There are no major sources of money meant specifically for lingcomm. You’re going to have to be strategic and creative.
Different types of projects have different possibilities for funding. If you’re producing something that an audience can enjoy on an ongoing basis, crowdfunded donations might be a great approach. If you’re in an academic setting, you might look for grants available within your institution. If it’s not clear what the best approach is for you, investigate how other projects like yours have been funded.
Look to non-linguistics projects for models. Since linguistics and lingcomm are still relatively small fields, it can be useful to seek inspiration from projects in other areas, such as scicomm or public history, or within your format, such as podcasts or YouTube channels. For example, if you’re thinking of running a crowdfunding campaign, take a look at campaigns for projects that have roughly as many followers as yours to get a sense of how much money you might be able to raise.
Be creative about how what you’re doing can be packaged to attract funding. Figure out what potential funders care about and what you’re doing that can be described that way. For instance, if you’re having university students teach community members about linguistics, you might frame that as training students or as building connections between the university and the local community if you’re trying to get funding from a university or granting agency. Approach the funder by presenting your efforts in the terms they care about, which may different from what you care about.
Don’t do something entirely different from your core project to attract funding. With crowdfunded projects in particular, it can be tempting to offer perks like a t-shirt or a regular newsletter to those who support your work. Be mindful of the extra workflow this offer creates and skeptical about whether your supporters are actually interested in it. It’s okay to ask supporters for money to continue creating something they already enjoy.
Make sure your success doesn’t outpace your resources. Funding does not give you infinite time or capacity, so be deliberate and reasonable about the commitments you make. If you are planning for a long-term or ongoing project, consider how you will balance it with other future priorities. That said, having an ongoing source of funding can ultimately help with the longevity of a project by enabling you to fairly compensate the people involved and reducing the likelihood of burnout.
This post is part of a series of resources from LingComm21:
Know your motivation. What are you hoping to accomplish by making lingcomm videos? Maybe you’re explaining topics in a way that no one has before, or connecting with an audience that hasn’t seen someone like you teach before, or simply demonstrating a shameless, nerdy enthusiasm for the discipline that might inspire someone to devote some of their free time to learning about it. Whatever your goal, make sure it’s clear to you so you can use it to guide further decisions.
Consider the audience you’re likely to get. You might have in mind a core group of followers who will eagerly await the release of each new video. However, video, more than many other formats, makes it easy to reach broad audiences who are not necessarily looking actively for your content. Many video platforms “recommend” videos to users or even start playing them automatically. Video resources are also used sometimes by educators in classroom environments to supplement more traditional learning materials. What is the entry point for your videos? Can viewers get something out of watching an isolated video, or do they need to start from the beginning of the series for things to make sense? And how do your video title, end card, and other information guide people toward a particular watching order or let them know that any order is okay?
Be accessible, but don’t be condescending. You’re not “dumbing down” the content; instead, you’re drawing on your expertise to present it to viewers in a way that’s efficient, understandable, and only as detailed as necessary. It’s hard to be both accurate and concise while speaking extemporaneously, so consider scripting what will be said during your video. And don’t shy away from a script just because you’re concerned about the video feeling boring! If you’re genuinely excited about the content, that’s going to come through even if your expressions of excitement are prewritten.
Think about what’s on the screen, but prioritize the audio. What viewers see is, of course, a major component of a video, and you should ensure that it supports the experience you want to create. However, viewers are much more forgiving of low video quality than low audio quality. If your resources are limited, devote them to audio before video. For instance, you might record video using the camera built into your cell phone, but audio using an external microphone that provides clearer sound.
Make a finite, repeatable commitment. Rather than releasing videos on a regular basis indefinitely, consider structuring a video series as “seasons” of a set length. This format allows you to take predictable breaks and provides organic opportunities to revamp anything about your process that isn’t working optimally. And if and when you choose to stop making videos, a series that ends with the conclusion of a season can feel more satisfying to viewers.
Just press record. It can be easy to feel intimidated, especially if your points of reference include videos created by professional production companies (like Crash Course Linguistics). Resist the temptation to compare your first video to someone else’s fiftieth video—and go back and look at some of the very first videos from channels you admire to see how they grew and developed with their audiences. You may not have the experience or the budget of established creators, but you can still have something great to offer.
This post is part of a series of resources from LingComm21:
Identify the audience you want. Who are you trying to draw in: people who are already language experts looking for deep dives, people who approach language from a prescriptive rather than descriptive angle, people who don’t yet know that they’re interested in language at all? Podcasts can be accessible to a wide variety of potential listeners, but know who you’d like your core audience to be. Many subsequent choices will be impacted by your audience’s interests and expectations.
Solicit feedback early, but not too early. It’s important that you’re clear about what you want your podcast to be before risking others changing your mind. Especially in the early days of developing a podcast, friends and family members can be excellent as minimally intimidating pilot listeners, but at the end of the day, they’re not creating the show. Take their feedback into consideration, but make sure that the ultimate product reflects your lingcomm goals.
Don’t underestimate the amount of effort involved. A podcast is a lot of work, especially early on when you’re still figuring a lot of things out. In particular, there is a lot of technical production work that you might not be aware of if you have mostly experienced podcasts as a listener. While it might be tempting to launch a companion blog or an elaborate social media project alongside your podcast, you’ll likely appreciate having the ability to focus just on the podcast while you get the hang of it.
It’s okay not to know everything, about both the behind-the-scenes technical details and the content itself.Part of the fun of making a podcast is discovering new things, including about linguistics! As for the technical side, making a podcast is a great way to learn the ropes. To give yourself a low-pressure incentive, consider creating a few test episodes for select audiences of your friends and family members before an official public launch.
Don’t let the trolls get you down. If you’re attracting attention on the internet, you’re bound to encounter some unproductive feedback that doesn’t help you. The internet is a huge place and not all shows are for all people. Remember who you’re making the podcast for and why you’re doing it, and make sure to notice the positive feedback you’re getting, too.
Additional podcasting advice from Lauren Gawne, moderator of this panel discussion and co-host of Lingthusiasm, can be found here.
This post is part of a series of resources from LingComm21:
Plan how you will attract an audience. There are many possible things that people can do with their time, so getting people to show up is often the most difficult part of an event. Think carefully about who you are trying to reach and how you might make it easier for them to choose to attend. Is there a place where your desired audience already gathers that you could go to? Is there an organization or group that has ready access to your audience that might be open to hosting you or partnering with you? If you can make use of existing connections or forge new ones, do so. Weak attendance will make your event frustrating even if everything else about it is fantastic.
Consider how your event format relates to your lingcomm goals. Events can take many different forms: workshops, activity fairs, open houses, or lectures, to name just a few. These days, events may also happen in person or virtually. In some cases, especially if your event is part of a larger series or a partnership, the format might be largely decided for you; in other cases, you might have a say in defining it. Regardless, as you are planning the event, the format and goals should mutually inform one another. If you’re aiming to get into a lot of detail about a topic, for instance, an activity fair with lots of brief interactions is probably not the best fit. Work with the format of the event rather than against it: for example, if your event is taking place in person, invite attendees to brainstorm ideas together on a whiteboard rather than in a shared document online. If your event is virtual, structure it so that people can play around with a website simulation of the vocal tract rather than watching you manipulate a physical model.
Keep the audience’s needs in mind, and think well beyond the need to introduce concepts accessibly. For real-time events, in particular, consider the physical needs of your attendees. Is there seating available? Is the event scheduled at a time when people might normally expect to eat, and are you providing food or leaving time during which they can eat food that they’ve supplied? Is the event long enough that you should include breaks for bathroom use and leg stretching? Virtual events do not absolve you of these responsibilities, as virtual audience members still inhabit physical bodies and may need time for their physical needs.
Prioritize interaction over information. One major advantage of approaching lingcomm via an event, rather than writing, podcasts, or videos, is that two-way interaction is frequently possible. Don’t waste that advantage. In whatever ways the event format allows, invite the audience to help shape the experience—for example, by asking questions or voting on topics—even if it reduces the amount of information you convey. If you succeed in getting the audience excited about a topic, they can turn to other sources later on to learn more. And especially if young children are your audience, getting them excited about something is much less intimidating, and more easily achievable, than getting them to understand detailed content.
Don’t equate trinkets with an experience. It’s tempting to want to hand out stickers, temporary tattoos, branded pencils, or other small items to members of the audience to stoke excitement. In some scenarios, this makes sense, such as an activity fair at which all the booths have swag, or a recurring event series that you want to keep top of mind for past attendees. However, being able to take something home does not automatically create a meaningful lingcomm experience. Further, depending on the venue, there may be restrictions on what you can distribute, and trinkets of course require a portion of your budget. Be critical about what they add to your event and whether you’re relying on them as a stand-in for meaningful engagement.
Prepare for the future. If you might be involved with similar events later on, solicit feedback from your current audience in the form of a simple question or brief survey to let you know whether you accomplished what you wanted to and help you make decisions about future events. Additionally, if you plan to continue targeting the same audience, collect contact information to start building a list of past attendees to whom you can advertise future events.
Embrace the unexpected. Events are generally not as controllable as other forms of lingcomm like writing, podcasts, and videos. When live interactions with people are involved, there are countless ways in which things might not go as intended. It’s good practice to identify and develop contingency plans for any major issues that might jeopardize the event, but no matter how much you strategize ahead of time, you’ll also need to bring a taste for adventure and be ready to problem-solve in the moment.
This post is part of a series of resources from LingComm21:
Identify the audience. Who is likely to read your work, and what do they already know about language? What else might they want to know about language? Recognize that every reader has extensive experience as a language user, which can work both for you and against you. On one hand, a reader’s own experience can make the topic you’re writing about easier for them to relate to. At the same time, they may already have biases and misunderstandings about the topic that are hard to shake off.
Assume that some readers will approach language from a prescriptive angle. If your goal is to demonstrate that language use is interesting and intriguing, rather than “right” or “wrong,” you might have to bring them around to this perspective.
Be educational and entertaining. Both content and style are important. Figure out the story you’re telling, and include just the information that readers need to understand it, not everything you know about the topic. Begin the piece in a way that “hooks” readers early on, and provide clear signposts throughout so they can follow you easily.
Try pitching publications. Some venues (including Babel and Grammar Girl) are interested specifically in writing from linguists, and many more general publications sometimes cover language topics. Writing for publications is a great way of learning more about writing through working with an editor and reaching a larger group of readers than you might be able to do alone. A pitch generally takes the form of an email to an editor with a brief and snappy (one paragraph) description of the article you want to write and why the readers in that particular venue would find it interesting.
Consider the format. A magazine article is different from a blog post, which is different from a podcast script. Based on what you’re writing, think about the expectations that editors and readers might be bringing to your work in terms of structure and style. If you’re not sure, take a look at previously published work—especially from your target publication, if you know it.
Just start writing. If you wait to get everything perfect from the very beginning, you’ll never write a word. Trust that you’ll learn and improve as you go. Starting your own small writing project, such as a blog, can be a great low-stakes way of practicing lingcomm writing and discovering what readers respond to.
This post is part of a series of resources from LingComm21:
The second International Conference on Linguistics Communication, LingComm23, will take place online, the week of February 6-10, 2023.
LingComm23 will once again bring together lingcommers from a variety of backgrounds, including linguists communicating with public audiences and communicators with a “beat” related to language.
Bookmark the LingComm23 website or follow us on Twitter on so that you don’t miss the call for participation, invited speaker announcements, the release of conference schedule details, and more: https://lingcomm.org/
Do you have an idea for a lingcomm effort that needs a bit of funding to get started?
Are you already doing a lingcomm project that could be brought to the next level with a bit more support?
Thanks to the support of Lingthusiasm patrons and several generous donors, we are currently awarding 14 LingComm grants in 2022: 10 Startup Grants of $100 (USD), and 4 Project Grants of $500 (USD). Each person or group awarded a grant will have a mentoring meeting with Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne, and the project will be promoted to Lingthusiasm audiences.
You can find details, frequently asked questions, and the application on the LingComm Grants page. Spread the word! The application deadline is March 31, 2022 (timezone anywhere on earth).
In April 2021, we ran the first International Conference on Linguistics Communication as a fully online and deliberately community-building event, which we then documented as a series of six blog posts. You may be interested in our approach, reflections, and recommendations if you are planning your own virtual conference or event. Check out some lightly edited excerpts and links to the full posts below.
“A conference program is not about raw information transmission. Instead, a conference program is about creating a ‘magic circle’ — a structure that brings together for a focused amount of time a group of people who care about the topics in the program, and that provides springboards for conversations within that group.”
“The internet and the conference are both notable for how successful they are at facilitating social interaction. With two such promising ingredients, it almost seems like the combination of online + conference should be better than an offline conference. What went so spectacularly wrong? Why is an enjoyable online conference so difficult?”
“Physical events come with decades and centuries of social infrastructure disguised as practical necessity and conference ritual that organizers have never really had to think about as social.”
“What would be different if we conceived of a virtual conference not as a simple vehicle to port the typical conference programming online, but as the chance to take advantage of the core social strengths within the overlap of conference and internet?”
“By building a community of lingcommers at a virtual conference, we hoped to demonstrate that community-building through online conferences is possible, and this conference and surrounding materials can serve as resources for people with other interests who want to create online events for other communities.”
Participant feedback: ‘In a way this is really obvious, but wow, virtual conferences are SO much better when they’re organized and attended by people who believe that virtual conferences can be good’
“We had noticed that in many virtual conference environments, socializing and networking were, at best, easily avoidable add-ons. Because facilitating communication among this community was one of our primary goals, we instead made these central parts of the conference-going experience.”
“Deliberate planning is necessary to create ‘normal’ conversations of 2-5 people online rather than an endless succession of larger, meeting-style conversations with a few talkers and a lot of listeners.”
“At minimum, any conference can manage basic scheduling features like building in breaks, keeping days a reasonable length, considering timezones, and encouraging audience members to use the parallel text chat to a video talk for virtual applause and lightweight interaction.”
“We wanted attending this event to be as simple as walking into a conference center and being handed a paper program, rather than regularly leaving the conference platform to check on an informational email, to view a separate video feed, and so on.”
“Hotels (even cheap ones!) invest in things like art and flowers and landscaping because humans don’t like living in blank boxes. This is no less true in virtual spaces.”
“If you want other people to actually use your space beyond the initial tour, you need to know where to cut yourself off on the architecture side and direct the bulk of your energy to the people side, prioritizing ease of navigation over esoteric Easter eggs, and especially focusing on events and activities that give people a reason to come and get them actually interacting with each other.”
“Online conferences are much, much more financially accessible than physical events, but for a good conference to be run well, people should expect there to be some cost.”
“We believe that a future LingComm conference could be run in a revenue-neutral way based on two factors. First, we underestimated how many people would be interested in registering for the conference. Second, we underestimated how much registrants would be willing to pay for the conference, especially as attendees with institutional support were broadly willing to help cross-subsidize an accessible, low-cost or free registration category.”
“Figuring out fixed costs before an event is important, as is communicating these costs clearly to participants so that they understand why registration fees are being charged.”
“Planning for communication access should be the same as planning physical access or catering: you don’t wait until people turn up and tell you they’re hungry to plan catering for an event.”
“Funding for communication access can be a major budget element, but one of the most important things we can do is normalising it as part of budgeting for your event.”
“Accessibility starts with mutual respect and learning to listen so we can all engage. Accessibility is an ongoing project that requires ongoing conversations, willingness to try new things, and understanding that what might be an occasional consideration for one person is an ongoing barrier for someone else.”
This post was written by Gabrielle Hodge and Lauren Gawne, and originally published on The Research Whisperer blog.
There’s a lot to like about online events. Travel, and the associated cost, are no longer a barrier to participation, making it easier for a wider range of participants to engage with conferences. This has made online events more accessible than physical events, but online events still need a thoughtful approach to communication access. In this post we provide a brief introduction to making conferences accessible to deaf and hard of hearing participants, and our experiences of this as a participant (Gabrielle Hodge) and an organiser (Lauren Gawne) of the 2021 International Conference on Linguistics Communication (aka LingComm21). Making communication access an intentional part of academic event design benefits all participants, yet it does require event organisers to do the work.
Communication access is about ensuring people can bring their best to the event and for everyone to engage in all directions. We want our academic communities to reflect the same variation in lived experience and expertise as the rest of our lives. Planning for communication access should be the same as planning physical access or catering: you don’t wait until people turn up and tell you they’re hungry to plan catering for an event. Communication access should be built into every event, much like making sure accessible toilets are available, that everyone can get into the building and use facilities with ease and that there’s a range of food, not just egg sandwiches. Here are some common and easy-to-implement communication access options for you to engage with your deaf and hard of hearing colleagues.
Captions are a written representation of the spoken content that appears simultaneously on a screen. Closed captions provide people with a choice to display them or not, while open captions are always running and fixed on the screen for everyone. Captioning can be very effective for pre-recorded video content, or a verbatim transcript can be provided for audio-only content such as podcasts. Captions need to be created by a human to provide access for conference participation.
Automatic captions are generated using AI, and can be more or less accurate depending on the language, the speaker’s accent and frequency of technical vocabulary. There is a reason we often call them “craptions”. A common assumption is that automatic captions automatically provide communication access for deaf and hard of hearing people. They do not. The automatic caption function should never be switched on and assumed to be providing access: they need to be checked and corrected by a human to ensure they are accurate. You should only make use of automatic caption functions at conferences if you are preparing a pre-recorded resource and are prepared to correct the transcript and time alignment of the captions yourself.
Live captions are human-generated by a specialist stenographer (best accuracy possible) or through re-speaking technology (more prone to error) and occur with speech in near-real time. Professional live captions are much more accurate than automatic captions. At a physical event these can be projected onto a screen or device. At digital events, depending on the workflow, they can be displayed in Zoom, a YouTube livestream, or on a separate webpage. Professional and accurate live captions are generally easy to read and understand. They provide quality access to the spoken language content of the event.
Sign language interpreting at academic events involves qualified sign language interpreters who simultaneously interpret between a spoken and a signed language. For example, between spoken English and BSL (British Sign Language) or between Libras and Brazilian Portuguese. This is an incredibly complex job requiring exceptional proficiency in the working languages, and you’ll often see interpreters swapping out repeatedly over an hour-long event. Interpreters may be deaf or hearing. They might work between a spoken and signed language, or between two signed languages. At some events, there may even be a few different sign language interpreting teams all working between their languages as one big team. Sign language interpreting requires a lot of preparation and therefore must be organised months in advance: ideally as soon as you know the dates and times. One week before the conference is too late. Online conferences are radically changing the working conditions of interpreters (not necessarily for the better), and re-igniting debates in different countries about what signed languages are available at international conferences, and who is responsible for carrying the cost. These discussions might not be happening in your country or research community, but if you’re organising an international event it can be good to know they might be happening in other places.
There are other communication access options that you might also need to consider depending on the event community, such as audio descriptions for blind people. We’ve described the ones above because they’re kind of like vegetarian catering at an event: that is, there is always some background percentage of society that will require vegetarian food as a matter of priority, but vegetarian food options also cater to a range of other participants (in the case of food, this might be people who keep kosher, have pregnancy-based food aversions or just don’t like eggs). In the case of captions, many other people can make use of them: people who have auditory processing issues, people who are listening to a language that is not their first language or who prefer to read, and event organisers who might like a written record of the event. However, these are not the only options for communication access, and many events will benefit from a combination of several options. You should always make space for people to disclose these needs, and build them in as needed. At the same time, if such people are ongoing participants in your community (or are even the subject of study, in the case of sign language linguistics) then they must really become a standard feature of events full stop. It’s the same if a member of your community regularly attends and requires sign language interpreters.
Of course, it’s rare to go to a conference where everyone is thrilled with the catering, and you won’t always accommodate everyone with the communication access you provide either. The important thing to remember as an organiser is that this is a limitation of the event resources, and not a limitation on behalf of the participants. In the case of LingComm21, we made it clear to everyone from the outset that the registration fees were directly funding live captions for some of the conference, i.e., all of the plenary events and 1-2 of the streamed sessions. We chose to begin with live captioning because we had participants from across the English-speaking world and didn’t want to privilege one sign language from the outset. We also had a clear section on the registration form for other access requests in case someone did want specific sign language interpreting, so that we could work together to arrange it. We ensured our conference platform had technical capacity to include interpreter video feeds if someone wanted to bring their own interpreters, rather than use the captions. Afterwards, many attendees acknowledged that live captions were important, even if they didn’t directly benefit from them. They also said they were willing to pay more in registration in future years to cover these costs. Funding for communication access can be a major budget element, but one of the most important things we can do is normalising it as part of budgeting for your event.
With all of these considerations, we want to discuss how communication access for deaf and hard of hearing people played out at LingComm21 in April 2021. In this section we’ll begin by sharing our individual experiences as organiser and participant in this event, before reflecting on these experiences together.
Event organiser (Lauren Gawne)
We set out with the intention of designing LingComm21 as an online event that brought the same social energy as a physical event. We held the event in Gather, which is a proximity-based social video platform. This allowed us to have participants move about and use text chat as well as audio/video chat. We had some areas that were specifically flagged as text-only, which was useful for a variety of people who didn’t use audio, including people with low bandwidth internet, and participants who were bravely joining us from Europe at 2am and were in quiet houses.
As a new platform, Gather still has some way to go to make caption integration smoother. For large sessions we were streaming into Gather from YouTube, but this workflow added enough variables to mean that not everyone was seeing the captions alongside the videos. Videos in Gather are also small unless you click to expand, and when people turn their video off you need to prompt them to turn it back on, which can make it hard to facilitate signed chat.
We planned live captions rather than interpreting because of the international scope of the audience. The captioning company we worked with were incredibly professional and produced incredibly high-quality transcripts that exceed anything that an auto-captioning program would have managed with our diverse accents and technical vocabularies. As this was the first time we ran this conference and used this workflow, we had to adjust things over the days. This included discovering that while we had tested the transcripts came through to YouTube, and that the YouTube stream came through to the conference, we had failed to test how the closed captions came through in the stream to the conference. It turned out they did not. Thankfully it was a small enough conference we could work directly with affected participants, but it was still mortifying to add additional friction to the event for people. In those moments my main concern was ensuring we got the technology working and not burdening participants with excessive apologies or unnecessary explanations or excuses when they just wanted to get on with the conference (and instead saved the histrionics for my event co-chairs later in the day).
Event participant (Gabrielle Hodge)
Going into the conference, I was excited because I knew the organisers were conscious about communication access right from the beginning. I loved how it was promoted in terms of communication access and how different people responded to that on social media. The registration form was a dream: it was clear the organisers cared about access in general, that I could ask for different options, and they would work actively to make it happen. It did not feel like the usual event registration form tick box, which is a tiny box down the bottom asking if any additional needs were to be accommodated. I have never received a response from one of these boxes. Organisers either ignore it or address it far too late, like the day before the event begins. So it was great to see this aspect of conferencing addressed properly within the actual registration form. Overall, I found that knowing a lot of effort had gone into planning and including communication access at LingComm21 meant that I was way more invested in the conference. I also felt more understanding and forgiving about how different aspects of the conference played out.
This event was my first time in Gather, after months of seeing people either rave or complain about this platform. The LingComm21 Gather town was amazing: it looked like a real conference venue, played like an eighties throwback, and even had a couple of ducks hiding in various places that we had to search and find. It was very clearly designed by internet and scicomm nerds, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. A couple of familiar conferencing moments: feeling lonely standing alone by my poster and being rescued with a warm welcome from one of the hosts; a random but interesting conversation with someone working on a completely different topic, where we spent most of the time trying to understand how we each use one specific word; finding my way (late!) to the first plenary talk and seeing a big name rush past in apparently the same flustered state (also late!); the social anxiety of walking into a big room with conference tables and people already sitting down at them (people! sitting down at tables!); and the little golden roped off section near the main stage reserved for the captioners (very sweet and nice touch).
Not all of the LingComm events were captioned, but there was a range of topics and talks that were available with captions. I believe the organisers allocated the captioning schedule depending on which topics people needing captions had indicated they were interested in attending on the registration form. On entering the Gather space, there were text-only spaces clearly marked out, but there were also fewer people already sitting at these places. Most people were in the regular video space and speaking face-to-face with each other. I did notice people making a beeline for these video spaces, but possibly they already knew the people sitting there and/or wanted to speak with them. When the presenters began, I was ready and waiting for captions to show on the video, but they did not appear. Apparently there was a technical glitch affecting how the captions were streamed, so you could not actually watch the speaker video in GatherTown with the captions. There were two options: (1) watch the speaker live on YouTube with live captions, or (2) read the captions as page text via a separate link. I initially tried to watch them on YouTube, but the timing between speaker and live captions appearing on screen was too delayed, choppy and frustrating to read, so I switched to the page text. This was not ideal, as it is difficult to monitor two different browsers (the Gather and the caption page text), and the Gather browser also had different chat boxes popping up. However, the benefit of reading captions as a page text was that it was like reading a book, easier to skim and absorb quickly. I could then jump back to the main Gather browser and catch up on those chat boxes, while waiting for the next page of captions to load.
I also attended a couple of workshops where we all watched a brief presentation, such as how to write and pitch a science communication idea to mainstream media outlets, and then talked about how to action our pitch ideas. Everyone in my group was so friendly and thoughtful. We were able to have a few different conversations going on at the same time: one group conversation plus any private direct messaging with different individuals. The speaker expert also came around and gave us concise and helpful feedback on our pitch ideas. Overall, these smaller interactions resulted in a very positive conference experience and I think they are a valuable part of the online conferencing experience. There was no need to think or worry about access, we just communicated via text with videos on and it seemed everyone had a good time. This aspect of conferencing was probably easier than if we were all there in person, where we would need to pull out pen and paper or tech to communicate, plus those who are hearing would have to contend with background noise and so on. I also met a few different researchers who have taken their research skills and interests to the workforce outside academia and that was inspiring too.
Event debrief (Lauren and Gab)
Our experience with the technological limitations of live captions at LingComm21 illustrates the challenges of communication access not going right. While the organisation and planning of live captions at LingComm21 were very much within the control of the conference organisers, we failed to anticipate the issue with caption integration, and lacked the ability to find a frictionless solution within the limits of Gather. Above we highlighted how we both immediately dealt with the situation. It was relatively painless compared to the online conferencing experiences that deaf and hard of hearing researchers have most often experienced and discussed online during the pandemic and earlier. LingComm21 was small enough that the organisers had a sense of who was making the most use of the captions. Lauren and Gab also have a long enough professional relationship for Gab to trust that Lauren was earnestly trying to work within the constraints of the tech.
Unfortunately, there’s a commonly observed pattern at conferences where organisational and/or logistical issues lead to people missing out or even being denied communication access: regardless of whether deaf and hard of hearing people complain privately or publicly, the response from organisers is usually to dismiss the seriousness of the issue and/or respond defensively. When things go wrong with communication access and people are excluded, it’s common nowadays for people to complain on Twitter. This is often extremely effective for the person who has been excluded. It can also be very unpleasant for the organisers and they often feel attacked. However, it is important to recognise that such public complaints are not a scream into the void; rather, they result from the “democratisation of disagreement”. They are a call to action. Quick action. The kind of speed we do not get when we ask politely in private.
Not all people who are excluded due to lack of access consideration will feel comfortable communicating these issues, which is why building space into the planning and registration phase is so important. Minoritised people are used to being celebrated when it’s easy, and told to know their place when they try to challenge things (Erika Stallings refers to this as the ‘pet to threat’ trajectory for Black women in professional contexts). Deaf people are often minoritised in academic contexts, but deaf signing communities are diverse and each individual brings different experiences and needs. Access — and the experience of exclusion — is felt deeply and personally. Emotions can run high, even in well-negotiated situations, as we’ve highlighted above. The person you are excluding is not responsible for managing your feelings when your planning excludes them. This article on the deaf experience of “hearing arrogance” and exclusionary academia captures the frustration many feel when trying to engage with others at academic events.
The appropriate response to these complaints is humility and action. Anything that even slightly smacks of defensiveness and the need to save face in public, e.g., “why didn’t you first contact us privately so we could resolve this?” is never going to go down well. Such reactions equate to blaming deaf and hard of hearing people for your own failure to ask people what they need way in advance, especially when it is an event where better awareness should be expected. One recent example was an online conference that included presentations about deaf people and sign languages, all presented by hearing non-signers. Their presentations had captions, but the live Q&A sessions afterwards did not have captions or sign language interpreters. This meant deaf signers were locked out of public discussions about our languages and our lives. The only people who could participate were hearing, English-speaking people, most of whom were non-signers. This example illustrates how many conference organisers work against a very important principle: nothing about us without us. We’ve focussed on accessibility for deaf conference participants here, but there are many ways that conference organisers can make events more accessible to more participants.
When things go good:
It would be really handy if we could just point you to a single check list or set of resources for communication access, but it doesn’t work that way. No two groups of people are the same, needs constantly change and technology changes too (for good and bad). Access is an intersectional activity, and making a conference more physically or linguistically accessible might then require a subsequent rethink of how to make it financially accessible. Thinking of accessibility as an ongoing learning experience can ensure we also do not get complacent about the work that needs to be done. Accessibility requires event organisers to listen, from the planning stages through to feedback, and to take action on what they have learnt. We don’t deny that a good conference takes work for organisers, but people whose access needs are forgotten or ignored are constantly doing the work to even make it in the door. You might only organise a handful of major conferences during your academic career, but some people have to do this work for every single event they want to attend. Even when the conference takes accessibility needs into account, there’s still monitoring and feedback to be done. Even a positive response to a conference can come with lots of additional work. You might have attended a perfectly adequate conference and then found yourself writing a lengthy blog post about communication access at online conferences…
In this post we’ve tried to illustrate what communication access at an online conference looks like from the perspective of a conference organiser and a participant. This isn’t an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. We are, at different times, organisers and attendees. For some of us, our access needs are implicitly considered in standard conference design. For the rest of us, conferences can be a place of additional labour just to attend. Accessibility starts with mutual respect and learning to listen so we can all engage. Accessibility is an ongoing project that requires ongoing conversations, willingness to try new things, and understanding that what might be an occasional consideration for you is an ongoing barrier for someone else.
Thanks to Maartje de Meulder, Indie Beedie and Gretchen McCulloch for feedback on earlier versions of this post. Thanks to the LingComm21 team and participants for such a great online conference.
In other posts we discuss the importance of creating a meaningful, functional, and accessible conference experience. Running an online conference or similar-scale event is not free of cost. In this post we want to bring some transparency to the costs of organising an online conference. Access to skilled volunteer labour and funding will be different for everyone, and we will try to avoid making presumptions about what kind of budget you have, but we discuss costs, revenue and some of our specific approach to balancing the budget.
Physical conference budgets are massive, and that’s even taking into account that the conferences outsource most of the costs of travel, accommodation and feeding people to the participants. People are used to getting things for free on the internet, and online conferences are much, much more financially accessible than physical events, but for a good conference to be run well, people should expect there to be some cost.
As with many things, there is a certain amount of exchanging time for money or money for time that can be traded off depending on which one your organizational team has more of, but ultimately some of each is necessary: even if you hand-code every piece of software yourself (we do not recommend this), there are still server and bandwidth costs, and even if you delegate the entire running of the conference to paid assistants (we also do not recommend this), there will still be decisions that can only be made by the organizer(s).
Costs Infrastructure costs We chose to run the event in Gather to help foster social interaction. Gather has a public commercial pricing guide, but they also have heavily discounted custom pricing for universities, charities and similar non-commercial entities. An event like LingComm21 with 200 participants will thus need a budget in the hundreds of dollars rather than thousands, and with much more scaling flexibility than a physical space (we were rebuilding walls hours before the conference, which no hotel or convention centre can offer). We recognize reaching out to Gather (or a different platform) well in advance of the conference to confirm rates, as their pricing may have changed since our event (and they were also able to provide us with helpful feedback on our space design based on other people’s experiences).
Many of our other costs were mitigated by our networks. Several committee members had access to institutional Zoom accounts to run some panels, and the Lingthusiasm team had the Slack and YouTube accounts needed to make the co-ordination and streaming work. We ran ticketing through Eventbrite, which charged a percentage fee, but it made the registration process far more easy and flexible than we could have managed with another system.
Paying a third party company to run large-scale events is common for physical conferences and will undoubtedly become the norm for large online conferences as well. Much of the cost of these services includes the digital infrastructure they have access to, which can be costly for high-traffic events, and the labour costs of having people manage processes like livestreaming and captioning. We did the livestreaming in-team for LingComm21 using free software called OBS, which made it more affordable at a strictly dollars and cents level, but it also required a number of members of the organising committee to spend several days before the conference teaching themselves how to use the software as well as taking themselves away from participating in the conference to run the streams, so in future we would prefer to budget for someone else to run streaming.
Accessibility costs Although not all possible accessibility needs can be foreseen by conference organizers, and we did have a slot on the registration/participation forms asking about other accessibility requirements, the inaccessibility of audio content is extremely well known and formed part of our planning from the beginning.
Because LingComm21 was conducted primarily in English, and involved an international community that spans many linguistic areas, we decided on live captioning for the event, rather than interpreting for a specific signed language or several signed languages. Captions also provide an ancillary benefit for attendees who are hard of hearing, have auditory processing difficulties, or who speak English as a second language, in addition to providing a written reference for the organizers after the event. We had live captioning for 11 sessions throughout the conference, including all the introductory and plenary sessions. This cost around $5000 USD and constituted the single biggest expense for the LingComm21 conference.
We contacted captioning services for a quote as we were still figuring out the structure of the conference, which allowed us to reduce captioning costs by building in breaks for both the captioner and conference participants, meaning that we did not have to pay a second captioner to work in shifts to cover overly-long sessions (and also providing social benefits for participants as detailed in other posts). Reserving captioners early in the planning stages also allowed us to announce that captioning would be provided from the initial advertisement of the conference, rather than waiting for people to request it or invisibly assume that they were not welcome. Around 10% of participants who did the feedback survey said they used the captions, and the majority of the remaining 90% said that although they didn’t personally use them, they were happy to see them there, even though we didn’t solicit this information. (What can we say, the lingcomm community is pretty great.)
Live captioning is a fixed cost that does not vary whether an event has 10 participants or 1000, and cannot be solved by additional volunteer or organizer labour, as professional captioners have specialized keyboards and training allowing them to type at conversational speed. Captioning labour can be delegated to presenters if presenters are required to upload videos of their talks in advance, at which point they can also be required to furnish them with captions; however, we decided that while this approach may work for some conferences, it was incompatible with the highly interactive conference we were aiming for. Automatic captions, while sometimes useful for individual or small-group purposes, are not of adequate quality for a conference and we did not consider them.
There are other accessibility challenges that Gather, like all interactional spaces, presents. Proximity chat platforms aren’t the most accessible to blind participants, and people unfamiliar with 2D game navigation can find them difficult too. For the latter, we gave tours in advance to people who expressed reservations about the platform, and had conference volunteers available to provide one-on-one tech help where needed. We did not especially tackle the former challenge except by providing feedback to Gather’s staff that high contrast/screenreader friendly modes would be a good idea.
Labour costs LingComm21 was organised by a committee of four people with overstretched full-time work commitments, so we knew that the only way the management of the conference would happen coherently was to have a paid conference manager. Our conference manager Liz McCullough spent around 200 hours on the conference, including 150 hours before the event, 30 hours during LingComm21 and 20 hours of post-conference admin (including helping to write these posts).
We also had 11 volunteers who attended an hour of training before the event and helped people for 3-4 hour-long shifts during the conference, who were compensated with free registration and a certificate of volunteering. Our committee members also volunteered hours of their time to review submissions, build the schedule, and manage sessions during the conference. Many members of the lingcomm community also spend time preparing and moderating sessions, and running meetups on the final day of the conference.
A different organizational committee with a different ratio of time versus money available could have opted for a different balance of paid versus volunteer hours, although note that we’d suggest estimating for approximately twice as many volunteers or volunteer hours compared to paid hours, as volunteers (completely understandably) are more likely to have scheduling complications and last-minute emergencies.
Revenue Our commitment was to make LingComm21 as fiscally accessible as possible. To that end we kept registration fees very low, and offered free registration upon request (no documentation needed, as we saw no reason to add friction for people asking for assistance). Ticket prices were: $10USD for student/under-employed registration, $20USD for standard registration, and $30USD for standard registration plus subsidising student registration costs. We also had a $100USD personal sponsor registration option, and these sponsors were thanked on our website. We had 192 people register for the conference, with around 70 at each of the two lowest tiers, 39 people who subsidised student costs, and another 13 wonderful personal sponsors. We made it clear that registration costs were being used to cover live captioning for event accessibility.
Revenue additionally came from sponsors and grants. We received a £300GBP grant from the Linguistics Association of Great Britain (LAGB) and commercial sponsorship from Wordnik. LingComm21 was able to incur upfront costs including staffing and caption reservation before any revenue was available because it was underwritten by Lingthusiasm, as part of our commitment to building lingcomm capacity. Lingthusiasm was capable of sponsoring the conference because of the support of our patrons on Patreon — in 2020, we ran a campaign for new patrons to help us give out more LingComm Grants, and many of them remained patrons afterwards, which enabled us to underwrite this conference, i.e., commit funds to the fixed costs of this conference before we knew whether anyone would pay to attend it.
Balancing budgets We expected that Lingthusiasm would underwrite the bulk of the cost of the conference, and indeed this was the case, falling around $5000USD short of running a cost neutral event in 2021. However, we believe that a future LingComm conference could be run in a revenue-neutral way based on two factors.
First, we underestimated how many people would be interested in registering for the conference. Optimistically, we had hoped we might have up to 100 participants, and instead almost 200 people registered. Although the number of participants increased the expense of our virtual space (Gather charges per user, and we had to redesign the space at the last minute to fit more people), the majority of our costs (captioning and admin support) were fixed costs, which divided by 200 registrants rather than 100 made the necessary revenue per participant much smaller.
Second, we underestimated how much registrants would be willing to pay for the conference. Many more people selected the subsidize-a-student and personal sponsorships tiers than we had anticipated. We think that with a more expensive fee for standard registration and further encouragement for those with external funding or comfortable employment situations to choose a higher tier, we could have kept the registration fee for students and under-employed individuals low while increasing the rates charged to people who can afford them. Participant feedback also overwhelmingly noted that people would have been happy to pay more to support the event.
We did not do a very active job of soliciting sponsorship, which will become a more viable option as the conference becomes more established. That said, soliciting more sponsorship would have taken additional hours on the part of the organizers.
We do not regret underwriting the conference in its inaugural year when we had no baseline from which to create revenue projections and when, due to a global pandemic, we were not spending much on travel. However, for the sustainability of this conference in future years, it is also useful to have a pathway to making it revenue-neutral. Part of doing so is noting that online conferences, while far more affordable than physical ones, are not free to run — even the most affordable online events have some fixed costs. Figuring out those costs before an event is important, as is communicating these costs clearly to participants so that they understand why registration fees are being charged.
We feel very fortunate to be part of a community of people who care about lingcomm.