On November 21 and 22, 2020, the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission hosted a hybrid conference entitled “Digital +/- Presence.” The goal of the conference was to explore the transformation of communication from personal to digital or hybrid in spheres directly related to the Fulbright mission: education, culture, and society.

The new opportunities opened by forced online communication since the start of the pandemic, the challenges such changes posed, and the importance of personal presence in this new digital-only world were discussed by Fulbright alumni in light of their personal and professional experiences. The conference was streamed live from the Launchee space in Sofia and included nineteen speakers, two musicians, and a platform for discussion for the more than sixty participants who watched the event online. A recording of the Conference is available here (Digital +/- Presence videos playlist)

The conference opened with HE Ambassador Herro Mustafa, the US Ambassador to Bulgaria and Honorary Chairwoman of the BulgarianAmerican Fulbright Commission, and Scott Righetti, a long-time friend of Bulgaria and an Academic Exchange Officer at the US Department of State. After their greetings, the executive director of the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission and moderator of the conference Angela Rodel gave the floor to the first keynote speaker, Dr. Alexandra Glavanakova, head of the English Department at Sofia University, and a current Fulbright grantee, who shared highlights from the fascinating research she conducts on the role of literary reading in the posthuman age of acceleration and distraction. The first panel aimed to explore the institutional dimensions of digitalization. Fulbright alum Professor Larry DiMatteo (University of Florida) discussed the concept of artificial intelligence from a legal and ethical point of view. Professor Petya Osenova from Sofia University offered a glimpse into the opportunities digitalization offered for extracting data about the opinions and behavior of members of parliament, government and parties, especially in times of pandemic. Dr. Mariya Bobina (Western Illinois University) summarized the effect of technological advancements in Bulgarian business practices, and Fulbright I America for Bulgaria Foundation English Teaching Assistant Prue Salasky shared her experience with virtual education in a Bulgarian school. After a short question and answer session, the Conference continued with the second panel – “Communication and Community in the Digital Environment,” which featured Dr. James Hollenbeck from Indiana University Southeast busting myths about inquiry-based online learning, Jesse Scinto (Columbia University) providing practical tips and tricks for successful online presence, Dr. Jeffrey Folks (formerly of Doshisha University, Japan) dissecting the impact of digital transformation on communal living, Andrew Kim (English Teaching Assistant in Stara Zagora) exploring the math behind human online and offline existence, and a Fulbright alum remaining anonymous as an AA member, who analyzed the impact of digitalization on recovery communities.

The second day of the conference offered two more panels and another keynote presentation, this time from a US Fulbright alumnus – Dr. Timothy Rice, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, of ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who drew parallels between the experience of digital presence and physical absence and the presences and absences that impact all who work and live between Bulgaria and the United States, including ethnographers and immigrants. The topic of digital presence in professional life was discussed in the “Teaching and Knowledge Acquisition in the Digital Age” panel, offering insights and advice from experienced educators: Dr. Tamara Todorova (American University in Bulgaria) commented on how online teaching can be an efficient tool for learning when using electronic platforms suitable for that purpose, and shared her own experience with some of them. Dr. Reneta Bozhankova (Sofia University) examined the situation of distance education in an academic context and in particular the teaching of contemporary literature. Professor Ginny Whitehouse (Eastern Kentucky University) brought attention to the effects of online education on underperforming students, offering ideas for support systems that can create an adequate safety net for struggling students.

The last panel, “The New Normal: Digital Presence in the Arts, STEM and Philosophy,” offered a glimpse on digital presence from the perspective of personal experience of alumni in different fields. Milena Berbenkova (Intercultura Consult) focused on the preliminary results of a research investigating audience attitudes towards today’s cultural offers in the digital environment. Professional storyteller Priscilla Howe shared impressions of how listeners of varying ages respond to online storytelling. Georgi Iliev (Association of MBAs) showed that the outside world can be dissected in personal blogs and how one can benefit from analyzing world events in such a digital format. Dr. Michail Todorov (Technical University of Sofia) talked about his stay and experience in the US during the peak of the pandemic, which led to introducing advanced technologies to his Bulgarian students upon his return. The conference concluded with an analysis of digital presence from a philosopher’s point of view. Dr. Tamara Albertini (University of Hawaii at Manoa) argued that while philosophers may be “present” to their audiences despite geographic distances while they are online, once the recordings are posted, they are no more “present” than in the books and papers they publish.

A highlight of the conference were the performances of two musicians, one American and one Bulgarian. Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly (http://lillydrumeva.net/), who formed Bulgaria’s most successful country and bluegrass band “Lilly of the West” and received a Fulbright award to study music in Nashville, recorded a performance of the song “Turn Away” especially for the event. The US side of the program was represented by John Thomas (https://johnwthomas.com), pianist, music director, concert producer, actor and composer. He embraces a “music without borders” perspective as one of the best ways to create broad cultural exchange and mutual understanding. John received a Fulbright grant in 2019-20 for research, study and performance in Bulgaria, where he was affiliated primarily with the Plovdiv Academy of Music, Dance and Fine Arts.

The conference offered great insight into the opportunities and challenges of the digital age, and despite its mostly digital format reminded us that Fulbright as an exchange program predicated on long-term, face-to-face personal interaction still remains a gateway to wisdom and empathy. We would like to cordially thank our wonderful keynote speakers, presenters, participants, and partners for their engagement and support.

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