In April, the Federation spoke with Humanities Montana’s Program Officer Samantha Dwyer about the council’s programs Gather Round and Montana Conversations, which they had recently successfully converted to online prompts, discussions, and toolkits for their communities.

View the full interview here:

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?

DWYER: Before COVID-19 we talked about doing virtual community conversations but never had sufficient time or pressure to make it happen. We sometimes recorded programs and put them on our YouTube channel for our 13 subscribers… In March when we canceled our in-person programs we needed a way to continue to bring the humanities to Montanans. We wanted to have original content that people couldn’t find anywhere else online, led by Montana scholars, experts and elders. So far, one of the biggest challenges has been the rapid timeline for planning, promoting, hosting, recording, editing and publishing these events. We were used to taking about a month and working with partners to make Montana Conversations happen. Now we do it all in a week from home. The other challenge is competing with all of the other stuff going on virtually. Our live virtual conversations are with small groups of people. Maybe ten people will come to Zoom meeting but another 100 will watch on Facebook Live or YouTube when we share the recording. I know those are small numbers for the internet, but for humanities programs, we are reaching a lot more people than before. Our YouTube subscribers have doubled!

In addition to virtual conversations, we also send an email every Monday we call Digital and DIY Humanities. In it we link to our videos and invite people to virtual conversations but we also offer prompts for humanities at home. We have a philosophy section each week with a brief description of a philosophical school of thought, a connection to current times, and then a question for people to ponder. We also gave new life to our previous edition of Gather Round, a humanities toolkit we mailed to people last spring. Prompts and quotes from the toolkit are redesigned for the email and shared on social media. Each week we get a note or two in response. Here’s a tweet we got from one of the Gather Round prompts:

“This @billmckibben essay landed in my inbox last week courtesy of @HumanitiesMT. A thought provoking take on the internet as our shared hearth – our gathering place, now more than ever, for better and for worse.” – Gabriel F. 

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

DWYER: We sent an email to our conversation leaders at the start of the shelter-in-place order to see who might be able to lead virtual conversations. They responded very generously with their time and enthusiasm and I scheduled many based on availability and experience using a virtual platform. People with less experience were given later dates to have time to become comfortable on these new platforms. We are not currently working with partners like we usually do because most are closed. We have a conversation in the planning stages with a rural library but that won’t happen until June. We have sponsored a few virtual classroom visits, but have had at least 25 programs canceled in the last two months that our partners would usually host. We did partner with a nonprofit that normally did writing workshops on the river and had to shift to a virtual platform instead. They were creative with redesigning their content and had enthusiastic responses. Although they tried to limit the number of participants to 20, they had a hard time saying no and ended up with a very engaged group of 26 people who did an entire weekend on Zoom together. Here is an email I received from one of the participants who is also a high school English teacher:

“I just wanted to say that I was one of the incredibly lucky participants this last weekend for the Freeflow Institute’s ZOOM winter writing workshop with Chris LaTray. They were so enthusiastic and welcoming to educators. Thanks for helping to make that change in platform work!” – Lori M.

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?

DWYER: I always do a practice session in Zoom with the facilitator to make sure lighting, sound, and internet connection are okay and they know how to share their screen if needed. I don’t send out resources or prep the audience. Everyone seems to be learning quickly and that information is pretty readily available.

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

DWYER: The response has been very positive. The people who participate in the live programs are grateful to connect with different people. The emails have been lovely to receive.

“Just a shout-out to say how enjoyable both of the Digital and DIY Humanities e-blasts have been for me!  Thank you all for the hard work you’re putting in remotely during this surreal time.” – Eric S.

“Thank you for all you are doing to continue to support and promote the humanities, during this very difficult time of crisis!” – Sidney A.

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?

DWYER: I think our role as a humanities council doesn’t change during this time. We have always served Montanans through stories and conversations and our mission has always been to connect people to each other and to ideas, to think about our times and how they relate to the past and the future we hope for, to uncover hidden stories and amplify voices that have been silenced or marginalized. I don’t think our mission has changed, only the context in which we are doing it. 

Do you organize your programs by region or other kinds of community demographics to help facilitate participation and conversation? If so, what are the considerations you take in determining these boundaries?

DWYER: No, we do not organize by region.

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?

DWYER: I think the humanities shift our perspective and give us a little bit of distance from current events in a way that lets us engage more. That sounds a little paradoxical, but I’ve found that focusing on stats, curves, protests, and antibody testing can be both overwhelming and narrowing in our understanding and response. By asking questions like, “What lessons and stories from this pandemic are worth passing to future generations?” (or any of the excellent Cabin Fever Questions Humanities Washington has written) we seem to be able to open up and talk more. The humanities help us move through fear toward a more encompassing understanding of the variety of experience.