This week, contributing editors Caroline Grego and Graeme Pente share their tips for organizing a graduate student conference. Both have served as co-chairs of the CU Boulder History Department’s Rocky Mountain Interdisciplinary History Conference (RMIHC), which is in its eighteenth year and attracts graduate students from across the country. Graeme was a co-chair in 2015 and 2016, and Caroline in 2016 and 2017. This year, RMIHC will be held from October 6th to 8th, a typical late September/early October date for the conference.
A lot can go wrong in the planning and execution of a conference of any size. There are many moving parts to balance: funding, booking space and catering, attendees, outreach, and wrangling volunteers, chairs, and commenters. It can be overwhelming. In some ways, the best preparation you can do for a conference is to mitigate the number of things that can go wrong. Today, we provide guidance — based on our own experience — for other graduate students who want to run a conference.
Our conference, the Rocky Mountain Interdisciplinary History Conference (RMIHC), has become an institution of the history department at the University of Colorado. Graduate students in our department have organized RMIHC since 2000. We host a hike and welcome reception on Friday evening, run panels on Saturday morning, provide a professional development lunch, run more panels in the afternoon, enjoy a happy hour, and then hear a keynote address over dinner. The conference wraps up at midday on Sunday after more morning sessions. RMIHC attracts graduate students from various humanities departments across the country, usually garnering between thirty-five and fifty applicants for roughly thirty spots. Last year, we hosted graduate students from sixteen different states.
Through trial and error, our organizers have learned what not to do and have found ways to pass that knowledge on to future planners. So how has RMIHC persisted for so many years? What makes it a successful conference? We have summarized our advice with a few basic tenets.
Figure out a replicable structure.
Embed institutional memory in the organizational structure. In RMIHC’s case, we have a planning board of four “co-chairs.” These co-chairs are on staggered two-year appointments, so that each year there are two senior and two junior members. The senior co-chairs have already weathered one conference, and during their second year, they guide the junior co-chairs through the process. The RMIHC board usually splits responsibilities “vertically” in an apprentice system. For example, one senior co-chair handles finances and booking catering and rooms; the other, outreach and email. The junior co-chairs apprentice in those tasks with a senior co-chair as their guide. If your university bureaucracy is anything like ours, it will require an experienced hand to navigate funding structures and room booking procedures. The compartmentalization of responsibilities takes off some pressure, allowing each co-chair to focus on their own tasks.
Through this structure, the co-chairs have honed a formula for the conference. We try to use the same rooms each year because we know that they comfortably accommodate panels, the welcome reception, and the keynote dinner. For the past couple years, we have used rooms in the department building for the conference panels; a rooftop space in the University’s student center, with beautiful views of the Rocky Mountains, for the welcome event; and a reception hall with AV hook-ups and big windows in the new Center for Community for the keynote dinner. The RMIHC board wants to show our school to its best advantage and provide attendees with a memorable experience here in Boulder.
Institutional memory and continuity allow the co-chairs to develop a consistent formula that we know works for the conference — and makes our jobs easier!
Don’t worry about a theme.
A theme can be a helpful organizing principle for your conference. On the other hand, themes can limit the number of applicants and the breadth of your reach. Since we host an interdisciplinary conference, we prefer to forgo a theme in favor of a wider range of applicants. More graduate students apply, so we are able to maintain a conference of roughly thirty speakers divided into about ten panels. That size probably wouldn’t be possible if we chose a more specialized theme—but if you want to host a more intimate conference, a theme could be beneficial.
Without a theme, it becomes the responsibility of the co-chairs to organize related papers into sensible panels. That can be a challenge because of the disparate nature of the attendees’ work. When possible, we try to place speakers into panels based on geographic focus and time period. However, panels centered on methodology can help organize papers that don’t fit regionally or temporally with others. Thoughtful commenters — which we draw from our department’s graduate student body — also provide greater coherence to the panels when they tie the papers together. Skipping a theme puts more pressure on the co-chairs, but in our experience it’s worth it to foster interdisciplinary conversations.
Develop a culture of cooperation in your department.
This aspect will only come with commitment from hard-working graduate students and with time. Institutional memory contributes to longevity, and longevity in turn creates departmental tradition. Each year, our graduate students expect the calls for papers, volunteers, and commenters, and they dutifully fill roles as presenters, commenters, and greeters. Often graduate students begin asking how they can help before the co-chairs have even sent out volunteer and commenter sign-up sheets!
We are also grateful for the work of our department’s faculty and staff in fostering these traditions. Our department provides an annual professional development grant to the co-chairs as well as funds to help run the conference. Faculty encourage their advisees to participate, either as presenters or commenters. Like our graduate students, our faculty have come to expect the call for volunteers, and we are fortunate to have a faculty member chair each panel. The whole department contributes to RMIHC’s yearly success.
Create a Dropbox.
This was one of the most useful developments in RMIHC’s recent years. Co-chairs now have access to shared Dropbox folders for RMIHC going back to 2011. These folders include the catering orders, the room bookings, the abstracts from each applicant, the budgets, the yearly programs, departmental email lists for the call for papers, and email forms for soliciting applicants, volunteers, and other participants. RMIHC co-chairs can use these documents as templates from year to year rather than starting from scratch. Many of the documents just require a few tweaks to update them for the next year’s conference, provide a model upon which to base our documents for the year, or remind us of changes we’d like to make. Besides, maintaining a Dropbox is free and allows all of the co-chairs to add or update RMIHC’s files. It’s a fantastic resource.
Establish a timeline.
RMIHC co-chairs have long followed a timeline of when tasks need to be completed, which begins just a couple months after the last conference ends. Yes, that’s far in advance, but it helps guarantee that we get the event spaces, speakers, and number of applicants that make the conference successful. Here’s where we’re getting really nitty-gritty with our planning tips—our timeline looks something like this:
- Choose junior co-chairs from department applicants. It’s best to figure this out early so that the new co-chairs can be aware of their responsibilities as soon as possible, given the time commitment required.
- Hold a meeting to touch base, discuss the timeline, and divvy up responsibilities.
- Pick the conference dates. We prefer late September and early October. Look out for religious holidays, home football games, and university events like Parents’ Weekend, when possible.
- Send out the call for papers from the conference email. If you don’t have an email for your conference, get one! It’s more official and prevents any co-chair’s personal email from being clogged up with conference correspondence.
- Book the rooms for the welcome reception, the conference panels, and the keynote dinner.
- Ask a professor in the department to be the keynote speaker. We rotate through regional and period specialties and try to maintain gender balance of our speakers over the years. We usually approach professors who have recently finished new research; it keeps the conference on the cutting edge of scholarship and gives professors a first opportunity to organize their findings and present them in a low-stakes setting.
- Ask three professors to participate in a lunchtime professional development workshop. The junior co-chairs are responsible for organizing the workshop and the lunch.
- Set up, or update, a website for the conference, including a submissions page. Ours is hosted on CU Boulder’s website.
- Applications for participants are due.
- Review them and decide on attendees. Setting up a spreadsheet that includes all applicants with space for each co-chair to write their thoughts is a useful way to keep track of decisions.
- Send out emails notifying applicants of the board’s decision.
- Registration is due.
- Email welcome packets with information about the conference, including where to stay, how to get there, and a general conference schedule, to the attendees.
- Order a souvenir for the conference participants. In past years, we’ve ordered water bottles with the RMIHC and CU Boulder logos; this year, we’ve decided to go with mugs.
- Organize the conference panels.
- Secure funding, or know where you can get it. RMIHC usually gets money from a few different sources:
- The history department contributes funds on a yearly basis.
- The university’s United Government of Graduate Students awards grants to graduate student groups.
- The Student Organization Allocation Committee does, too. Though be forewarned: these university funding bodies frequently have strings attached to what their funding can be spent on (for example, they might not let you use the money for food, which is over half of our budget).
- RMIHC charges a $40 registration fee that gives the board seed money for the next year’s conference.
- Prize paper applications are due ($150 to the winner!). Ask a professor or two to blind judge the papers, depending on how many attendees send in their papers early to be eligible for the prize.
- Order the catering.
- All papers are due. This may require some prodding on the part of the outreach co-chairs!
- Distribute volunteer, chair, and commenter sign-up sheets (we use Google spreadsheets). Ask specific faculty members to chair, as few initially volunteer but will happily participate once personally invited. Likewise, ask specific graduate students to comment if not enough volunteer.
- Make sure you have all of the equipment needed. In the case of RMIHC, we have to order tables and folding chairs for the conference panels from an event-planning company that is not affiliated with the university.
- Select a location for the Saturday afternoon happy hour — pick a spot that’s inexpensive, fun, easy to walk to from the conference, and can accommodate a large number of people.
- Print out flyers, programs, name tags, and any other paper items. We use a print shop on campus; they’ve handled countless similar jobs before. Rely on others’ expertise whenever you can.
And finally — hold the conference! It’ll be an intense weekend for the co-chairs — we often have a few fourteen-hour days in a row — but following a timeline like this will at least mean you’ll have gotten as many logistics as possible completed beforehand.
None of these steps will guarantee success, or that a conference will run smoothly. Unanticipated problems are bound to present themselves. Indeed, this year the RMIHC board has had to deal with an unusual number of late withdrawals from the conference. Nonetheless, establishing a routine, preserving institutional memory, and developing a culture of participation within the department are all worthwhile measures to create a conference that is long-lived, respected, and well-organized. Happy planning!
This year, RMIHC will take place on October 6th-8th. The full program will be available on RMIHC’s website. Any other graduate student conference organizers out there with ideas to share? Tell us about them in the comments below!