Running an OSCAR Commentary Training Session Online

Commentary in OSCAR is a valuable and necessary part of the Society’s submission and registration process, but because it all takes place online and is done privately, it can feel slightly opaque for incoming heralds who aren’t sure how to participate or where to begin.

In my role as the East Kingdom heraldic education officer, I have run a number of online commentary sessions over the last year focused on beginner and intermediate heralds who were not yet comfortable commenting in OSCAR, with the goal of providing a bit of training and encouragement, as well helping them to make connections with other members of the community.

In hopes that a similar procedure might be of use to other kingdoms, here are some notes about the process I’ve used.

I’ve scheduled sessions for weekday evenings and on weekends during the afternoon or evening. There are inevitably some people who are interested but can’t attend on the specified day, so I’ve tried to shift around from one month to the next in hopes of giving everyone a chance to join.

I’ve usually publicized the sessions on the kingdom heralds mailing list, the kingdom heraldic education website, and the Facebook groups for Heralds of the East Kingdom and Baby Heralds of the SCA. (Of those, the Facebook posts received the most attention, but I’ve continued to post to others for the sake of non-Facebook users.)

Some people benefit from having time to plan while others need last-minute reminders, so the best results have come from posting an announcement a week in advance, and then a “happening tomorrow” reminder message the day before, and a final “see you online soon” thirty minutes or an hour before the start time.

At times I’ve also made a point of directly contacting some up-and-coming heralds that I thought would benefit from these sessions, which seemed effective — having a personal invitation from a more-senior herald can provide a vote of confidence to a newcomer that might otherwise not feel confident that they were ready to contribute to this process.

Attendance has been variable — there have been some sessions where more than a dozen people showed up, and one for which nobody joined — with a typical turnout of around six or so, which is a decent size group to work with.

Our sessions have been run on Google Meet, for which the East Kingdom has a non-profit account; other video-conferencing services would work as well. (I’ve never tried it in person, but I’m sure you could also do this face to face, with a group either all on their own laptops or gathered around a big projection screen.)

I try to ensure I’m online at least five minutes before the start time to welcome folks who show up early, and stick to small talk before starting the session five minutes after the posted time to accommodate those who wonder in a bit late.

I’ve generally allocated between sixty and ninety minutes for commentary, and have sometimes paired these sessions with thirty or forty-five minutes of discussion of some other heraldic topic, or thrown in fifteen minutes for open-ended Q&A sessions.

I encourage people to ask questions during the commentary exercise, and allow the discussion to go off on tangents — as long as people are learning about heraldry, I figure we’re on the right track.

I generally start the sessions by going around the group and having everyone introduce themselves, say what shire or barony they’re from and how much heraldic experience they have, and answer some kind of icebreaker question that I’ve come up with for the day, like explaining where their Society name is from, or the blazon for their arms, or describing a submission that they’ve recently worked on, or briefly mentioning some heraldry factoid or cool thing they’ve recently encountered.

Before commenting, I’ll remind people of the ground rules: OSCAR commentary is considered private and shouldn’t be discussed outside of that system; it’s okay to ask questions in commentary, especially at the kingdom level, and it’s okay to mention possible problems even if you’re not sure they apply to this case; and lastly to be kind to the submitter and to the other heralds, and remember that we’re all on the same team.

Then I’ll pull up the current kingdom letter and make sure that everyone in the group has a link so they can view it as well, while encouraging folks who already have OSCAR permissions to log in on their own devices so they can work independently.

For the folks who don’t already have commentary permission, I usually screen-share my OSCAR window with the group, so they can view the existing comments, but it would also work to have those people just viewing the letter in an anonymous mode, as the key point at this stage is to be able to view the submissions rather than respond to other commenters feedback.

In fact, the best time to run these sessions is immediately after a new letter comes out, so that people are working in an empty playground and can approach each item with a fresh eye — for example, it somewhat undercuts the learning experience of trying to conflict-check a piece of armory if before you even get started you see three comments from senior heralds below it saying “no conflicts,” or “this conflicts with the arms of X.”

We usually just jump into the letter and work through it sequentially from the top, but sometimes I’ll review the letter ahead of time and pick out a specific set of items that I think are interesting; a couple of times I’ve split a letter up into two sessions, one focused on names and the other on armory.

In sessions with a bunch of beginners, for each item on the letter I’ll work through the entries in my OSCAR commentary checklist, asking about each point and letting folks look at the entry and confirm whether it matches the guidelines.

In sessions with more-experienced folks, I might ask them to volunteer to take turns leading the discussion of an item, working through issues as they see them.

In groups with mixed experience levels, I’ll try to encourage the more-experienced folks to answer questions asked by the newcomers, or let them work independently, so they might skip ahead and check the documentation for the next entry while the beginners are still working through questions about an earlier one.

When folks find an issue, I encourage them to add it as a comment themselves if they have permission to do so, or I’ll aggregate the notes from multiple people and post a combined comment to OSCAR with a preface along the lines of “during a group commentary session, the following issues were raised…”

Depending on who is in the group, the complexity of the items on the letter, and how much time we spend on questions, I think we usually get through about ten or fifteen items per hour, so we usually do not have time to cover an entire letter in one session and I will typically encourage people to try to work through the remainder of the items on their own after the call.

For folks who don’t have OSCAR accounts but made it through the session and seem like they understand the basics, I’ll collect their email address and after the call I’ll cc them on an email to the kingdom submission herald suggesting that they’re ready for kingdom-level commentary permissions.

Not everyone who attends these sessions ends up being a productive commenter, but if a session gets one person started on the path of active commentary, I feel like I’ve accomplished something — and even for the folks who don’t wind up commenting, I think it’s educational to see how the commentary process works, and hopefully it will help them improve the quality of their own submissions by being able to “pre-check” their work before dropping them into the mail.

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