Behind the Scenes: A First Experience Co-Organizing a Conference

I love conferences; I might even call myself a conference junkie. I’ve been to about a dozen of them in my academic life, and I’ve enjoyed pretty much every single one: visiting new places, staying in hotels, meeting the same people over and over, getting conference food and coffee and drinks and swag… not to mention attending panels and getting feedback on my work. It’s all my favorite part of being an academic.

But, I will never look at a conference the same way again after co-organizing our department’s first Annual Literature and Social Justice Grad Conference. I have a new appreciation for all of the stuff I love about conferences, which is painstakingly planned by people behind the scenes, people who usually don’t even get to participate in much of the conference once it happens. After almost two semesters of planning and a successful final product last weekend, here is my guide to organizing a conference.

What kind of event is this going to be?
It was important for us that this be a graduate conference. Logistically, our resources and budget were manageable but not excessive, making a one-day grad event the most reasonable choice. Our department’s grad students would be running it, and we knew that a grad conference would just be easier to pull off. Beyond these logistics, however, we were particularly invested in encouraging work in literature and social justice (LSJ) amongst beginning scholars like ourselves. Our department adopted this LSJ focus in 2008, and we’ve been slowly discovering what this identity means for us. We wanted to find out what literature and social justice meant at other institutions and what work grad students were doing on it. In my experience, grad conferences are friendly, forgiving, and supportive, so we also wanted to encourage grad students to make this their first conference, and even some of our own students took us up on this offer. That being said, we received a balanced mix of first-timers and experienced conference-goers, creating a learning experience on many levels.

Photo Credit: Dashielle Horn
Photo Credit: Dashielle Horn

How to begin? Start early!
First things first: decide on a date and a location. We knew that we’d need most of the Fall to plan, so our conference had to be in the Spring, and, being in Pennsylvania, it had to be late enough so that weather wouldn’t be too much of a threat (the blizzard and ice storm we had two days prior had us sweating). For this year, our date—the first weekend in March—happened to coincide with the first day of Spring Break, which had a large part in determining where on campus things would be located (based on what would be open, when). Once we had our date, we posted our first CFP in June, with a deadline in October and the assumption that we would extend the deadline to the beginning of November for one final push: this gave students time to work on their abstracts over the summer, but it also allowed for last-minute submissions. From there, we drew up a preliminary budget and begged every department on campus for funds, a difficult feat for a first-time event. Deciding on how many people to expect was one of the biggest challenges in creating our budget, one that we continued to grapple with up to the actual day of the event.

The abstracts: The fun part, also the difficult part.
We were overwhelmed by the number of abstracts we received andlsj spent a solid month reading and discussing them to create a conference that, most importantly, addressed both literature and social justice, and offered new and innovative research about the two. I have written many abstracts as a grad student, but nothing has taught me how to write a strong one like reading so many. You learn to identify confidence in an abstract—the writer will place his or her research within the context of the field, will mention specific texts to be addressed, and will have a solid argument rather than a series of questions, a vague topic, or summary of a text. That being said, rejecting abstracts was difficult, and we spent hours discussing many of them so that we were certain whether or not they would fit well within the conference.

Our conference theme was broad, something we’d like to experiment with more in future conferences. We received abstracts from a wide variety of time periods and theoretical approaches, and the easiest way to organize the panels would have been by period and approach. However, we wanted to create new conversations within the panels, not just recycle ones that already exist. Though it took a lot of extra time, we organized panels thematically, creating multiple drafts of the program, even within the same meeting, and planning for extra meetings once our registration deadline had passed.

One of our most successful additions to the conference schedule was a faculty roundtable, which addressed the question, “What does a department focus on literature and social justice look like?” Grad students in the audience were able to ask questions, not just about the possibilities of literature for social justice work, but also the kinds of social justice issues that exist within academia itself (i.e. job market and contingent labor). The wide variety of topics that came up in this discussion was then carried on throughout the day at each of the panels, becoming the glue between the keynote and the sessions in a way I’ve rarely seen happen before.

Photo credit: Sarita Mizin
Photo Credit: Sarita Mizin

Keeping all your ducks in a row.
Organizing participants and their papers is definitely the important part of the conference process. But, don’t forget about all the little things that make the conference experience enjoyable: find a dynamic keynote speaker, organize registration forms/fees (figuring how much to raise the late fee in order to encourage timely responses), arrange for conference rates at a local hotel, create a website, design and print posters, print nametags and programs, make up folders to make participants feel welcome, find comfortable conference rooms, have tech support on hand, buy parking passes/spaces so that no one gets a ticket, order fun conference swag, make campus directions easy, organize volunteers to keep things moving, arrange for a relaxing ending session (preferably a wine reception), and, most importantly, keep everyone fed and happy throughout the day.

How did we survive all this?
My fellow co-organizer and I were lucky to have a phenomenal committee of three other grad students, elected during our Fall elections, to divide the labor and help us make decisions. Because we want this conference to be sustainable and to become a regular event, we wanted to include as many department grad students in the planning process as possible. We made an effort to make our meetings enjoyable—pizza and wine were usually involved—and we had more meetings than we probably needed in order to dilute the stress at each meeting. We identified faculty and staff members who were supportive and to whom we knew we could turn with questions and frustrations. Finally, we had a few extras that we pushed for that we knew would make the conference experience better: mugs, fancy folders, cookies at the coffee break, hot food at the breakfast. We didn’t need any of these things, but they helped us to make the conference our own, to not just make it happen but to make it happen the best way we could.

Next step: We review what went well and what didn’t, ready to begin planning for next year! What have your conference experiences been like, from either the planning or presenting side of things?

One thought on “Behind the Scenes: A First Experience Co-Organizing a Conference”

  1. Great post, Laura! I agree- helping to organize a conference makes you appreciate them in a whole new light.

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