yet, my listening was not always focused, nor attentive. I shifted gears between focus and distraction, making note of what it was that would draw my attention away or toward different stimuli. Through beginning to recognize these shifts, I became attuned to my own relationship with what I was hearing. Finding that I was making new and unexpected connections, even forming new ideas about my own research practices in the process.  


Figure 3: A (more) relaxed recreation of that ‘conference feeling’. Image courtesy of Lisa Reutter.


The ‘Making and Doing’ exhibit, the ‘Affect and Emotion’ panel, and numerous other sessions throughout the conference, all indicated that as STS scholars we are becoming increasingly sensitized to the ways in which we as researchers listen to our participants, our field sites, and ourselves, as a part of doing research. Through online installations, podcast panels, and other creative outlets, research projects are constantly being reimagined in ways that afford new types of engagement and interaction (see Downey and Zuiderent-Jerak, 2016). Methods like ethnographic walking have also begun to receive attention recently. These sorts of experiments, often designed to question the way academic output is created and produced, also provoke reflection on how it is engaged with and listened to. Bijsterveld suggests taxonomies of listening practices typically take into account both ‘purposes of listening (the why) and ways of listening (the how)’ (2020: 62). With regards to virtual conferencing, the purpose of listening (to exchange and collaborate) is clear, but the how of listening is perhaps yet to be fully explored. Experiencing EASST4S virtually made me rethink how I, as a listener/participant, consume the material produced by others, making me consider how experimenting with my own habits could disrupt or otherwise reshape my own practices of ‘meaning making’.

As we know from controversy studies, and as recently put by Anand Pandian in her recent reflection on the American Anthropological Association’s redesigned annual conference, ‘crises bring habits into focus’. As Pandian suggests, asking whether traditional conference going is the most effective and ethical means of academic exchange, is undoubtedly an important and necessary question, beyond the immediate situation brought about by COVID-19. Conferences provide the opportunity to share work, and meet colleagues and potential collaborators, all of which are essential to the development of any field. Experiments with alternative conference formats are fast becoming plentiful, as are online guides and manuals which describe various ways and means through which conferencing might be done differently (Pandian, 2020).

During the EASST4S conference, at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam, Teun Zuiderent-Jerak organized a small satellite event inviting STS researchers from across The Netherlands. As soon as the question as to whether the conference might have to be cancelled or otherwise go online, Teun ‘couldn’t help thinking that it shouldn’t be either-or’. He thought ‘how lovely would it be if, in these bizarre circumstances, an international society could also help strengthen local ties?’ Teun surmised that for many, attending an international conference from their bedroom/living room/kitchen or other workspace, would be unfathomable, due to space restrictions, wandering attention, or the competing commitments of parents and other caregivers. According to participants, while the magnitude of conferences like EASST4S provide unique opportunities for engagement and interaction, the small-scale setting of the Amsterdam event often lent itself to deeper, more extensive conversations. 

Via Twitter, I saw that another local group had organized a small-scale get-together. Lisa Reutter and her colleagues in Norway hired a small cabin in an attempt to recreate that ‘conference feeling’ (see figure 3). She described the familiar zoom fatigue, suggesting following paper presentations in general remained a challenge—‘despite the view’. However, the experience on the whole was ‘more relaxing than a normal conference’. Having forgone the stress of travel and the pressure to engage as much as possible, she noted not feeling the exhaustion that typically follows the experience of conference going. 

Concerns about the ability to engage with conferencing at home, or the desire to interact in physical settings inspired some to create alternative conference settings. The creation of events like these appear to offer realistic alternatives to large-scale, international meetings. When held simultaneously, they could complement the broader exchange between colleagues taking place online, with opportunities for regional networking, and slower, more intimate-scale interactions offered nearby. 

While most of us would hope to see the return of a more traditional EASST4S at some point, we are at the same time all too aware of the need to seriously rethink the necessity of the megaconference model. Alternating between in person, and virtual meetings, supplemented with localized hubs, would certainly seem to provide an attractive alternative. Whatever the future holds, virtual conferencing will undoubtedly reshape academic practices in multiple ways. My own experiences with this year’s EASST4S stimulated reflection on how we listen and feel our way through conferences, as a part of doing academic research. Thinking about how we listen to, and engage with, each other from a distance, opens up new ways of thinking about what conference going could, or perhaps even should, look like in the future. 

Thank you to Christian Katzenbach and Lisa Reutter for permission to use their tweets. And thank you to all those who contributed their thoughts and reflections via email, twitter, zoom etc., especially Teun Zuiderent-Jerak, Lisa Reutter, and Ricky Janssen. 




Bijsterveld K (2019) Sonic Skills: Listening for Knowledge in Science, Medicine and Engineering (1920s-Present). Springer Nature.

Downey G L & Zuiderent-Jerak T (2016) Making and doing: Engagement and reflexive learning in STS. Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, 223-250.

Douglas S J (2013) Listening in: Radio and the American imagination. University of Minnesota Press.

Ghergu C (2020) Title: I don’t have one. Writing affect out of (and back into?) writing. In: EASST-4S Conference Program, virPrague, 18-21 August 2020: 226. Available at: https://www.easst4s2020prague.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/print-program-abstracts-200825.pdf (accessed 8.9.2020).

Ingold T & Vergunst J L (Eds.) (2008) Ways of walking: Ethnography and practice on foot. Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Making Clinical Sense (2020) A Sensory Exhibit of Three Medical Schools. In: EASST-4S Conference Program, virPrague, 18-21 August 2020: 124. Available at: http://sensoryexhibit.makingclinicalsense.com/#Crafting_Medicine__Landing_Page_ (accessed 8.9.2020). 

Pandian A (2020). Redesigning the Annual Conference: Contagion, Carbon, Access, Equity. In: Society for Cultural Anthropology Contributed Content. Available at: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/redesigning-the-annual-conference-contagion-carbon-access-equity (accessed 8.9.2020).