Researching Early Modern History

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Conference organising, RBE 19 – T.D. Jacobs

The second half of March, and all of April, was taken up with co-organizing the 39th American Indian Workshop (AIW) alongside Fien Lauwaerts and Dr Michael Limberger. I first became involved with the AIW in 2009, when it was held in Bremen, Germany. I saw a master’s student present their work, and I thought that while I may be a mere bachelor student, I could do that too. And I then began to deliver papers covering my research. From there, I moved to volunteering to automate the AIW bibliography, and bringing my second-year bachelor students with me to the conference to present their own research in the form of posters. It was only a matter of time before I’d help organize one of the annual editions. In the course of doing so, I learned several things about hosting such a gathering, which I want to share here.

  1. Know your conference, know your institution.

Organizing a conference, particularly a large one, poses special challenges – especially when it is in a field of enquiry that your institution does not support. UGent does not have a Native Studies department, so it was important to take stock of what we did have on hand in terms of mutual points of interest. Fortunately, we do have an ethnographic collection with Native American materials, and some circles in the history department researching topics relating to theories of decolonization, non-western histories, and Early Modern European expansion. These were the things that we focused on in drafting the call for papers and conference program. This brings me to my next point.

  1. How (and who) to beg for money.

Funding has to be carefully considered, particularly when it is difficult to gauge the level of interest in the subject of the conference. Within your university, you need to play to your institution’s strengths to obtain internal funding. On top of that, it is important to stress how this will benefit your institution’s image, and your students. Outside of the university, it is important to exercise caution. You couldask anyone and everyone for money – but that does not mean that you should.  For example, it is true that the American Embassy has occasionally sponsored certain line items or been willing to host receptions for the AIW. However, in consideration of the current administration’s bigoted and environmentally disastrous policies, it would have not been ethical to ask the US government to help sponsor such an academic conference. The same is true of the local football team. They have an ‘Indian’ mascot – and I toyed with the idea of corporate sponsorship but ultimately rejected it on the grounds that I in no way wished to give the appearance of any kind of approval for something that I consider racist. Lastly, when writing funding proposals, you can save time by creating an outline letter with general information on the conference, its history, and goals, along with all of the contact information, and the proposed budget. Then you can tailor the rest of the contents to fit the agency or institution you are requesting funds from. This is essential – funds for academic conferences are increasingly scarce, so it you have to give people a reason to give you money. Always make it clear how their participation will benefit them in particular. Later on, you will need to keep track of who agreed to pay for what, and how. Outside organisations may be unwilling to put money into a general fund, particularly if you own institution has a reputation for treating academic conferences as cash cows.

  1. Student involvement.

Conference organizers often, I think, overlook the potential benefits to involving their students. Especially their undergraduate students. This is a mistake, in my opinion. Not only can young scholars reap huge rewards from such opportunities – even if only as poster presenters in a group session or general audience members – but they can also be hugely helpful. The 2018 AIW would not have been possible without the support of our student volunteers. They helped with the catering (thus cutting expenses), practical arrangements (moving equipment), served as guides for our guests, ran errands, helped with technical issues… Moreover, I find it only ethical that they be targeted as potential conference participants because it is their tuition money that will help fund your academic gathering. Lastly, our university’s successful bid to host the 2018 AIW was in no small measure the result of our undergraduate students’ regular participation in the conference.

  1. You need help.

Organizing a conference of any size is stressful, especially if it is your first time. So get yourself some co-organizers with complimentary skills. I would also highly recommend that at least one of them is further up the institutional hierarchy than you are. As much as you may wish otherwise, sometimes getting things done within a very large institution is down to who you know. That is something I really struggled with when co-organizing this conference. Moreover, it proved to be an administrative necessity since there were simply some arrangements that could only be made by a professor according to university regulations.

  1. Navigating the bureaucracy.

On a closely related note: some universities have well-established, completely transparent, conference organisation offices that will provide you with all of the information necessary for putting together an academic gathering. This was, I regret to say, not the case here. Certain things – such as the fact that the university would take an overhead fee of 17% from the registration monies – were not made clear up front. The financial department was unable to provide clear data pertaining to the conference account sent up through the university’s office. Other matters, such as at what specific time buildings opened to the public, actually required numerous emails and phone calls to establish. The lack of administrative support was truly the one negative part of this experience, but I have no doubt that this situation will improve at UGent in the future. Should you find yourself dealing with similar issues, the best advice that I can offer you is to be as persistent as possible in obtaining the information you need, and to not hesitate to ask someone higher up in the administrative food chain to request the information on your behalf.

  1. Saying ‘no’.

No matter what you do, you are not going to please everyone, and nor should you try to. Conferences cost money, and the essentials in your budget have to be covered first. While it is wonderful when there is the opportunity to do extra things, such as a related art exhibit or a musical performance, it may not be possible. The same goes for the practical arrangements. I had a panic attack over the fact that the biodegradable paper coffee cups I’d sourced turned out to be unavailable on the day we went to pick them up. We had to settle for plastic ones. And while there were indeed some complaints, we had done our best. Moreover, it was important to remember that in the larger scheme of things, this really was not that important.  People can carry their own reusable cups, and no one was there to drink the coffee in any case. Additionally, the selection of papers to be presented requires careful handling. As a junior academic you may feel reluctant to turn down a senior colleague, but this can be done tactfully, and it is a necessity. Running too many parallel sessions just so that you can fit everyone in who submitted a proposal would cause other problems. Be polite, but firm. Finally, conference organizers sometimes get entirely unreasonable requests, such as people demanding to be a keynote speaker. Or even demands that a certain person not be permitted to present their work for reasons of personal dislike. Do not hesitate to turn these requests down flat. Conferences are stressful enough without knowingly involving people who will probably cause you problems.

  1. Keeping your sense of humor.

One of my colleagues sent me an email indicated that they had forgotten the date of the conference and were going to be out of the country. Considering that they were responsible for a key part of the program – I was understandably upset and spent a very long, sleepless night, trying to come up with alternative plans. However, I was so stupidly stressed that I had neglected to look at my calendar – April Fool’s! This was maybe the most important lesson that I learned while working on the conference: things will happen that you did not anticipate, and not all the worrying in the world is going to change that. So make the best plans that you can and after that, just try enjoy yourself.

The American Indian Workshop

Program “Arrows of Time: Narrating the Past and Present”

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