Tips for conference organisers: Experiences from the AWHN stream of the AHA

Chelsea Barnett, Isobelle Barrett Meyering, James Keating and Sophie Robinson organised the Australian Women’s History Network conference, ‘Symbiotic Histories’, held on 5 July 2017 in conjunction with the Australian Historical Association conference. A month on, they reflect on lessons learned along the way.

Launch of Lilith: A Feminist History Journal at the AWHN conference.

Towards the end of last year, the convenors of the Australian Women’s History Network approached the four of us about taking on the organisation of the Network’s 2017 conference. As regular attendees and participants of the AWHN’s conferences over the past five years, we were thrilled to accept the opportunity, but – as early career researchers – a little daunted by the responsibility. Some of us had been involved in academic conference organising before; however, never to the extent of setting the theme, writing a call for papers (CFP), organising speakers and developing a program. After what ended up being an extremely enjoyable experience organising ‘Symbiotic Histories’, here are a few tips we picked up along the way.

Start early

Following the excitement of being asked to organise a conference comes the reality of planning. Everything from choosing a theme and keynote to travel arrangements for invited speakers needs to be attended to well ahead of time. We benefitted from the AWHN symposium dovetailing with the Australian Historical Association’s annual conference, which relieved us of a lot of the more intensive administrative work of booking a venue, catering, printing nametags, preparing the program and conference packs, and making sure that there was drinking water in each room for the speakers! We were also lucky to have the AWHN convenors, Jordy Silverstein and Mary Tomsic, on hand for advice and suggestions along the way. There was nonetheless still a lot of work to do between four people.

These are some of the major steps we encountered from start to finish and what we learnt:

  • Developing a theme and CFP. We knew how important it was to have the CFP out as early as possible, so in September 2016 we started to brainstorm and flag our ideas over Skype. We discussed whether there were any particular historiographical themes we wanted to focus on: whether there were historical ideas or works that were popular or others that could be revisited to provide inspiration. Over email we then sent our draft CFPs for ongoing comment and editing. This was a fun process of developing and refining our collective ideas, but also highlighted how much work goes into the setting of a theme. Don’t underestimate the time that it takes to write a CFP that will be interesting, as well as clear and accessible.
  • Choosing the format and type of speaking events to incorporate into the day. We considered a range of options before deciding that we would end the day with a panel session, a format that would allow for more perspectives to be included. The AWHN stream is always a popular one at the AHA so we didn’t have any trouble attracting individual papers and had enough to run two parallel streams during the day. However, we were mindful of the desirability of having a mixture of postgraduates and established academics in panels where possible. If organising the conference again, we would also consider some alternative formats to the tried and true formula of 20-minute papers, such as conversations, roundtables or workshops that have proven a success at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Genders, and Sexualities.
  • Organising a social event. We started discussing potential dinner venues around three months before the conference. Picking a venue close to the conference centre that will accommodate large groups and fits the budget can be tricky and in our case we weren’t from the city where the conference was being held. Our advice would be to seek out local knowledge – or otherwise there is always TripAdvisor!
  • Liaising with invited speakers and assisting with their travel requirements. Choosing speakers and sending out invitations is just the start. It is important to keep your speakers aware of any changes to the proceedings of the day, or – as we found – shifts in the program as some of our speakers were also participating in the AHA and we wanted to avoid clashes.

Seek advice

Jill Roe panel – Lisa Featherstone, Niro Kandasamy, Angela Woolacott, Mary Spongberg, Tanya Evans.

Collectively and individually we sought advice on conference organising from a wide range of sources. Jordy Silverstein and Mary Tomsic were incredibly supportive, and most people we approached for help were gracious, generous with their time, and consistently pointed us in new directions, even if they could not attend the conference. In particular, when we first discussed the idea of having a panel celebrating the work and legacy of Jill Roe, who died in January, in the midst of planning the 2017 symposium, we relied on the advice of those close to her to guide our thinking. Sophie began by speaking with Roe’s life partner, fellow historian Beverly Kingston, as well as other friends and colleagues to get their thoughts and ideas for such a panel. Their feedback was instant and highly encouraging, indicative of Roe’s extensive friendships and professional networks, and that many were keen to honour her. We also attended an event in April organised by the Sydney Feminist History Group, ‘Reflections on the Feminist Career of Professor Jill Roe AO’, to get as much inspiration as possible.

Work collaboratively

Having four people on the conference committee was really useful. During the ten months ‘Symbiotic Histories’ was in the planning, two of us submitted PhDs, and, like a lot of ECRs, all four of us were juggling multiple part-time teaching and research jobs, along with family responsibilities. For this reason, a larger committee allowed us to keep on top of conference organising without neglecting our other commitments. At the same time, it allowed us to draw on a much wider range of personal connections and experiences, which proved invaluable in organising the conference. Dividing duties between four people inevitably means more negotiating and compromise and requires constant communication, but the benefits of collaboration were certainly worth it. We sent group emails to keep everyone in the loop, and also found Skype a really helpful way to brainstorm. As we had to delegate at times, it’s important to keep everyone updated of your progress with certain tasks. It’s also important to let each other know if you hit any snags or aren’t quite sure of the solution to a problem.

Be flexible

However carefully you plan a conference, don’t expect that your vision will be realised exactly the way you first planned it. Academics have busy work lives, and people’s plans can change, particularly when you ask them to attend an event six months in advance. As Laura Rademaker raised in her account of attending the AHA with a baby, the Australian conference season often falls in the school holidays, and without integrated childcare assistance this can mean parents and carers have to potentially miss out.

Enjoy the day

After spending so much time organising a conference it’s important to enjoy the fruits of your labour. For all four of us it was a chance to catch up with old friends, meet the people we’d spent the last few months corresponding with, thank our mentors, and see how a group of brilliant academics responded to our call for papers. It was also a highlight and proud moment to sit in on the Jill Roe plenary at the end of the day. It was an encouraging moment of realising what had been made possible in our collaboration.

Sophie Robinson is in the final year of her PhD candidature in Women’s and Gender Studies at UNSW. Her thesis is exploring the lesbian presence in Women’s Liberation, Gay Liberation and Queer politics and activism in Australia. She is also a committee member of Sydney’s Pride History Group which collects Sydney’s LGBTIQ oral histories, and has published research on Australian feminism, lesbian feminism and masculinity politics.

Dr Isobelle Barrett Meyering is a historian of Australian feminism, the family and childhood. She recently completed her PhD on children and the Australian women’s liberation movement (1969-1979) at UNSW Sydney. She has taught in history and gender studies at UNSW and previously worked as a research assistant at the Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse from 2009 to 2013.

Dr Chelsea Barnett is based at Macquarie University, where she received her PhD in 2016. Her research interests include Australian twentieth-century history, masculinities, gender history, and the history of popular culture. She is co-convenor of the 2017 AWHN Symposium “Symbiotic Histories,” held in conjunction with the Australian Historical Association’s national conference. Follow Chelsea on Twitter: @chelseambarnett

Dr James Keating is a historian of suffrage,women and internationalism, and Australia and New Zealand in the world. He recently completed his PhD at UNSW and has published in Women’s History Review and Australian Historical Studies. James is a member of the Journal of Australian Studies’ editorial committee. Follow James on Twitter: @keating_jw.

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