Interview with Delaware Humanities on Virtual Program: Distant Discussions

May 14, 2020

In April, the Federation spoke with Delaware Humanities Deputy Director and Senior Program Officer Ciera Fisher about the council’s program, Distant Discussions, which partners with the Lewes Public Library to bring people together virtually during COVID using videos, short stories, and poems.

Read the full interview:

Prior to COVID-19, did you council conduct virtual community conversations or discussion forums online? What do you feel were the biggest challenges to moving these conversations online or adapting them to this current environment?

FISHER: We tried to previously, but there really wasn’t much interest.  Since we had attempted virtual community conversations before, we didn’t run into many challenges creating the program.  Our biggest fear from past experiences was that no one would attend, but in that we were wrong.  People seem to be looking for connection and engagement—our audiences haven’t been huge, but they’ve been consistent and enthusiastic.   

How has selecting topics, partners, hosts, or facilitators changed or evolved for a virtual vs. in-person audience?

FISHER: Our first session was discussing a short TED talk, and the second was a short story, although a short story on the longer side.  We were going to move to perhaps full-length documentaries or even books, but in our second session no one seemed to have read the entire story.  We went back to short (no longer than 5 minute) videos, very short stories, and poetry. 

Our topics started with a Literature and Medicine bend, because our main Distant Discussions facilitator, Sarah, creates the syllabus for and runs a session of our Literature and Medicine program.  We’ve branched out now to discuss women’s history (since our March in person programming was cancelled), environmental humanities (to celebrate Earth Day), and other topics, and have brought in some guest facilitators.

We pose a “big idea” question to get people engaged before they even see the material.  This gets their attention and seems to help them quickly determine if they want to take the next steps of engagement (consuming the material and signing up for the discussion).  We were at first completely on our own, but a library heard about our program offered to partner to help us advertise more broadly, which we were eager to do too.

Any additional resources or prep that you provide to your communities prior to the event dates to help alleviate questions or troubleshooting needs during the event?

FISHER: No, we thought about writing a zoom “how to”, but no one really has had any issues.  Our short tutorial at the beginning of each session seems to answer any tech questions people may have.

What has been the response of your communities to the virtual programming? 

FISHER: We’ve received a great deal of positive feedback.  People like the format (a short piece to read/watch ahead of time and then a 30-minute conversation at lunchtime or during happy hour).  Our Literature and Medicine program has been cancelled for 2020, so some of our participants of that program have been attending.  One individual has attended every single session, and at the end thanks us for our hard work and tells us how much she misses Literature and Medicine.  I think I can speak for the entire staff when I say how good that makes us feel.  We miss seeing everyone in person too, but are glad we can offer something to the community at this time to keep us connected.

What do you see as the humanities council role during the pandemic? In what ways does providing these kinds of virtual programs respond to that role?

FISHER: I think something many people have struggled with at this time is the idea that by doing nothing (staying at home) we are seeing nothing (less virus spread and flattening the curve).  We are told and we know this is good.  However, humans seem programmed, especially in times of emergency, to be active and to expect those actions to have perceptible results—the opposite of what we are experiencing now.

Our role at this time is to do what we’re best at: reminding everyone what it means to be human.  In our Distant Discussions, certain ideas—the disconnect between having information and acting in accordance with that information, if feelings of connection are necessary for feelings of responsibility, if it is always possible to know you are making a difference and if it is necessary—have been at the forefront.  In part this is by design, but this is also what people want and feel they need to be talking about.  These are essential questions about human nature that at this time in particular we are all grappling with, and the humanities are here to help.

We also remind people that we are still a community.  It’s hard to remember that when you aren’t seeing people on a regular basis.  We bring people “together” and remind one another why we’re making our individual sacrifices, how large or small they may be—for each other. 

Do you find it more, less or equally challenging for people to express themselves and share their perspectives, experiences, and opinions on certain topics in the online setting? What are ways your council works to create the safe space online for conversation, learning and discussion?

FISHER: There is some what I would more call technology shyness and it taking a little longer for people to get warmed up to the format.  Once that passes, due to the circumstances, people actually seem more willing to share, to feel that sense of connection with others.  I don’t think that has anything to do with the online setting.

Do you organize your programs by region or other kinds of community demographics to help facilitate participation and conversation? 

FISHER: No, but it’s an interesting idea.  My greater concern has been the assumption that everyone has internet and an available computer at home.  For us that is currently a greater boundary than demographics.

Please share your top three tips for hosting online community conversations/discussions or other participatory programs.

  1. If posing a question to the audience, wait a little longer than you normally would for a response—there is lag, people may be a little less comfortable/take a little longer to decide to speak, etc.  If participants are continually talked over, no one will want to or attempt to speak.
  2. Have good lighting and use your camera—it makes a difference seeing your face.
  3. Take a moment to walk everyone through the most important features.  If you mute everyone because of some sort of background noise, you’ll want attendees to know how to turn their microphones back on so they can participate.

Why are the tools and disciplines of the humanities so valuable in establishing, maintaining and generating human connection despite physical distancing in the age of COVID?

FISHER: More than anything else, the humanities inspire empathy.  The disciplines and tools allow you to see the world from someone else’s perspective.  That’s more important than ever now, especially when we are physically distant.  If I’m young with no pre-existing conditions, no kids, no elderly relatives, I may need elucidation of what this situation is like for those individuals, and thus why it’s important for me to socially distance, wear a mask, and wash my hands.  The humanities are the best way to give people that alternative point of view, which could help save lives.

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