In the midst of a pandemic, it’s difficult enough just to keep up with Zoom lectures and assignment deadlines, so it may seem like society events wouldn’t be high on many students’ list of priorities. However, maintaining the social connections we build in college can be a vital reminder of normality in a time that is anything but. Without the shared space of campus, many societies have begun providing a meeting space for their members on online platforms instead, with virtual coffee hours, quizzes and film screenings to fill time during lockdown.
The closure of college on March 12 was a sudden end to the year for most societies, with events cancelled and AGMs moved online in accordance with the CSC advice. Events such as Language Ball, one of the main events in the calendar of the various language societies, were cancelled, and in many cases society committees were divided by geography and time zones as students travelled home. The last few weeks have been a difficult period for most students, many of whom are contending with illness, having to look after vulnerable family members, online assignments and the uncertainty of changes to final assessments.
For societies with social spaces such as regular coffee hours, maintaining a sense of community has been an important but difficult goal. Speaking to Trinity News over email, Trinity Literary Society’s Secretary Todd Pender said, “It’s been a difficult transition for LitSoc in particular because like a handful of other societies a lot of our usual activity takes place during daily meetups in our society room. To go from seeing each other and our members every day to not at all has been particularly challenging.” LitSoc’s usual Conversational Coffee Hours are now being held over Discord, a voice call and messaging platform popular for gaming; they recently collaborated with DU Computer Science Society (DUCSS) to hold a coffee hour on storytelling in video games. Despite the difficulty of running a society online, LitSoc is embracing the opportunity to try out “new and unique events”, such as their Club Penguin Coffee Hours, “which were inspired by a committee member’s nostalgic love of the platform”.
Other than coffee hours, some of the most popular virtual events are quizzes, such as LitSoc’s literary quiz and DUCSS’s “COVIDpardy”, a Jeopardy-style quiz held on Discord. DU Germanic Society recently held an online version of their usual “Kaffee und Klatsch” events, while DU Rovers also had a virtual coffee hour (location: “the comfort of your own gaff”). As their Wednesday night event for week 12, DU Players held a “Shave or Dye” event on Facebook Live which raised over €2000 for the Irish Cancer Society.
While most big events were cancelled, some were moved online instead, including one of the University Philosophical Society’s annual internal debating competitions, known as Mahaffy’s. Incoming Treasurer of the Phil Liam Brady, who ran the competition, explained: “Mahaffy’s was already on the calendar before college was closed.…It’s a day of debating and good humor, and that is generally in person. So when college was cancelled, we had to adapt.” The competition was rebranded as “Mahaffy’s eDebating Competition”, and adapted so that it could be held entirely over Discord. For the Phil, it was a relatively successful first online debate: “Of course there were ups and downs, and it can’t really rival an actual day together, but it did fill in.”
“Players in the past few weeks has in my opinion, made an astounding leap into the online stratosphere and I think it is a testament to our membership that we’ve been able to do that”
Ultan Pringle, the recently-elected Chair of DU Players, is proud of how the society has responded to these circumstances. Though “not what I would have hoped for the committee”, he says, “Players in the past few weeks has in my opinion, made an astounding leap into the online stratosphere and I think it is a testament to our membership that we’ve been able to do that”. The lockdown was “a blow” to the society: “We had to cancel eleven productions and so as you can imagine, that was awful to have to do”. Players has been one of the most active societies since the closure of college, with a book club, film club, writers group, and virtual coffee hours. A dedicated DU Players Discord server was set up early on as a “virtual hub” for the society, inspiring societies in NUIG and UCD to do the same. They are also holding online tech theatre workshops, have released a virtual edition of their termly magazine The Player and in collaboration with Trinity FM, have created SugarKissAngelHill, “a weekly radio drama soap opera with a massive ensemble of actors and an incredibly talented writers room that broadcasts every Friday”. These virtual events have been well attended, Pringle says, with Wednesday night events “averaging 30 to 40 attendees” and a “really solid live listenership” for the radio drama. Pringle believes that making events “as collaborative as possible” and reaching out to people to get involved has helped to keep members engaged: “You’re not able to overcome the block of the screen and of course we all would get more from being in our theatre together but for now, this is working”.
As with DU Players’ lockdown edition of The Player and the Trinity FM radio drama, one of the main ways in which societies and their members are maintaining a sense of connection is through art. DUDJ are continuing their mix series on Soundcloud, providing a soundtrack for the isolation experience, and TFM’s Quarantine FM features a variety of radio shows broadcast from members’ homes. These projects are a reminder even while we’re physically separated, shared experience and collaborative work are as important as ever. Both creating and consuming art made during this time can be a welcome distraction from online lectures and the monotony of days spent within a two-kilometre radius of home.
Virtual society events, of course, can’t fully replace the experience of in-person events on campus. “It’s a lot harder to get people excited about online events,” says Liam Brady. “A whole part of society events is that you can chat with your friends, crack jokes, and explore interests…For the current situation it works, but I don’t see online events gaining a permanent foothold in college life.” Ultan Pringle also acknowledges the difficulties: “It’s tougher to make work and definitely requires good faith from everyone involved and patience when dealing with dodgy internet connections”. While virtual events are usually more accessible for students with disabilities or those with demanding schedules which prevent them from attending events in person, internet access issues can make them more difficult for some students. It’s likely that this experience will at least equip next year’s society committees with a more varied toolkit for organising events, whether on campus or online.
In the meantime, virtual meet-ups are an important source of connection for students. As Todd Pender says, “working on these events has helped me maintain a sense of normality and given me things to look forward to”. Ultan Pringle echoes the value of providing this online space for society members: “We wish to be a place of creativity and imagination for any TCD students who desperately need that right now. This is lonely and this is difficult and we hope that we’re providing a virtual space for people to connect, collaborate and create.”