Conference Planning & Dreaming on Such a Winter’s Day

My friend and colleague (and fellow blogger) Kelli Towers Jasper and I are in the early stages of planning our first conference: the British Women Writers Conference (BWWC) 2012, which will be held at CU-Boulder next year (click here for the upcoming 2011 BWWC website — if you’re presenting, Kelli and I will see you there!). We were advised that planning a conference is like planning a wedding (luckily, we’ve both done that), complete with anxieties about finances, timing, food, lodging, speeches, number of guests, transportation, and more. Though there will be no vows that I’m aware of, I have been chastened by early planning and organizational efforts and feel blessed to have such a well-organized and motivated co-chair, Kelli, and experienced faculty advisor, Jill Heydt-Stevenson, in this effort. (If you have organized a conference and have advice or experience to impart, pretty please post a comment to this blog and share your wisdom with us!) 

As this is our first conference planning experience, and since we are planning a conference that is an annual event in our field, we will be following the BWWA’s recommendations and a traditional BWWC conference format. I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo, because who would ever have thought that I would be in the position of co-chairing a conference! I am delighted and elated. In this case, I have the distinct privilege of planning the “zoo” with Kelli. I find myself thinking about some of the best and worst features of conferences I’ve been to that we should consider when organizing the BWWC 2012 at CU-Boulder. Here’s a short list of 5 desired features especially for our future graduate student attendees, in no particular order, and of varying degrees of importance. (Of course, I’m leaving a lot out that we have on our complete list, but feel free to comment and suggest additions.)

1. Audience. I love a packed house — it reinforces that your presentation is important (even if you already feel that it is), that there are scholars who are interested in learning about your work, and that your work is an important contribution to the conference as a whole. As a grad student, if I ended up in the unfortunate (and rare) situation of presenting my paper to a room full of empty chairs, I would be more than a little discouraged about my work and, frankly, the expense of going to the conference. We will do our very best to make sure this does not happen — the field is tough enough already.

2. Good food, drink, and company. Organized and delicious catering can do more than quell hunger pangs: it brings people together and creates opportunities for conversation and connections. It is difficult to shuttle off to a conference as a graduate student and not really know anyone there–besides having read essays and books written by the keynote speakers. We hope that our social events will grease the wheels for you to feel comfortable meeting other presenters and making new colleagues and friends. In fact, in my perfect conference fantasy, there is an ice-breaker or cocktail-hour event just for graduate students.

Back to the food: as one with gluten sensitivities, I have a personal stake in doing my best to have gluten-free and vegetarian options available. It’s somewhat frustrating to receive a boxed lunch and then realize you can only eat the potato chips, even if they’re really good potato chips (this has happened to me on several occasions).

3. IT help. I have been to a few digital workshops and even co-taught one, and from these experiences know that having speedy IT help on hand is crucial. One of my DH colleagues tells a story about a distinguished new media scholar who gave a talk using an overhead projector because it was reliable and because technology has a way of malfunctioning when you’re standing at the podium. We hope presenters will feel enabled and supported to use technology in their talks, and that someone (preferably with a cape on) will swoop in to help if things should fail. You shouldn’t need to bring transparencies for the overhead as a default — at least that’s my hope.

4. Conference wiki. I will be setting up the BWWC 2012 conference website in the next week or two, and one of the features I want to include is a conference wiki. At the NINES Summer Workshop at Miami University, a wiki was instrumental for participants planning morning workouts, outings, dinner plans, and additional small group mentoring and work sessions. It gives participants a way to plan off-shoot activities outside of conference events that are open to all conference goers. I would be delighted if attendees could use the wiki to help Kelli and I create a dynamic intellectual and communal experience. So by all means, wiki away (once/if we have one 🙂 ).

5. Affordable lodging. Paying for several nights in a hotel room on top of plane fare can run you upward of $600 for a single conference. I can only afford to do that once a year, and those expenses don’t include food. One of our goals for this conference is to be able to offer dorm rooms for presenters to stay in, if they choose — a major “win” for graduate student presenters. Of course Boulder has many lovely and chic hotels, but if you’re on a budget and you’re excited about this conference, you will hopefully have the dorm lodging option available for you. No need to bring your tent (though I can recommend good camping if you’re interested).

Finally, while Kelli and I are shooting for the moon with our conference planning, we may only make it to the nearest satellite. We aim to make this the best possible BWWC that we can given our resources, but of course we are ultimately limited by those same resources. To help us prioritize, you can respond to this blog post:

  • What do you hope for (or fear), as a graduate student, when attending a conference?
  • If you have organized a conference or assisted with one, what wisdom can you impart to us? (Suggestions are most welcome!)

Many thanks, and we hope to see your abstract in our email for the 2012 BWWC. (Don’t worry, you haven’t missed the CFP – it’s not out yet. We’ll let you know when it is!)

4 thoughts on “Conference Planning & Dreaming on Such a Winter’s Day”

  1. Thank you for this post, Kirstyn. As one who has helped to organize many conferences, I found the talks posted by Timothy Morton from Rutgers’ symposium papers from Friday’s “Cross-Cultural Ecocriticism(s): Waves and Undertows”
    ( quite helpful for thinking bout planning any future events. This was first because I could benefit from Morton’s democratizing DH move and hear talks I would have otherwise missed due to geographic and financial limitations. Secondly, the post-symposium round table discussion was a very successful platform and seemed to foster a lively conversation from both participants and audience members. Finally, during this discussion the issue of the detrimental ecological impact of certain conference practices truly came to the fore. I’m certainly on board with ensuring there be gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan options for participants. However, I have to say that as conference organizing has begun to become more sensitive to human dietary needs we still ignore quite a lot of ecological costs that these gatherings bring to bear. Given your limited means, I wonder if it would be possible to record and post some of the talks and discussions for the academic and non-academic reaches of the digital community at large. I also wonder if some earth-minded touches could be incorporated–such as cutting down on plastic water bottles or making for easy recycling of coffee cups. These are small points considering air travel and other larger pieces of the conference puzzle, but I do think they would be worth considering.

  2. Thanks for your insights, Michele, and also for the helpful links! It’s so great to have things like this on the radar screen in the beginning stages of our planning, so that we can prioritize our goals and do our best to put on a useful, enjoyable, and responsible event.
    And Kirstyn–so glad you posted this!

  3. Hi, Kirstyn,
    I’m trying to find info. on the 2012 BWWC. Can you tell me where to find it? I need to apply for funding ASAP and can’t seem to locate the website.
    Btw, I was one of the 2005 BWWC planning committe and I would say that the best thing I can tell you is that planning a conference of this size requires relying on your faculty advisor for advice and realizing that you won’t sleep until everyone has left town.
    Thanks, in advance, for your help.

    1. Hi Kate,
      Thank you for your message and your advice. We are so fortunate to have Prof. Jill Heydt-Stevenson as our faculty advisor. She has been and will be indispensable in creating the best possible conference environment for next year’s BWWC. I sympathize with your need to request funding and have emailed you the CFP for the conference. While the website is completed, it is in its last stages of approval needed before we launch it publicly. It should be up very shortly. Hoping to see you in Boulder for the conference next year!

Comments are closed.