Organising Conferences and Workshops

Organising Conferences and Workshops

Simon Ditchfield (President, 2015-16) writes:

I have been a member of the Society since the end of the second year of my PhD – indeed, my membership of the EHS is the longest of any of my professional affiliations – by far! As a scholar who came to  work on the history of religion via a circuitous route – my original interest had been in post-Renaissance Italian urban chronicles – the EHS was, literally, a godsend. It plugged me directly into what remains not only a superb information network with truly amazing chronological, thematic, and geographical range, but also brought me into contact with colleagues working in cognate disciplines not only in UK-based institutions. Of equal importance, the EHS conferences have provided me with the ideal opportunity to gain experience of – and confidence about – presenting my work before my professional peers in a friendly and critically supportive environment. As a bonus, my first communication published in Studies in Church History remained, for many years, my most cited publication! As the academic field becomes ever more specialist and ‘balkanised’, the commitment of the EHS to broad annual themes designed to promote comparative reflection is ever more important.

Often it is nice to be able to organize the conference you want rather than having to fit in with someone else’s agenda.  But such activities are not to be undertaken lightly, and the degree of institutional administrative and financial support available makes a significant difference.

1. What research questions are you trying to answer?

There is no point organising a conference for the sake of it.  Identify your research questions – some possibly linked very closely to your own current work, others perhaps the sort of topics which are indirectly related to it; often these events are helpful when beginning a new project.  Start with the questions, then identify the people who might be good contributors and participants. This is an especially useful exercise if planning a linked edited volume: don’t aim to publish ‘proceedings of a conference’ (which publishers are not always keen on unless they can see the underlying research rationale holding the collection together), but instead plan the volume and use the conference to work towards it.  Alternatively, run a pilot event to test out ideas for a topic or larger grant proposal.

2. Think about the size and scope of the event

A small workshop?  A major conference?  What do you have the resources to support?  Is it an exploratory event or one with an intended output?  Fairly informal work in progress or a larger conference with set-piece keynotes and parallel sessions?  Would a series of smaller events be more effective than a single large conference?

3. Collaborate

Are there other scholars in your institution or outside it interested in similar questions, for the same or cognate periods and places?  Collaborating outwith one’s normal geographical or chronological home territory can be highly fruitful intellectually.  On a practical level, collaboration shares the administrative burden – and a bit of moral support will be welcome.

4. Discuss timetables with key participants early on

Having identified your key speakers, see when they are available.  Remember that many prominent scholars may be committed quite a long while in advance.  Have a timetable which allows preparation, but where the event is within the orbit of vision (too many years ahead, and people will say yes without thinking seriously about it).  One to two years in advance is a normal horizon.  Check to avoid any clashes, especially in July (peak conference season in the UK).

5. Budget realistically

Check travel, catering, and accommodation costs.  If planning ahead, factor in inflation.  Apply for internal and external funding.  Be aware, however, that often you have to commit to organizing the event and confirm participants without knowing whether it will be funded.  Sometimes institutions offer support with booking accommodation and catering, but you may have to arrange this yourself.

David Bebbington (President, 2006-7) writes:

When I first attended the EHS in 1970, it was exciting to meet the senior scholars working in the field.  I came to realise that another benefit was hearing papers on other eras whose ideas could be applied in different ways to my own period. It soon it proved possible to publish short papers delivered at the society’s summer conference as articles in Studies in Church History.  An advantage, then as now, was that the process of publication was much quicker than with many other periodicals.   And I began to make friends with other regulars at the conferences.  I realised that the society was extremely worthwhile and have enjoyed attending ever since.