UMass Amherst Linguistics Community Moves Major Conference Online

CUNY conference logo

AMHERST, Mass. — Set to take place on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus from March 19 through 21, the 33rd Annual CUNY Human Sentence Processing Conference faced cancellation because of mounting concerns to cancel events and transition to remote working and learning in response to the spread of COVID-19. Determined to carry forward with decades of interdisciplinary scholarly tradition and connection, UMass Amherst community members worked quickly to transition the conference, also known as CUNY 2020, completely online.

Led by Brian Dillon, associate professor in the UMass Amherst department of linguistics, a 24-person team of UMass and Five College faculty members, graduate students, and CUNY community members from other institutions worked quickly to cancel on-site arrangements, communicate with attendees and speakers, organize video and webinar technology, and move the conference online in ten days. No small feat, as the team had been planning the physical conference since the summer of 2018. “Our decision to cancel had the full support of the Provost and event services, and this support was critical in allowing to cancel as early as we did,” said Dillon.

The CUNY conference, which was originally founded at the City University of New York Graduate Center by Janet Dean Fodor, is a major event in the psycholinguistics subfield of linguistics. It is now primarily hosted by other institutions, but retains the name. The conference is highly interdisciplinary, with strong contributions from researchers in linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, computer science, education, and philosophy. “It is one of the central North American venues for researchers interested in psycholinguistics,” explains Dillon. “It is well attended by both linguists and by psychologists, and creates lots of productive interdisciplinary cross-talk.”

Dillon, who hasn’t missed a CUNY conference since 2006, emphasized that this feat was “very definitely” a team effort. “One person whose work should be especially recognized is Jon Burnsky. Jon is a PhD student in psychological and brain sciences here, and he is our official CUNY Graduate RA. He did a lot of work to set up live-streaming for the physical conference; his work laid the groundwork for our virtual conference. We were able to virtualize so quickly because of the work he had put in ahead of time,” said Dillon.

The online format added an unexpected tone of lightheartedness and relief to many experiencing serious disruption in their lives. “I was surprised at how connected this allowed us to feel,” recalls Dillon. “This allowed us to feel like we were making connections and giving a sense of community and normalcy in difficult times,” he said. “It was also just plain fun in ways I hadn’t expected,” Dillon continued. “Feeling at times like we were thrown into the role of radio show host, rather than organizers of an academic conference. We would banter, crack jokes, take questions from the audience during downtime. It allowed for a sense of levity that I think some participants appreciated at this moment.”

People from 44 countries participated in CUNY 2020. “The top four were the USA, Germany, the UK, and China,” said Dillon. “The large Chinese participation is notable because of the 12-hour time difference. Chinese colleagues reported staying up late into the night to catch talks.”

One conference attendee and session chair, Colin Phillips, professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland and Director of the Maryland Language Science Center, called Dillon’s leadership of CUNY 2020, “an incredible success.”

“The conference normally draws 200-300 in-person attendees,” said Phillips. “There was a broad concern that few people would want to participate in the remote format. In contrast, over 1,000 people took part over the course of the 3 days, with peak participation of 300-350 simultaneous participants in some sessions.” According to Phillips, about 20 people at the University of Maryland participated in a virtual watch party and communicated through the remote workplace communication tool, Slack. Because of this, Phillips explained, “the conference even helped us feel more connected locally. We heard of several other similar activities at other institutions.”

Reflecting on the unique and challenging circumstances facing universities during the COVID-19 crisis, Phillips went on to say, “The past couple of weeks have seen unprecedented changes in how universities operate. It seems like everything is changing from day to day. Brian and the UMass team made people feel that they were connected, despite the upheaval. But they also made people feel like they were witnessing something special that they hadn’t seen before. This conference has built up a strong following in its 33 years. Many people, myself included, have attended almost all of them. At this point I think there’s little doubt that this was the most memorable of them all.”

“UMass Amherst is a special place to host CUNY for many reasons,” said Dillon. “First, we have a very strong tradition in psycholinguistics. Our community goes back to the late 70’s and early 80’s, led by researchers in psychology (Chuck Clifton Jr., Keith Rayner, Alexander Pollatsek, and Jerry Myers), and in linguistics (Lyn Frazier, Tom Roeper).” The UMass Amherst linguistics department, ranked No. 2 worldwide, is known for having a strong psycholinguistics program, and “hosting CUNY further increases our community’s visibility,” said Dillon.

The UMass Amherst community has been involved with the CUNY conference since the beginning, but this is the first year that the campus has hosted since 1993. “Back then,” remarks Dillon, “our conference coincided with a famous blizzard that stranded many people and prevented them from coming to the conference.”