Planning a Graduate Student Conference

Andrew L. Johns and Kenneth A Osgood, March 1999

For the past three years, the Cold War History Group (COWHIG) of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), has hosted a graduate student conference featuring student presenters and faculty commentators. Our experience has convinced us of the value and usefulness of an event directed primarily at graduate students, both as organizers and presenters. For the presenters, a graduate student conference provides a friendly forum to practice submitting a proposal and presenting a conference paper. It also allows them to make connections with specialists in the field and to receive constructive feedback on work-in-progress. For the organizers, the experience is good preparation for the administrative aspect of academic life. For both groups, the conference provides an opportunity to socialize graduate students into the academic community.

We are convinced that increasing opportunities for graduate student and faculty interaction, either in a conference or smaller group setting, will have long-term benefits and will facilitate the exchange of ideas. In this article, we discuss our conference experiences and provide a general outline for others who may be interested in planning their own conference. Such an event offers an opportunity for scholars with similar interests, but it is also an ideal forum for encouraging collaboration across disciplines and specializations.

Unique Events

Our conference evolved from a small event centered around faculty and graduate students at UCSB to a national (even international) graduate student conference. Originally, the COWHIG was formed by faculty and graduate students at UCSB as a forum to discuss work-in-progress. The group was founded because we had a critical mass of professors and students interested in the cold war, both in the history department and in other fields. We began with monthly meetings, hosted at members' homes. At these meetings, graduate students and professors distributed and presented draft chapters and seminar papers, followed by comment and discussion by members of the group. Later, we invited visiting scholars to lead workshops on their current research.

Our first conference was a modest affair. Three students from UCSB presented papers to members of the history and political science departments, with an individual faculty commentator for each paper. The success of this conference—resulting in the publication of two of the three papers presented—led us to expand our efforts to include cold war historians from the western United States the following year. By the third year we attracted an even wider spectrum of participants, including graduate students from various universities across the United States and the United Kingdom. In addition, such noted diplomatic historians as Jerald Combs (San Francisco State Univ.) and H. W. Brands (Texas A & M Univ.) presented keynote addresses, and other distinguished scholars participated as discussants.

Several factors make our conferences unique. First, they are graduate student events. Graduate students are responsible for planning and organizing the conference, and all the papers are presented by graduate students. Our intention is to create a forum that is intellectually stimulating and less "daunting" than a larger conference. We also strive to ensure that graduate students receive the maximum feedback possible. For this reason, each panelist has his/her own faculty discussant who is responsible for reading and commenting on only one paper. Further, we schedule the presentations to allow plenty of time for group discussion. This, we have discovered, is vital to the success of the conference; experience has shown that some of the best ideas come from the audience.

Although the conference is designed especially to meet the needs of graduate students, we also want to provide a forum useful to established scholars. To this end, we include a faculty roundtable to discuss major issues in the field. Last year, for example, the panelists spoke on domestic influences on the making of foreign policies. This year, to reverse the theme, we plan to discuss the influence of foreign policies on social and cultural developments at home—a factor of increasing importance to historians of the cold war era.

In planning the conference we aim to strike a balance between a formal and an informal atmosphere. The conference itself is a professional event, modeled on major conferences of the profession such as the annual meetings of the AHA and the Organization of American Historians. But the smaller size of our conference provides a cozier setting for academic discussions and also for socializing. To facilitate this, we plan two informal functions. The first night of the conference we host a barbecue, where visiting faculty and graduate students meet and exchange ideas. Following the conclusion of the conference, we invite attendees to join us at a local pub for a postconference happy hour.

Planning the Conference

Our experience has convinced us that this type of small, graduate student conference is a worthwhile endeavor that can benefit scholars of all levels. Planning a conference requires a lot of advance preparation and commitment, although the task is not as demanding as it may seem. After deciding to host a conference, the most immediate concern is to secure funding. This should be done roughly a year before the proposed conference is scheduled. There are a variety of places where one can go to seek funding for conferences. Our conferences, for example, have been funded by a number of organizations affiliated with the University of California: the UCSB Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, the UCSB Global Peace and Security Program, the Institute on Global Cooperation and Conflict, the Graduate Student Association, and our own history department. The AHA's Grants, Fellowships, and Prizes of Interest to Historians is a helpful guide to funding sources. Types of funding will depend on the theme of your conference, its scope, and the resources available to your home institution.

Another financial issue to consider is the budget. In the past, we have required funds for faculty accommodations, travel expenses, refreshments, an honorarium for the keynote speaker, and modest compensation for the conference coordinators. In planning your budget, be sure to keep in mind a wide range of expenses, such as photocopying and mailing. Two ways to keep your expenses down are to use electronic communication to plan the event and to encourage guest faculty to seek funding from their home institutions. Also be aware of sources of contingency funding that may be available for unexpected expenses.

Once the funding is in place, it is a good idea to divide the work among the conference planners. A coordinator should oversee all the long range planning and should be responsible for ensuring that all the important tasks are completed on time. We usually assign one person to supervise each of the following: publicity and photocopying, hospitality and catering, budgeting and funding, and correspondence. Additionally, if you have access to a World Wide Web page, you may wish to create a web site for the conference and assign someone to update it regularly. Organization is the key to a successful conference, because there is nothing more embarrassing personally, professionally, and institutionally than a poorly planned conference.

Next, you should sketch the parameters of the conference. Begin by choosing a time and place. Often this will require several months' notice, especially if you are requesting a location on your campus that is in high demand. Second, select a theme. Presumably, this will correspond to the interest of the conference's sponsors, but should be broad enough to attract a wide range of proposals, from both within and beyond your discipline. Finally, decide on a tentative conference format. This may be the most important decision you will make about the conference, and should take into account the potential participants as well as how much time you wish to commit to its planning. For example, do you have enough faculty interest to have one discussant per paper or do you need to assign discussants by panel? Other issues to consider include whether to have a keynote speaker—selection of the speaker will largely depend on the theme of the conference—and whether to plan a faculty roundtable of interest to the participants. If you decide to include a keynote address, contact prospective speakers early. The funding you have secured and your own schedule will affect many of these decisions.

Before announcing your conference, decide on a timetable. (We have provided a copy of the general timetable we follow for our conference, which is held each spring.) For a spring conference such as ours, send out the call for papers (CFP) early in September with a late December deadline. We have found that a later submission deadline may decrease the number of proposals received due to forgetfulness during the holiday season. Also decide well in advance when the final papers will be due and plan sufficient time for the discussants and panel chairs to read the papers and prepare their comments. The CFP should be distributed according to the scale of the conference you are planning. For example, our second conference was advertised regionally with letters sent directly to institutions with diplomatic historians and political scientists interested in the cold war. This year's conference will be advertised electronically, on H-Net, which will ensure a wider distribution and a greater number of proposals. In the CFP, we request a one-page proposal, contact information, and a curriculum vitae. We also use the CFP to solicit faculty participation—as discussants and for our roundtable. Be sure to designate a representative from your conference committee whom prospective participants may contact for more information.

Organizing the Conference

Once you have received the paper proposals, you can begin to organize a preliminary conference program. The first task is to select which of the paper proposals to accept. In your acceptance letter, specify the due date for the final paper and presentation guidelines. We usually specify 15 minute oral presentations, although we encourage graduate students to submit a full-length version of the paper for distribution prior to the conference. We also ask that the students confirm their participation as soon as possible. Ideally, by this time you will have heard from faculty who are willing to serve as discussants; if not, you may wish to directly contact professors who specialize in areas corresponding to the proposals you have received. In addition, if you are considering a faculty roundtable discussion, you should confirm in advance that the prospective participants agree to take part and that the topic of the panel is decided upon.

In planning the conference format, pay careful attention to the schedule of events. One of our most serious miscalculations occurred during our second conference when we opted for a one-day conference with four successive panels. By the end of the day, eyes had glazed over and the conference chair terminated the conference before its scheduled end. To remedy this problem, we expanded the conference to a two-day event. On the first day, we have one graduate student panel and the roundtable discussion, followed by the informal barbecue. The second day we have two panels, broken up by a lengthy lunch at which the keynote address is presented. Each panel is scheduled to run two full hours, including a total of 45 minutes of presentations, 30 minutes of discussant comments, and the remainder of the time for discussion.

Make conference logistics a priority from the start. Advance planning will be required for hotel accommodations and catering services. We learned the hard way the importance of early hotel reservations when a number of establishments were unwilling to lower their exorbitant spring-time rates. Hospitality can be the most expensive, time-consuming, and potentially problematic aspect of the conference. To ensure that you avoid potential obstacles, start early, delegate appropriately, and monitor progress regularly. In addition to the long-range issues, keep in mind a number of mundane details: composing a completed program, creating name tags, providing directions to the venue, ensuring local publicity, arranging transportation, and so forth.

Such are the nuts and bolts of a structured conference. One of the ancillary benefits to a graduate student conference is the exposure it provides to your institution, department, and graduate students. We have found that our conference has sparked much enthusiasm, and has grown primarily by word of mouth. Rather than soliciting faculty participation, a number of distinguished professors have approached us and expressed their excitement about the conference and their eagerness to participate. Indeed, when we considered changing the format to allow faculty presenters, a leading diplomatic historian expressed his surprise. In his view and in the view of many other conference participants, this type of event is unique and provides a much-needed forum for faculty–graduate student collaboration.

Yet there are many other ways to facilitate interaction between graduate students and established scholars. For example, COWHIG continues to sponsor small-scale workshops devoted to specific issues. Usually a visiting scholar will send a portion of his or her current project a couple of weeks before arrival, which we distribute to the group for advance reading. The workshops themselves are easy to organize, relatively inexpensive, and run much like a graduate reading seminar. We encourage other institutions to sponsor similar events, whether a graduate student conference or a less formal gathering.

—Andrew L. Johns and Kenneth A. Osgood are graduate students in the history department of the University of California at Santa Barbara.