What Makes a Successful Conference? Don’t Serve Rubbish Coffee

Emma Joy Reay is a second year PhD student at CRCLC. Her research is focused on video games but her feelings about coffee are entirely personal.

What is the point of attending conferences? This is a question I was asking myself after presenting at a particularly underwhelming conference last month. The papers I saw were repetitive and derivative, there was an awkward segregation of ‘established scholars’ and early career researchers, and the coffee was terrible. When money is tight and travel grants few and far between, it’s difficult not to feel a bit hard done by when a pricey, international conference is so underwhelming.

But, luckily, last week I attended a conference that restored my faith in this type of academic event. Organised by Roehampton’s ‘National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature’ with Ph.D. student Emily Corbett at the helm, ‘Being Human in Young Adult Literature’ was a resounding success. It wasn’t simply that the quality of the papers was consistently excellent, or that the coffee was hot and delicious: rather it was the passionate sense of purpose and intentionality behind the event that made it inspiring and invigorating.


Photo Credit: https://beinghumaninyalit.wordpress.com

Participating in this brilliant event directly after returning from a rather disappointing one clarified for me which aspects had had the most impact on whether I felt the experience was worth my time and money (which are in equally short supply). Here are what I see as the three main points of difference between the two conferences.

  • Don’t automatically give the keynote / plenary slots to the most senior academics. At ‘Being Human in YA’, the plenary slots were shared between the head of the department, a visiting lecturer, and two Ph.D students. And why not? The more senior an academic is, the more likely she is to have a long list of publications, so if I want to know her hot take on a topic I can easily locate her monographs and her articles. It is much harder to discover the work of early career researchers or Ph.D students, and attending conferences that centre on a relevant theme might be the only way for the wider academic community to engage with their work. I guess you could make the case that a ‘big name’ keynote attracts delegates, but conferences aren’t fan expos – I’m not here to collect autographs or celeb selfies. You can still invite The Scholarly Stars, but don’t let them eat up all the air. Let them share the stage with a less-established scholar who can provide a fresh response to their extensive oeuvre and frame the session as a dialogue, or organise a chair to run an AMA with the Big Shot where delegates can ask them the burning questionsthat they would usually be scribbling in the margins of the Big Shot’s monograph. In short, the keynote speech should be selected on the basis of its relevance to the theme and the quality of the paper, not on on the ‘fame’ of the speaker. It sends the wrong message about what is important and valuable.
  • Prioritise papers with a point. I wanted to go to every single paper at ‘Being Human in YA’ because all the titles and topics sounded so interesting, but the parallel session structure meant I had to choose. Common to all the speakers that I saw was a clear sense that their work mattered, and that their 20 minute slot was a chance to rally people, to educate people, to change people’s minds. There was an excitement, bordering on an urgency, that characterised the talks, and this energy continued during the questions and corridor-chatter that followed them. The papers had a point beyond simply contributing new knowledge to the field, because the speakers themselves had a vision of how their new knowledge should affect their colleagues in the audience. I heard at several points throughout the day one scholar say to another, “You changed my mind about ‘x’” and I had the feeling that I was witnessing the academic field itself evolving in meaningful ways.
  • Don’t serve rubbish coffee. I’m only half kidding. As much as I hate the thought of it, ‘networking’ at a conference is important. Building an academic community around yourself and your work can make the Ph.D experience feel much less lonely and can provide motivation when feel as though your project is pointless and no one cares about it. You don’t want people popping to the Costa during the allocated breaks because your coffee is frankly undrinkable and then missing out on a chance to mill and mingle. ‘Being Human in YA’ went one step further by inviting everyone – both speakers and delegates – to the pub afterwards, which was another opportunity to connect the researcher to their research. Understanding the scholar’s personal relationship to their chosen topic made their work seem all the more compelling and interesting.


Photo credit: Google images (https://ravishly.com/2017/02/02/its-time-we-stop-lying-ourselves-about-coffee)

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Emily Corbett for organising this event, and I really hope we can host you and your colleagues in Cambridge very soon!

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