Reflections and Lessons from Running a Conference

I (Aileen Lichtenstein) am a first year AHRC-funded PhD student in History at the University of Glasgow. I signed up to help organise the 7th Annual Glasgow University College of Arts Postgraduate Conference at the end of last year to get an idea what it is like to organise these events and to meet other PhD students from different disciplines. You can find me through my AHRC profile: http://www.sgsah.ac.uk/about/students/profiles17-18/headline_550873_en.html

 

A week on from Glasgow University’s 7th annual College of Arts Postgraduate Conference it seems to be a good time for some reflection. Organising a conference is much more stressful than I had, foolishly perhaps, expected it to be. None of this would have been34501191_1670234236429548_810281761194901504_n possible without the other 5 great human beings I had the pleasure of getting to know these last few month. Thank you, Kari-Christina Sund, JuEunhae Ruth Knox, Dobrochna Futro, Kawthar Al Othman and Wafa Khalfan.

 

One of the first things that spring to mind when looking back at the conference is excitement versus exhaustion. Due to severe weather in France, where I had spent the weekend attending a doctoral training workshop (and sightseeing), my plane back to Glasgow had been delayed by a few hours. This meant I was running on a handful of hours sleep when I walked into Kelvin Hall on Tuesday morning. While I was super excited for the event to start, I was unsure how I would survive the day without eight litres of coffee, let alone finalise my own presentation for the next day.

 

Had I taken on too much? Even if I did, it was to late now; best get on with it. (insert multiple cups of coffee here!) It turns out that when you speak at your own conference, you get very little time to be nervous about your presentation because there are so many other things that need taken care of in the meantime. Since I normally get so nervous that I cannot fathom the thought of food, I appreciated not having the time to work myself up into that state.

 

The keynote speeches by Dr. Michelle Keown and Dr. Benjamin White gave me plenty of new impulses to think about my own research and the sources that I use. In particular the way both speakers framed their research projects led me to reconsider whose voices are not included in my sources.

 

Over the course of both days I really enjoyed the workshops and was glad to get a break from chairing, discussing, and preparing things. The Transatlantic Literary Women’s round table had such a breadth of different female characters to discuss, many of which I shamefully have to admit I have paid little attention to in the past. Eilidh’s workshop on British Sign Language was an eye opener. I have known Eilidh for years and watching her sign always seemed so fast, smooth and easy. Yet, when trying it myself I realised that I do not even remotely possess the hand-eye coordination to sign my own name, let alone tell people about my family, where I live and what colour my clothes are. Looking around the room I was glad to find that I was not the only one struggling with where to point my fingers. Eilidh made the class line up according to our birth months, which seemed like an easy task. But when you’re not allowed to speak, it really isn’t! That moment where I walked across the room pointing to the letter ‘a’ for April (completely forgetting that the month August also begins with an ‘a’) while desperately trying to discern which letter other people are signing, left me with a profound feeling of helplessness and a new realisation for how much speaking and hearing people take for granted.

Another great experience was all the official and unofficial help we received. Sarah Thomson and Isabel Bosch did an amazing job of tweeting panels, workshops and taking pictures for us. We would have not been able to cover all our speakers without them. Rebecca Gebauer at the Crypt Cafe was a great help in making our conference dinner a success and patiently watching us fail at putting tables into a straight line. We received much spontaneous help from our attendees Seraphina Yap and James Macivor; without their helping hands we would have never made it through the first day. The same is true for Dobrochna Futro’s awesome two daughters; without their fearless handling of technology we would probably still be in Kelvin Hall trying to figure out how the screens work. Many thanks are also due to Brooke Gordon and Lesley Watson at the College of Arts Graduate School office for their support throughout the last few month. Having so many helping hands made the small, unforeseen issues that always arise in organising events much easier to handle. It is a good lesson for the future to always make sure there are enough people to help. Despite out best efforts we could not do everything by ourselves.

 

Personally, the most rewarding experience was turning the conference theme of ‘connections’ into something that is meaningful to me. Making new friends and connecting to people through our shared experiences in organising and attending this event has led me to appreciate the people that I meet more. It was great to hear about other students’ research but equally rewarding to talk about our outside academia interests. Far too often the ever-looming fear of the job market and student loan repayments let us see each other more as competition than a support network. So a special thanks goes out to everyone who stuck around for the entire event to meet and network with other students, creating the supportive environment we should all have to try out our ideas.

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Since I stayed in the same city to start my PhD I did not make the greatest effort at getting to know new people. But then other friends move away for new opportunities just like I did a long time ago, and often working on your own research can be isolating just by the nature of it. Talking about your latest reading or archival visit doesn’t make for the greatest banter at the weekly pub quiz round. Yet JuEunhae made a great closing statement to the conference that stuck with me over the last week. She said that perhaps if other people find it hard to show interest in – or connect to – our often theoretical work, we, as researchers, are not explaining it in an inclusive enough manner. I will certainly practise that from now on to make sure I connect to people better when I talk about what I am working on.

 

If you made it to the end of my text and you want to know more about the conference, making friends in a new city and the problem of isolation during your PhD, check out JuEunhae’s blog. She’s a much better writer than I am, and it also includes some great poetry inspired by a Buzzfeed quiz:

https://knoxal1985.wixsite.com/schoolofhardknox/single-post/2018/06/01/Connections-through-Whinging

 

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with David via email at d.peters.2@research.gla.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

 

 

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