Early Modern Post


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Running a conference and learning by doing

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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Preoccupied with archives? Or, what is my PhD for?

Sometimes you go to a lecture, maybe a very good lecture, maybe by a bona fide expert and writer of books you admire, but a lecture nonetheless that you just can’t follow, no matter how many times you try to pull yourself back to the thread of it. You’re sure that what was said was of great relevance, importance and gravitas, but really you only came away with a partial, distorted understanding, leaving most of the rest to the ether.

What good is the lecture if it doesn’t take the audience with it? Does it have to sacrifice its content in order to make itself accessible, or would just a few more explanatory sentences here and there be enough to let the non-expert comprehend its aims and intentions?

I don’t need to rehash what is going on in higher education funding in this country, in fact to funding for the social good in general. There’s been no attempt to hide it, little attempt to sugar-coat it. Perhaps this is because there has been a prevailing fatalism, an acceptance that such cuts were probably not far off from necessary, and that it was all going to happen anyway.[1]

Funding for the humanities has been slashed and burnt. And perhaps our biggest failing is not explaining why this is so detrimental to society at large. Explaining back in my home town in, oh, the ‘real world’, why I was studying English Literature at university was one thing, explaining what I was doing with four years studying sixteenth century diplomacy another.

It has never been so important for us to articulate an answer. We must explain the public good of the university, and the PhD, if we expect people to care about their future.

History has fared slightly better than English Literature at defending its relevance in the modern world. On the whole the PR has worked well: people understand what ‘History’ is, they understand the importance of it. Understanding the past will elucidate the present, so the axiom goes; there are even attempts to accord it a place in informing policy.[2] It has a public face, with multiple media outlets that demystify the subject in its widest form, and slowly embed in society a subconscious acceptance of its real importance, whether it’s Melvin Bragg’s In Our Time or The Great British Bake Off pausing footage of icing and beating to provide a cameo role for 1940’s rationing or the Georgian cupcake.

What of English literature? And what of the research PhD, now (with multiplied fees) impossible to undertake without ever-shrinking funding sources or masses of private wealth? The former is a popular subject, but the sense in society at large that it is little more that reading some books is commonplace, and has gone largely unchallenged.

I could not be a stronger believer in the importance of a degree in English, and of research culture in general. Both are about equipping us with the critical skills that are at the very core of what protects us from the worst in human history.

An education in reading critically, questioning assumptions and constructing argument is our best defence against fundamental belief in whatever guise it may take – it is the unquestioned, anti-pluralistic ideology that is at the heart of all our evils. The intellectual community have a responsibility to read and write and argue, have a responsibility to keep us in check. Of course anyone without such a training shares in this responsibility, but these are our skills, this is what we can offer.

At the same time, the student and the scholar are also engaged in pursuing their own often niche subjects. This is, in my view, of equal merit to a more widely applicable critical faculty, and to a training in science or engineering, say. But the new idea in science, medicine and so on is more obvious, more PR-friendly. Who really cares if I write something new on the letter-writing processes of a long-dead diplomat?

In an immediate, practical sense there seems to be a hierarchy here, but this misses the point. We should never, nor do we have to, choose one at the expense of another. I’m not going to save lives doing what I’m doing, but a world in which all that matters is the fact of living is not one I want to be a part of. The arts and humanities do more than enrich our society; they are the expressions of it, they are its voice, and they are not an optional extra. The stuff of interest and of intellectual challenge, the exploration of the world of ideas and of language, this is what makes us human.

I feel this bubbling under the surface, under my skin, and my feeling is that the next few years are crucial not just in deciding the realities of the future of higher education, but in setting how we think about it. We should not accept our fate and wait grumbling for the flood.

To academia, and especially young academia (the postgrads, the early career lecturers): we need to stand up, we need to raise our voices and take ownership of the education system we comprise. We need to occupy the universities, occupy the archives – not in the sense of setting up tarps, but in the sense of taking responsibility for them, for using them and explaining the importance of that use. Because if we don’t explain why what we’re engaged in is so necessary for society, we’ll be left lecturing to the ether.


[1] This, of course, is a generalisation about wider society and wider academia. There have been many, many political demonstrations, not least the Occupy movement, and for a voice from academia see the alternative white paper on higher education that was signed by over 400 academics.

[2] Take a look at the excellent History and Policy website as an example of this. I especially like the article on torture during WW2 and during the modern ‘war on terror’ as a convincing illustration of the persuasive power of precedent.