Two weeks ago, from March 29 until April 2, the Renaissance Society of America (RSA) conference took place in Dublin. It’s probably the largest conference for academics interested in the early modern period and it customarily attracts scholars from various historical disciplines and fields from all over the world. Over the last couple of years, the number of papers and panels on the digital humanities has been steadily increasing at this conference. For me this is good news: RSA now offers me a platform to share both my latest archival findings and to showcase the technical side of my project.
As a result, I was able to have discussion about the intricacies of early modern Catholicism and the possibilities of expressing the data derived from early modern sources in RDF. One can argue that the increased interest in the digital humanities only adds to the already rather bewildering variety and number of panels, but at the same time the digital humanities can function as the (methodological) glue which ties scholars from different sub-disciplines together. While the research interests of three other panelists differed from my own, the application of digital methods pertaining to data visualisation and (network) analysis provided some common ground between us. Having said that, it remains a challenge to write a balanced paper which gives sufficient attention to the technological and historical aspects of one’s project, partly because it’s difficult to gauge which aspect members of the audience are most interested in.
Due to the pandemic, the 2020 conference was cancelled altogether and last year it was turned into a ‘virtual meeting’. Luckily, this year it could take place in real life again, even though the impact of the pandemic was still felt: the number of attendees was lower than in pre-pandemic years and unfortunately a number of panels and individual papers had to be cancelled due to COVID-related issues. Still, numerous scholars flocked to Dublin and this meant seeing many friends and colleagues, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years. This in itself was sufficient to make the conference a success. Moreover, being physically present in panels is so much better than following conferences via a computer screen at your office or in your living room. In particular the social aspect of a conference – walking up to a presenter after a panel to discuss mutual research interest, meeting new people, having a coffee (read: alcoholic beverage) with old friends – is something which is impossible to mimic in an online environment. Sometimes being together in a room really is necessary and invaluable. At the same academia has to have a debate about the need and utility of attending international overseas conferences. Is it really worth the damage it causes to the environment? To what extent should we consciously limit ourselves in doing this? Arguably, being much more selective and reducing plane travel as much as possible is the best way forward.
All in all, despite occasional bouts of “flight shame”, the mix of being able to listen to papers on a variety of topics and to socialize with friends and colleagues made that RSA 2022 was a great success. Let’s see what 2023 has in store for us…
Featured image: St Patrick’s Cathedral, photo by author