Graduate students as conference organisers: Tips and reflections
Professional Development Article by Tim Hampson, University College London
Five years ago, I was on the founding team of a conference called excitELT. Since then, I have been on the organising team of three in-person and two online conferences. In this article, I want to tell you a little about those experiences and why graduate students should consider organising a conference. Organising a conference is a really enriching experience, not just for the field as a whole, but for the organiser as well. While it’s impossible to give a complete guide to running a conference in a brief article such as this one, I will highlight some important points that graduate students who decide to organise conferences should consider.
My involvement in excitELT, the first conference I organised, was driven by seeing problems with existing conferences. The first of these problems was that the featured speakers of many conferences were disproportionately made up of older, white, male native speakers of English. This, I learned from conversations with other conference organisers, was a self-perpetuating problem. Organisers often look for featured speakers with a track record of being a featured speaker. That means, if a group has historically dominated those slots, it will usually continue to do so.
The second issue was that conferences often seemed quite unconcerned with interaction. Some of my best conference experiences have been disappearing to a nearby cafe and talking to teachers. However, many conferences I have attended did little to support this. One of the strongest memories I have that illustrates this point is seeing an experienced and well-respected speaker spending an hour lecturing from PowerPoint about how people can’t learn if you are lecturing from PowerPoint!
Third, we wanted the conference to be affordable. In the pre-Covid era, many international conferences were held in expensive venues and ended up costing far too much for anyone whose school or university wasn’t paying for them to go. In the Covid era, many conferences have inexplicably kept these high prices despite the major expense of physical venues being gone.
The nice thing about organising your own conference is that you can think outside of the box to change these things you don’t like. We decided early on that we wanted our list of featured speakers to be diverse. We also worked on ways to tweak the conference experience to make it more social. The biggest change was to session types. We made all of our plenary talks 10 minutes long and made these the only presenter-focused sessions. The other sessions were 1) workshops: sessions where participants learn to do something together; 2) hangouts: where the presenter introduces an issue and brings a list of questions; and 3) demo classes: where the presenter shows off a particular teaching technique.
In addition, we added longer breaks between sessions and less obvious initiatives based on things we observed at other conferences. For example, at many in-person conferences, you might see people skimming through conference booklets alone, thinking about where they should go next. To make our conference more social, we used large timetable posters rather than booklets. Initially, the posters seemed like a strange idea, but we found they worked really well at promoting conversation. At the end of each session, people gathered around these posters, and this sparked up ‘What are you off to see next?’ conversations.
In addition, by working with universities, who are often willing to offer rooms for free, we managed to lower these costs dramatically and offer access to the conferences at an affordable price (and later, on a ‘pay what you can’ basis). Any profit that the conference made was donated to charity. As a result, the conference has managed to donate thousands of dollars to Room to Read, a charity supporting literacy in the developing world.
Conferences in different places will have different issues they need to address. My purpose is not to tell you what should matter to you when organising conferences. Instead, I want to show what is possible and encourage you to think about what you would change about conferences.
Having a clear vision for what a potential conference looks like is important. In the past, many conferences have been organised simply because people in that area needed a place to share research and meet one another. This led to conferences being organised around quite broad themes. It seems that online conferences are here to stay, and one upside is that online conferences can become more niche focused. Furthermore, online conferences are less geographically bound than in-person conferences. This means if you want to gather a group of people around a specific idea, you’ll have a much easier time. For example, I recently attended a conference about Race and Queerness in ELT organised by the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG. The fact that this conference was online meant that I could hear talks from experts in this topic from around the world. Online conferences offer a chance for organisers to be more specific about what the conference is about or how it is organised.
The other important thing about organising a conference to keep in mind is that people are usually very willing to help. This is especially true if your conference has a clear vision for what it wants to do. You are going to want people to help on the day, so talking to people with an interest in your topic and some experience organising events can be beneficial. It’s also a good idea to speak to people you know who can suggest and reach out to potential speakers.
When I first was involved in excitELT, I was a teacher rather than a graduate student. At that point, getting to connect with potential speakers was a bonus, because it gave me a chance to connect with teachers and researchers I admired. However, as a graduate student, making these kinds of connections is more than just enjoyable, it’s a career must. People I have met through organising conferences have become close friends and academic contacts.
To conclude, organising a conference is a lot of work, but it is also deeply rewarding. By organising a conference, you get to see a tiny bit of academic discourse take place in the way you want it to. It gives you the opportunity to meet with people you might not otherwise get the chance to. Finally, you get to put together an event that others will learn from and enjoy.
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Tim Hampson is a first-year PhD student at University College London having completed his MSc at Oxford University. Aside from his research activities, he is creative director at The ELT Workshop and teaches at Practical IELTS. He is a founding organiser of the excitELT series of conferences.