By Hanna Smyth |
Most of the PhD students I know either have been or are currently involved in organising some kind of academic event. Krysten Blackstone wrote recently that attending conferences is “that non-required requirement of your PhD”, and I would argue that organising them is increasingly moving into that same category.
I recently co-organised War Time, which ran in November. It was both a vast amount of work and a vast amount of fun! Here are some things I learned, in hopes that they can be of use to you in your own future conference-organising endeavours.
- Start early.
My research network (GLGW) was approached by the International Society for First World War Studies in February 2016 about hosting their ninth conference in September. We negotiated successfully for November instead – even ten months at times did not feel like enough to organize it in.
- How committed can you be?
GLGW is a dynamic network with an active ~10 PhD students and 5 postdocs. After our first meeting, 10 of us signed on as the conference committee: 8 PhDs and 2 postdocs. We decided early on three tiers of conference involvement, and each stated our choice. This significantly reduced future tensions over people feeling they were being asked to do more than they wanted.
- Present a united front on emails.
My co-chairs – Louis Halewood, Adam Luptak, and I – shared responsibility for managing our conference email inbox, dividing up different tasks. For important emails all three of us would check the draft before it was sent. We decided on a united-front email policy: we would sign EVERY email with all three of our names, rather than only who had actually written it. We wanted our attendees to feel like they had dealt with all three of us equally, preventing any one of us from attracting an undue load of the in-person questions or problems during the conference itself.
- Choose an appropriately-sized venue.
Venue capacity versus attendance was by far the most stressful aspect of War Time and quite literally kept us up at night. The ISFWWS very generously arranged an amazing venue for us early on; the only downside was that its capacity was 70 people. We had no idea how to gauge expected attendance, and were stunned when registration was full with a waiting list more than two months before the conference. Saying no to that many people was not an enjoyable experience.
- Consider alternative conference structures.
We inherited an unusual one from the ISFWWS: no one actually presented their papers. Instead, all papers were circulated in advance. Each paper (all by early-career researchers) was paired with a senior academic who spoke on it for 10 minutes; then, the author responded before the floor was opened. We were sceptical about this at first, but the encouraging and constructive tone from the commentators (and the longstanding ISFWWS members in attendance) made for an academically kind and generous two days.
- Choosing papers and panels will take at least a day.
We had to select 18 papers for War Time, out of ~60 submissions. Louis divided them up and assigned them to our selection committee based on alignment with our research specialities. A clear grading rubric to work from really helped, but choosing the 18 and pairing them into panels turned into a six-hour marathon meeting.*
- Make live-tweeting easy.
We made a Twitter list of all attendees and handed out a ‘cheat sheet’ of people’s individual and institutional handles during the conference itself. Additionally, we had a designated live-tweeter from our conference committee for every panel. Make sure to include the hashtag on the programme!
- Get creative with nametags.
We printed our conference committee’s nametags on blue paper so that it was easy for attendees to distinguish all ten of us on the day.** For our public engagement day (see next point…), we also had nametags saying “Talk To Me About _____”, allowing everyone to choose keywords based on their research as a way of starting conversation.
- Consider public engagement.
One of the things I’m proudest of for War Time is that we were the first ISFWWS conference to hold a public engagement event. Our reasoning was, “we can’t bring several dozen of the world’s leading First World War academics from 11 countries to Oxford and not have them talk to anyone but each other!”. Thankfully, we were able to draw on the expertise of our fantastic partners, University of Oxford’s Academic IT department, to host a “community collection day”. Twenty of our conference attendees volunteered to participate, many delaying their trains, planes, and buses home to stay for the extra day.
- If it’s recurring, leave a legacy.
War Time was the ninth ISFWWS conference, and more than ten organisers of the prior eight conferences attended it. (Yes, we definitely felt under the microscope…!). Several of them sent us kind and encouraging messages beforehand, which meant a lot to us. We were sent a short document of prior collected wisdom, but it didn’t contain most of the info that in hindsight we wish we’d known; so one of our projects is to create a more comprehensive Google Doc of accumulated knowledge from us and our predecessors, to leave the 2017/18 organisers in even better stead.
* (Our profuse thanks again to Charlotte Bennett and Dr. Alice Kelly, who with the three of us formed the selection committee!)
**(We unabashedly stole this from our committee member Ashley Garber, who used it at a conference she organised).
Hanna Smyth is a second-year PhD student in Global and Imperial History at Oxford. Her research focuses on the material culture of First World War remembrance: specifically Commonwealth War Graves Commission sites, and how they represented different aspects of identity for India, South Africa, Canada, and Australia.
Images courtesy of author