2020 GSA Virtual Conference

Dear members and friends of the GSA,

This is the first in a series of regular updates on our plans for the rest of this year and beyond.  Please forgive the length, but we want to be as transparent and detailed as possible.

After many weeks of research, discussion, observation, and negotiation, the Executive Council of the German Studies Association is able to announce that the 44th Annual Conference will take place as a virtual conference. The membership survey to which so many of you responded made it very clear that the majority of our members were reluctant to attend an in-person conference this year even if public health concerns were sharply reduced and/or transatlantic travel were again possible.  It is very apparent that those concerns will not be allayed in the fall of this year, and that travel to Washington, DC, will be risky or impossible or both.  Consequently, the GSA Board unanimously decided at a special meeting to move the conference online.

We are happy to report that our host hotel, the Crystal Gateway Marriott, has very generously agreed to release us from our 2020 contract without penalty.  That penalty would have been very substantial, so we are very appreciative!  We have a long and fruitful history with the Crystal Gateway Marriott, and we are pleased to look forward to meeting there again in 2025 and 2027.

What about our virtual conference?  Since April several of us have been conferring several times a week with our opposite numbers in other academic societies.  We have been participating in what seem like endless webinars and Zoom meetings to inform ourselves and to review the options offered to us by the many companies that are now involved in virtual meetings. We have “attended” virtual conferences that have been organized by academic societies that meet in the late spring or early summer.  The Executive Council has been meeting more often than at any time in at least a quarter of a century, and in mid-June the GSA Board met in extraordinary session: all virtually, of course. The GSA Executive Director, David E. Barclay, is a member of an American Council of Learned Societies working group on how to organize virtual meetings.

We are now about to sign a contract with a highly regarded company that already has an excellent track record of organizing and supporting virtual conferences for academic societies comparable to or larger than our own.  We’ll send you a further update as soon as the ink is dry!

For the moment, though, we can assure you of the following:


  • All panels, roundtables, and seminars will be given the option to participate in the virtual conference, or to postpone and be included automatically in the line-up for our 2021 conference in Indianapolis.


  • The virtual conference will take place at about the same time as the planned in-person conference: that is, in late September and/or early October.  We’ll send you the exact dates as soon as they’re fixed.


  • In contrast to an in-person conference, the virtual conference will be extended  over several more days to take account of things like “Zoom fatigue,” time zone differences, teaching schedules, and other issues.  We plan to make it as easy for participants in Austria to take part as for participants in Austin or Ann Arbor.  Extended time frames have become a “best practice” in the emerging virtual conference business. 


  • Each session – whether a seminar, a roundtable, or a “traditional” session – will have two sets of options with regard to recording the session.  First, the session participants can opt to pre-record the entire session (with or without live discussion at the end), OR they can run the entire session live, as has mostly been the case in recent virtual conferences.  Second, the entire session, whether pre-recorded or live, can be recorded and archived for 30 or 60 days for the exclusive use of registered conference participants, providing an opportunity to see a session at the time of one’s choice. Of course, if a session chooses not to be recorded, it can easily do so.  Flexible options for how to present -- pre-recorded or live extended over more days than usual -- will, we hope, allow for the maximum number of members to make sure that they get to present and attend without being up in the middle of the night all the time or spending endless hours every day in front of a computer screen.


  • We are working to provide a seamless, intuitive conference platform. For better or worse, we assume that by September, many aspects of virtual meetings will feel habitual to the majority of our members. That said, we are committed to creating an accessible conference experience.  The company that we are choosing will provide immediate technical support at every stage of the conference, and will also provide early coaching. training, and instructional videos for session hosts or moderators who may need or request them. The company will also provide an easily navigable website, email conference updates and reminders, and many other things.  Screen sharing for visuals (e.g., Power Point slides) will be readily available.


  • As you know, the Program Committee has already sent out acceptance notices and had begun working on a program that they will now revise for our virtual meeting format. As mentioned above, we will be giving session organizers and participants the choice to opt into this year’s conference or delay their session until the Indianapolis conference in 2021. (Of course, we don’t know whether that one will be live or virtual, depending on how the pandemic develops.) Within the next few days, we will be contacting all session and seminar organizers to ask for your preferences.


  • We hope very much that members who decide not to present this year will nonetheless register and attend a few sessions this year. This will show support to those colleagues, especially emerging scholars, recent faculty, and others who really need feedback and support. Moreover, the experiences from this year's conference will offer members the opportunity to evaluate what works and what doesn't in virtual presentations.   This is Neuland for us all.


  • Why not delay the entire conference until 2021?  This was an option that we considered very seriously. In the end, though, we decided that it is essential to at least offer the opportunity to continue our intellectual work and our creative lives uninterruptedly, despite the massive personal and professional disruptions that the pandemic has caused.  And, as noted above, it will be very important to many of our colleagues that they present their work now, sooner rather than later.  By now we have also seen that virtual academic conferences can really work.


  • Conference registration:  We will be asking participants to register at the same level and in the same amount as at the in-person conference. Why?  Hosting a virtual conference of our size still requires substantial labor and expenses that we can only cover through registration fees. Given the GSA’s comparatively low cost to attendees, as well as the savings on travel and lodging, we hope that many of you will still be able to attend. For those for whom registration fees entail an undue hardship due to lack of resources or funding restrictions, we will draw on the recently established GSA Community Fund to help defray registration costs. 


  • What about special events, informal networking, and book exhibits? The company with which we work has an excellent track record of setting up such things as book exhibit galleries that will enable our usual publishers to display their offerings AND to speak to potential authors.  We will also offer opportunities for “meet and greet” virtual receptions as well as some of our customary plenary events and ceremonies.


While we are all committed to making the best out of a difficult situation, there will inevitably be glitches and problems along the way, and we’ll need your feedback.  In the coming weeks, we will be launching an FAQ document that we will be updating continuously on our website. Please feel free to reach out with any questions and concerns, and we will use that space to provide answers for all members.

We know, of course, that virtual conferences have a different “feel” from in-person conferences, but we are also open to the opportunities this offers for trying out new things, and we hope that you will join us in this experiment. Our top concern, meanwhile, remains your safety and well-being; we also hope, though, that the continued efforts of your German Studies Association can make a difference to you, intellectually and professionally. That is our raison d’être.

Keep on watching this space!

Best regards,

David E. Barclay                        Margaret E. Menninger             Johannes von Moltke

Executive Director                     Executive Director Designate     President