How to Get the Most from Your Virtual Conference Meeting

Due to COVID-19, many traditionally in-person conferences have gone fully online or convened hybrid meetings with some in-person and some online attendees.1

Hybrid or online conferences are novel for biblical studies. So, we’re all learning as we go to varying degrees.

But with the following 8 steps, you can help set yourself up for an enriching meeting where you focus on biblical scholarship rather than the technology for delivering the meeting.

  1. Have your software and hardware ready.
  2. Plan what sessions you will attend.
  3. Connect early.
  4. Don’t be afraid to break the ice.
  5. Don’t hog the line.
  6. Come to learn.
  7. Focus on the sessions you attend.
  8. Take notes.

1. Have your software and hardware ready.

Well before your first session, be sure to install (or update) and test any software as needed, like Zoom. Also, test your speakers and your microphone.

By getting all of the technology set up early, you’ll avoid last-minute troubleshooting frustrations or delays immediately before a session.

Also, if you’re presenting or otherwise likely to speak during the session, try to arrange to use a headset or dedicated microphone.

The microphone built into your webcam, laptop, or mobile device can do in a pinch. But the audio will be much better for the rest of the attendees if you’re able to use a dedicated microphone.

2. Plan what sessions you will attend.

Depending on the particular conference’s choices, one of the nice things about virtual meetings is that sessions can be offered on a broader schedule. They can also be recorded for later viewing if you aren’t able to attend live.

But these upsides are also downsides if you try to consume too much of the meeting. Just because you can be in or rewatch more sessions in a virtual meeting doesn’t mean you should.

Instead, be choosey. Use the conference program or planner to find the sessions most pertinent for you.

That way, rather than giving surface engagement to a wide array of sessions, you can go all in on the few that most align with your interests.

3. Connect early.

In my first fully online conference, I was scheduled to presented a paper. The morning of my paper, I got on to connect to my session in what I thought was enough time.

It just so happened, however, that my computer also decided that it needed to reboot to install an update that morning too. 😐

I ended up still connecting to the session on time even after the reboot, although with a bit less margin than I would have liked. But if I hadn’t had the buffer provided by trying to connect to the session early, I could easily have been late for my own paper.

Don’t let that happen to you. Instead, connect ahead of a given session with enough buffer to handle any last-minute issues that arise.

4. Don’t be afraid to break the ice.

“Zoom rooms” and the like do a great job facilitating the structured interaction that occurs in person during paper presentations and discussion times. For the unstructured times before and after a conference session convenes, virtual rooms introduce some special awkwardness.

When you attend a conference in-person, the room allows any number of things to happen before and after the session.

You can sit quietly by yourself. Or you can converse with one or a few other attendees in that session. There might be still more people in the room sitting by themselves or talking in their own groups.

But in a virtual room, everyone attending the session is all in the same group. That can make interaction before and after the session pretty awkward.

If you’re talking to one other person, all the rest of the attendees are listening in on your conversation. But the alternative is for you all to sit around staring at each other while you stare into your webcams.

Any way you slice it, the unstructured time before or after a session is going to be awkward. So, try your best not to worry about the awkwardness.

If everyone’s having a staring contest, feel free to do the same. But also don’t be afraid to break the ice by making some light small talk, especially if you know someone else in the session.

You’ll get to catch up with a colleague. And if anyone else jumps into the conversation, you might meet someone new too.

5. Don’t hog the line.

At the same time, there’s another principle that goes closely along with the fact that you can break the ice. And that is that you shouldn’t hog the line.

A virtual meeting room is a shared communication space. So, in one way, that room is simply another iteration of the concept of “party line” telephone service.

Given that similarity, similar etiquette applies. If you break the ice, be sure also to leave enough space between or after you do so so that others can chime in if they want as well.

And particularly before the session, it goes without saying that the small talk needs to give way easily to the moderator when it’s time to bring the session to order.

6. Come to learn.

Whether you’re giving a paper or listening to one, come to learn and contribute.

Come to learn from the presenters about their work and contribute to the discussion of it. Or come to learn from the audience about yours.

Either way, if you come to learn and contribute rather than to impress, you’re likely to do more of both while also lessening the time you’ll spend faced with imposter syndrome.

7. Focus on the sessions you attend.

Nowadays, it doesn’t take attending many academic conference sessions in person before you notice something. During a session, some portion of the audience will be focused on … their email, Facebook, Twitter, the program book, or really anything besides the session they’re physically attending.

Maybe, they’re “multitasking.” But even if they are, studies show they’re not really paying attention.

I’ve been guilty of this practice in the past too, particularly later in a conference when sleep deprivation has tended to set. But while it might help with staying awake, getting adequate sleep is a much better approach that will also help you pay closer attention to the sessions you choose to attend.

As you “multitask” between two or more increasingly complex tasks, your ability to track with either at the same pace drops precipitously. You’ll typically need to elongate the time you spend on the multiple tasks you tried to bundle.2

That creates problems when you try to combine two incredibly complex and language-intensive tasks like listening to an academic paper and checking your email or social media.

In addition, the easier you make it for your brain to “escape” an academic paper into the world of your email or social media, the more difficult you make it to maintain focus the next time around on a different paper or cognitively demanding activity.3

Plus, if you craft for yourself a very selective conference schedule to start with, you’ll already have biased your schedule toward the sessions that you find more worth attending. And if they’re more worth attending, they’re more worth attending to while you’re in them.

8. Take notes.

Taking notes in a session is a great way to help keep your mind from wandering off—let alone wanting to seek out distracting stimuli like email or social media.

It’s also a good way of helping you retain the content of the papers you attend, whether or not you look at your notes again afterward.

In a virtual conference, you’ll already have some electronic device running when you’re attending a session. So, you may be inclined to take your notes digitally on that same device.

If that works for you, that’s great. But handwriting notes can provide benefits you don’t get if you’re taking notes by typing.4

(If you want to store notes digitally after your conference, Rocketbook has a great notebook-scanner app pairing that makes digitizing handwritten pages very easy.)

Conclusion

It can take some work to get the most from an academic conference. That’s true whether the conference is in-person, online, or some mixture of the two.

But with some forethought and preparation, a virtual conference can provide a great opportunity for you to hone your craft in biblical scholarship.


  1. Header image provided by Compare Fibre

  2. Multitasking: Switching Costs,” American Psychological Association, 20 March 2006. By contrast, habitual tasks that require very little attention can be more successfully combined with other tasks that require more attention (e.g., folding laundry while listening to a podcast). For this reason, Greg McKeown suggests distinguishing between multitasking and multifocusing. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 219–20; cf. C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 212–15. 

  3. Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (New York: Grand Central, 2016), 157–59. 

  4. Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science 25.6 (2014): 1159–68. 

Daily Gleanings: Writing (17 December 2019)

Emmanuel Nataf outlines several concrete practices to develop in order to foster consistent writing.

Emmanuel comments,

It is almost universally acknowledged that anyone who can procrastinate on a project, will find a way to procrastinate.… This can be especially true for any writer working to their own self-imposed deadlines. But as all prolificwriters will know, the secret to working up the motivation and concentration isn’t some enigmatic, inaccessible well of inner strength. Instead, success lies in consistency and consistency requires knowing what comprises a productive routine.

Emmanuel’s particular recommendations are to:

  1. Start with a head-clearing ritual.
  2. Define your own pomodoros.
  3. Alternate between fun stuff and grunt work.
  4. Double down on productivity apps.
  5. Save research for another time.
  6. Schedule something for the end of the day.
  7. Leave off in the middle of an idea.

For Emmanuel’s discussion of these points, see his original post on the Freedom blog.

Daily Gleanings: Freedom (7 November 2019)

Via a Chrome extension, Freedom adds support for Chrome OS and Linux devices.

Of course, for Linux users, the Chrome extension won’t allow Freedom to run a session that blocks sites in other browsers like Firefox.

But for instance, if you

have a Chromebook, an iPhone, and an Android tablet. You know each device offers its own set of tempting distractions.

Add those distractions to a blocklist on the Freedom dashboard, choose your devices, and with a single click of the “Start” button, all the selected devices are actively blocking the selected distractions.

For more information about Freedom of Chrome OS and Linux, see Freedom’s full blog post.

For more about using Freedom to support your priorities, see this post.

Daily Gleanings: White-listing (4 November 2019)

Freedom releases white-listing for Windows:

Whitelisting or Block All Except … allows you to block the entire internet except for the websites you add to your exceptions list.

Thus, with white-listing, you don’t need to positively identify what online distractions you want to avoid. You just need to identify what online you need to be productive.

For instructions about how to use white-listing on Windows, see Freedom’s original post.

For more about using Freedom to support your priorities, see this post.

How to Use Freedom to Support Your Priorities

If you struggle with online distractions, you don’t have to battle them by yourself.1 You can use Freedom to support your choice to focus on what matters most.

If you don’t struggle with online distractions, that’s wonderful. But distractions can involve more than the trivial things we might immediately think of in this category.

Even “productive” activities can be distractions when they pull us away from where we really should putting our attention.

For Example, Email

For me, it’s email. It’s been email for years.

And in the near future, I don’t see it being very likely that I’ll suddenly stop wanting to check email more than is helpful for other priorities.

Has that editor written back? Does a student need a response? Has a colleague sent a document? Has a committee discussion moved forward?

These questions and others like them are all good ones that can get answered in email. But if I’m repeatedly doing email “quick checks,” I find I accumulate quite a bit of “attention residue.”

As Cal Newport describes,

When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task…. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so…. But … [t]hat quick check introduces a new target for your attention.

Deep Work, pp. 42–43; italics original.

And because there’s a “new target” for my attention, my attention can’t be as fully where it should be—whether that’s writing, working on a class, or spending time with my family.

Your online distraction of choice might be different. But if this tune sounds familiar and your self-discipline against distraction could use a boost, read on.

I’ll share how I use Freedom to help me focus on what matters at the times when email shouldn’t. You can apply the same techniques to use Freedom to support your own unique priorities.

1. Repeating Scheduled Sessions

1.1 In the Morning

I’m normally in the office on weekdays 7:30 to 4:30. And I have a regular set of things I do to start the day from 7:30 to 8:30, including the daily Bible readings that go along with the classes I teach.

It’s sometimes been tempting to begin by checking email after I get up or to “take a break” from a tough sentence in the biblical text. So I’ve created a repeating Freedom session that runs from 5:30 to 8:30 every weekday.

Morning routine Freedom session screenshot

This session blocks more than just email and other things that would be distractions during this time. It also blocks these sites and services on the different devices I might have nearby.

1.2 In the Evening

When I’m not at the office, the main email temptation is my phone.

This is true even though I almost never reply to email from my phone since I’d much rather type on a real keyboard.

I tried removing the Gmail app but still found it too easy to open Chrome, type in “gmail.com,” and do a “quick check” there.

So I also made myself a recurring session to block Gmail just on my phone in the evenings and overnight.

(If our little one needs someone to get up with her during the night, it might be my turn. Do I really need to see an email I can’t respond to and that then keeps me awake thinking about it?)

Phone email Freedom session Screenshot

If I do need to do some email in the evening, I can still do that from an actual computer.

It just has to be a decision I own by being physically in front of a computer rather than a reflex I slip into when pulling out my phone.

2. Custom Sessions

For a while, I tried to use scheduled Freedom sessions during the day.

I already had my calendar time blocked. So setting up Freedom sessions to run along with these same time blocks seemed to make sense.

What I realized, though, was that my calendar changes far too frequently for this to work well for me. Instead of making a change to a given time block just on the calendar, I’d also need to change a scheduled Freedom session.

But normally once a day begins, the calendar is pretty well set. So instead of trying to use recurring Freedom sessions during the day, I added a step to my morning routine.

Now, as part of that time, I look at the day’s calendar and create whatever Freedom sessions look like they will be helpful for that day.

If I’m working on grading, preparing for class, or doing some writing, the whole day might be one Freedom session except for the time specifically set aside for clearing out my inbox.

Or if I need do different kinds of activities during the day, I might schedule two or three separate Freedom sessions with different block lists for the times of the day when I plan to work on those projects.

Conclusion

You may find different Freedom helpful in much different ways given how your days and weeks look.

But Freedom can be a powerful tool. It’s powerful because it extends our self discipline.

It allows us to set priorities for our time ahead of time when we’re thinking clearly about what’s most important. That way, we don’t need to re-make that decision constantly over against our favorite distractions or “quick checks” that might dilute our focus on those priorities.

So, if you don’t already use Freedom, give it a try. If you’re like me, you’ll find that it much more than pays for itself in the amount of attention it helps you put where you really want to have it.


  1. Header image provided by Freedom

Daily Gleanings: Knowledge Work (22 August 2019)

Doist has a broad-brush discussion of some common problems culturally inherent in American knowledge work. The essay may be worth reading particularly if you’re employed in knowledge work either as faculty or in another field while you’re working on your degree.

Among the essay’s comments, the observation particularly struck me that those who cope more successfully with knowledge work

reach a measure of well-being not through fleeting achievements like inbox zero or mastering their to-do lists but by recognizing their limits and setting boundaries that allow them to better enjoy work—and the rest of living.

This observation deeply resonates with the importance of essentialism to healthy knowledge work and, indeed, healthy further study in the midst of a life where other things also matter a great deal (and perhaps still more). For further discussion, see, e.g., the interview below.


Jumping off from the productivity advice of Mark Forster, Jackie Ashton discusses how to get everything done while not letting work occupy all of life. The essay summarizes, Forster

points out[] it’s not time that we should focus on, he says—there are 24 hours in every single day, no matter how we slice and dice them. Instead, we need to learn to manage our attention.

This technique not only covers how to get the work done, but also gave me a systematic approach to decide what should be on my to-do list in the first place.

It’s a system that forced me to (finally) grapple with the time and energy constraints I’m working with and ensures that I’m giving each important area of my life the attention it needs.

The broad outlines here substantially resonate with my own experience and track closely also with Michael Hyatt’s advice in Free to Focus.

For the balance of the essay, see Jackie’s original post.