Dickens, Virtually

December 22, 2023

By Frances Laskey 

Frances in Santa Cruz for a past Universe

Last winter, I registered to attend the Dickens Universe in person, and I was, of course, looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones.

But then the hip happened. An arthritic hip suddenly got a lot worse, and I realized that the hills of Santa Cruz (and the dorm beds) were not going to happen. Luckily, there was a way I could still participate—the Virtual Universe!

So this is a report about what it’s like to attend the Universe virtually.

There was a small cohort of Virtuals—enough for one faculty-led (context) group and one (grad student-led) text group. The lovely upside was that we got to know each other almost as well as at the in-person Universe. The downside, if it can be called that, is that we weren’t able to “change partners and dance” in different groups. But since most of us were virtual because some limitation, physical or practical, prevented us from attending in person, we started out with a lot in common. Since we were together for all of the sessions, we got to know each other and build on one another’s comments and expertise across the two morning sessions. And our mornings were different—we had people coming in from different time zones, and the weather in our local areas was a frequent conversation starter.

I have to pause here to give a shout-out to the faculty and grad students who facilitated these sessions. Zoom conversations are challenging, and they did a fantastic job of making it feel like the “real thing.”

Virtual attendance at lectures was—complicated. We were able to attend, but technical difficulties (which now that they’ve been identified will be rectified) sometimes prevented us from seeing the presenter’s slides. But it felt very much like we were sitting in the auditorium (minus the slides), and it was fun to spot people we knew in the live audience. And we didn’t have to walk up and down the hills!

Of course, we missed the socializing—the meals, the teas, the PPP (post-prandial potations). On the other hand, as we all know at this point, we also didn’t have to get dressed up to go out (big win, from my point of view),

We missed the Grand Party and the dance, of course, but were able to participate in the auction, and were all online to hear the announcement of the next year’s novel (one of my all-time faves!). And we had our own, very quiet, personal, debriefing and farewells.

The thing that all the virtual participants agreed on was that it was fantastic to have this option. It has its limitations, but for those who physically can’t make it to the Universe, or who can’t take a whole week off from work, or for whom the cost and difficulty of travel are overwhelming, it was a blessing and a boon to participate from afar.

Let me add, at last, that I now have a brand-new titanium hip, and hope to be schlepping up and down the UC Santa Cruz hills again next July!