Jill E. Kelly is a soon-to-be PhD in African History at Michigan State University. In the fall she will commence a tenure-stream position at Southern Methodist University. She doesn’t really tweet @jekjek19.
Most of us have been there. Standing in line at the annual conference of [insert national association of scholars of some discipline or region here] and protesting the length of the time to register. Wondering why it takes the conference committee so long to accept or reject our abstract. Locating typos in the conference program. Complaining about the seemingly mismatched papers on a panel. But have you ever sat on the other side of that registration table? Considered volunteering for or organizing a conference yourself?
Conference participation provides a myriad number of benefits to presenters, commentators, and spectators alike in and of itself. But organizing one also has its own perks. Not only can you create an opportunity to share work and meet new people, it provides the opportunity to build skills not always learned in the classroom and gives an added advantage on the increasingly competitive job market. Despite stereotypes that might suggest otherwise, professional academics work with people and being a people person requires practice. Conference planning provides an opportunity to administrate - managing finances and people. Nearly six years ago, several Africanist graduate students (including myself) started a now-annual interdisciplinary Africanist Graduate Student Conference for graduate students to network and get valuable feedback from MSU’s Africanist faculty. This year the MSU History Department’s migrationist cohort is planning an interdisciplinary conference. Now that I have sold you on the advantages, I should acknowledge there are challenges too.
Based on my experience as a founding member of MSU’s Africanist Graduate Student Conference, I have compiled some recommendations for those thinking about organizing their own conference.
- Have a mission. What kind of conference will you organize? Here, I am not just talking about a theme, region, or discipline. What is the purpose of the conference? Will it be more of a workshop where students share papers or polished 15-20 minute presentations? What will be presented - polished dissertation chapters, works in progress, dissertation proposals, or seminar papers? Who will provide the feedback - strictly graduate students or will you invite faculty and advisors? The answers to these questions are up to you but keeping the mission in mind can help you focus on what is important and really shape the experience of those who attend.
- Elect an organization committee. There should be a central planning committee, a few people (dependent on the size of your conference) who make the big decisions. Getting large numbers of already busy graduate students to regularly attend planning meetings can be difficult, as can considering everyone’s opinions and interests. A smaller planning committee responsible for the most important aspects of the conference can prevent some of the stress and hassle that can accompany working with a large group.
- Delegate. Having a planning committee does not mean that these three or four graduate students are responsible for every item on the to-do list! Take volunteers for booking conference rooms, ordering coffee and breakfast, manning the conference email, etc. Recruit others for the day of the conference – ensuring panels commence on time, introducing speakers, sitting at the registration table, directing participants to the correct locations.
- Find people willing to make the commitment. Just about anybody can man the registration table but monitoring the conference finances and corresponding with the well-respected keynote speaker you have just scheduled should be responsibilities for people who are willing to make the commitment involved in organizing a professional graduate student conference. Working with your colleagues in this close and time-consuming fashion can be tense, so delegating to committed colleagues you know can be counted on can reduce that stress!
- Use your networks. Endeavor to include peers from other departments and at all levels of graduate education. Departmental resources vary and it is advantageous to have as much available to you as possible. If your conference is going to be an annual event, you want to pass on the skills and expertise that you gain rather than take it with you when you leave. Rely on connections through your graduate advisors, undergraduate professors, friends, etc. to bring in that spectacular keynote speaker.
- Be frugal. Funding a conference does not have to be expensive. Incorporate interdisciplinary participants and volunteers so conference support can come from a range of departments, schools, and programs rather than just one. It is best to delegate asking these places for support to someone with connections there too. Also remember that support does not have to be financial; these same entities can provide in-kind help such as printing programs and flyers, hosting a webpage, providing conference space, or being the home account for the funds you get elsewhere. Do not be afraid to ask for discounts, whether it is with a caterer or the on-campus entity that manages conference space, remind them this is a student-driven event in need of help. (Then acknowledge them in your program as a thanks!)
- Be professional. Organizing a conference provides graduate students with the opportunity to make an important impression on the visiting graduate students, faculty, and keynote speaker. Remember the details. Keep your webpage updated and watch for typos there and in your emails, programs, and directive signs. Dress well. Provide water for presenters and commentators. Do not forget vegetarian options if you are including meals. Start on time and stay on schedule. Pay attention to these small factors that can make a difference.
- Don’t stress about the details. Okay, I know what I just said above. But if you keep your mission in mind always, participants will remember the experience - the feedback, professionalism, and the collegiality - and not whether or not there were typos in the program.
Organizing a conference amidst other graduate student responsibilities can be time-consuming but ultimately very rewarding. Remember to keep your mission at the center and to enjoy yourself! Does anyone else have any experiences or recommendations to share?
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