Early Modern Post

Running a conference and learning by doing

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This blog post, as promised, is about some of the practical, behind the scenes details of the Permissive Archive conference, which was run by the graduate students of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters in November 2012. It doesn’t promise to show the only or even the best way of doing things, but aims to give a snippet view of the good, the bad and the ugly, as we experienced it.

As with a lot of things in early career academia, part of the impetus behind organising this conference was our desire to learn how to do it, quite apart from its intellectual content. Running a successful conference is a concrete skill, and though you can get advice, you only really learn by doing.

The learning process shouldn’t be forgotten in this; these things don’t just appear by magic, and I think that (especially considering recent changes in the UK university system) we need to shout more about these valuable marketable skills that are part of research careers and PhDs.

Anyone who thinks that PhDs and researchers grow grey-haired writing in isolation about obscurity is just plain wrong.

I learned a huge amount by being involved in this process. The intellectual content of the day was extremely high and, I think, valuable and original. But as well as this, I learned a lot about teamwork, project management and, yes, myself: though this may sound like buzzword waffle, I really do mean it. Forget your team building days and leadership courses; if you want to develop yourself, get stuck into a big project, and learn by doing it, don’t wait for someone to teach you.

Planning

Home-made cakes: a conference must-have

Home-made cakes: a CELL conference must-have

Although I said in the previous post that we spent a year planning this, it was actually a year from its inception, with a varied amount of work required at certain intervals (sending the call for papers, choosing speakers etc), and most of the work was done in the final couple of months.

We were quite a large organising team, and the size had both its strengths and weaknesses. It meant that there were enough of us to stage-manage the day well, meaning we were able to pay attention to the details, and that some of us could listen to (and deliver!) papers whilst others tidied, shepherded and arranged food and coffee. If you were a smaller group, I’d recommend begging some friends/colleagues/students to help the day flow well. You never know which bit is going to go wrong (something will).[1]

The down side of this is that inevitably some organisers will see more of the day than others, which is not fair but probably necessary, since if proceedings are going to be published, there should be an attentive listener in each session. We could have done better at making this fairer, as it meant that some people integral to its success missed out on the intellectual content of the day, kind of like this.

Being a large team, we would have benefitted from taking strong roles earlier on – though we did adopt a more systematic way of doing things, from clarifying roles to minuting meetings, it would’ve saved time to do this from the start.

My amazing colleagues worked so well and in such an organised fashion on the day – the team had a dry-run earlier in the week and had a list of tasks and designated responsibilities both before and on the day – ensuring that all in all everything ran very smoothly!

Style:

Now this is where I think CELL and its grad students really come into their own. I headed this section ‘style’ because that’s what I think a conference needs, in its detail and in its attitude, and that’s what I think can easily be missing from a lot of academic conferences. To think that attention to the stylish detail takes something away from the academic substance of the event is, in my humble opinion, completely wrong. Let’s have our cakes, decorate them, and eat them.

Beforehand – mainly we have Kirsty Rolfe to thank for this one. Our resident cartoonist-meets-academic, Kirsty drew us an amazing visual version of our call for papers.

Kirsty_schedule

Excerpt from Permissive Archive schedule

On the day – Again, Kirsty drew us simply the best conference schedule, to go on doors and in people’s conference packs. And a little bit of merchandise is not a bad thing – we had good quality conference folders printed, little CELL badges made, and branded cloth bags so that delegates could tote their notes in style. And in case anyone forgot a pen for jotting notes, questions and contacts, we dropped one in each bag. These things cost much less than you might imagine, and are (on the whole) practical and useful as well as fun.

CELL only works as a scholarly group because students want to study with us and people come to us with research projects and opportunities. Self-promotion here is about making a small but vital research centre survive, and I reckon with things like the delegate bag we promoted our name and something of our personality.

There were also fresh-cut flowers on the panel tables, home-made cakes for afternoon tea (far cheaper than professional catering), and pastries with the morning coffee for those who arrived early.

Digital Humanities:

I was keen to promote the online presence of the conference, especially considering the vitality and number of early modern scholars and ‘twitterstorians’ on twitter and in the blogosphere. We made sure that our hashtag #permissivearchive was on the conference schedule, and set up a guest account for wireless internet access at the university. Since I was giving a paper, I included the hashtag with my personal details on my powerpoint presentation.

I was overwhelmed by the online buzz about the conference, and the real digital conversations it sparked: all told we had several hundred tweets on and around the day.

Here’s a link to a ‘topsy’ page with the tweets recorded (but this won’t last). And here’s a link to some stats data about the tweeting (I love this stuff). I may blog in more detail about this aspect of the conference. TOP TIP: aggregate your tweets early, soon after the conference, as twitter searches only go back 10 days. Use Snapbird to search further back, Topsy to export data, and Storify to collect everything together into one visual record of the event.

That’s going to have to be all for now, as it’s my first day back after Christmas and I’ve got a list as long as my arm of things to do. Do comment on the blog if you think I’ve forgotten something important. Once more, none of the above would have been possible without the support of our department, the incredible organising committee, our brilliant speakers and chairs and our attentive delegates. Thanks all, and a Happy New Year to everyone!


[1] Special mention goes to those who literally ran to a shop to buy vegan lunches, as we’d been let down by our caterers – as well as being a bit short on the quantity of food, they didn’t supply the vegan food we’d ordered…

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