On 23-24 June, the CMS (virtually) hosted its annual Postgraduate Conference. We asked the organisers, Katie Vernon (CMS), Jordan Cook (HoA), Isobel Staton (History), Yuki Sugiyama (English), and Karli Grazman (CMS), to write about the conference, and their experience of organising a virtual event.
As a team of five, we organised the CMS graduate conference for June 2020. Originally intended as an in-person conference, the world had other plans! Despite having to adapt quickly to move the event online due to Covid-19, the conference was a great success and a lot of fun to see come together on both days.
We were faced with significant challenges upon transitioning to an online platform. For example, we had originally applied and received funding to cover travel grants and catering for an in-person conference. Part of this funding came with the stipulation that we would provide training workshops relevant for early career researchers and those in the postgraduate community. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to use those grants but we were still very keen to provide the workshops. These became one workshop on writing proposals for conferences, and another on “impact” in academia.
In order to maintain the networking aspect of an in-person conference, we were keen to ensure that the online version had space for socialising at the end of each day. This wasn’t quite the same as physically attending a conference, but it did bring about some good surprises! For example, the Q&A sessions were very lively with lots of questions and conversations between both delegates and presenters. One indicator of successful panel organisation is a group of papers that inform each other and presenters who are engaged with each other’s work and this was definitely the case for each Q&A session.
We made the decision early on to have pre-recorded papers, rather than relying on unsteady internet connections, or assuming everyone’s schedules would be able to avoid disruption. We had all speakers send in their PowerPoint with correct timings, a video of them presenting, and a transcript. We embedded the video of speakers into a movie file of the PowerPoint and uploaded them to YouTube as unlisted videos. Using speakers’ transcripts we were able to then provide each video with accurate closed captions. Having the papers pre-recorded and captioned made it a lot easier to follow along and listen at a slower pace if needed. Being able to caption these presentations helped to make the sessions more accessible and also meant that people from all over the world could listen in – we had people from as far away as the US! We had presenters from a wide range of different countries, and this illustrated our theme of “relationships” because it provided another way of thinking about how we can build and maintain networks with other medievalists. Considering the benefits of using online platforms for conferences include increased accessibility, as well as reducing our impact on the environment and enabling flexible working or improved work-life balance, it’ll be important to take forward some of the elements of digital working with future conferences.
During the two days of the conference, we were really happy to see papers from not only the four disciplines of Literature, History, History of Art, and Archaeology, but also to see many of the papers engaged with their materials in a truly interdisciplinary way. We had a wide range of panels from sessions on people and animals, or people and environments, to relationships with the divine, and even relationships within new methodologies for research. This huge range provided an excellent opportunity for delegates to learn about new research areas and communicate with members of the academic community they might not normally see. The importance of communication between different disciplines and research areas was discussed in our wonderful keynote talk by Dr Hollie Morgan, who presented on life after PhD and her experience doing postdoctoral work in an area which differed from her PhD research. As early career researchers it was incredibly helpful to hear about the experiences of someone who can give relevant and timely advice to everyone thinking about how they will approach their future careers.
All in all, it was a great opportunity to organise the conference, especially at such an uncertain time, and it was amazing to be able to see it all come together successfully on both days. We hope that everyone who participated had a good time and was able to take something interesting or useful from it.
Katie, Jordan, Isobel, Yuki, Karli