Showcasing Intellectual Frontiers: the art of organizing a successful academic conference – by André Broome

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Academic conferences provide an invaluable channel for scholars to exchange ideas and research, as well as an important forum for discussing the possibilities for future collaboration across researchers from different universities and countries. Dr André Broome from the University of Warwick offers tips on how academics can organize successful conference events that showcase new intellectual frontiers rather than rehashing tired doctrines.

In the past decade I have had the privilege of collaborating with numerous colleagues and graduate students to organize over ten academic conferences. These have included both large and small conferences, and events that were well-funded and those that were run on a shoestring budget. Most recently, together with an entrepreneurial group of colleagues at the University of Warwick – James Brassett, Juanita Elias, Lena Rethel, and Ben Richardson – I organized the Warwick 50th Anniversary Conference on New Directions in International Political Economy in May 2015, which was supported by Edward Elgar Publishing.

The event brought together some 130 scholars from more than 20 countries around the world to discuss the state-of-the-art and the future direction of the study of the global political economy. Large academic conferences offer participants the chance to interact with scholars who they would not otherwise get the opportunity to meet. While conference organization can be a challenging and time-consuming endeavour for academics who are increasingly pressed on all fronts to deliver more, better, faster, and cheaper in their research and teaching, some basic tips – plus a healthy dose of common sense – can help ensure a successful and rewarding event.

A dedicated conference budget, and careful management and monitoring of the budget, is essential. In addition to the obvious need to ensure sufficient funding for running a large event, the key to a successful academic conference lies in getting the basics right in three main areas: (1) planning; (2) professionalism; and (3) purpose. These ‘three Ps’ are critical for a well-run event that organizers, their university, and conference delegates will gain the most from.

Planning an academic conference

A successful conference requires careful planning, around 90 percent of which needs to be completed two to three months before the start of the event. For the New Directions in International Political Economy conference we began planning 18 months beforehand. Extensive and early planning for an event is even more important when it is being run on a tight budget. One earlier academic conference I co-organized as part of a European Commission funded large-scale grant had a budget of close to €50k. This level of financial resources enables extensive administrative and logistical support, where less effort needs to go into negotiating the cheapest possible deal with a conference centre and catering companies or to encourage participation from local rather than international scholars. With large-scale external funding, the organizational work done by academics can focus primarily on intellectual content and purpose.

Most of the time organizers will have to work within tight budgets to run a conference. This was the case with the New Directions in International Political Economy conference, where we charged a registration fee to part-fund the substantial costs involved. The costs of running a conference typically remain heavily subsidized when a registration fee is charged. However, delegates are even more entitled than at an ‘all-expenses paid’ conference to expect a highly-professional and intellectually stimulating event. It is imperative to avoid dissatisfied delegates who leave the conference feeling they have not received good value for their money. Reputation matters, and a properly planned conference can help build academic reputations and professional goodwill amongst colleagues, just as a badly-planned event can harm the academic reputations of the organizers.

Good conference planning is not just about ensuring decent coffee is available, programmes are printed correctly, and delegates know where they are going as the event proceeds. It is also about avoiding common mistakes that plague poorly-planned academic events. The tell-tale signs of poor planning may include a lack of balance in gender, age, and professional seniority on panels, or a lack of plurality in theoretical approaches that produces intellectual groupthink, transforming panels that should stimulate robust scholarly debate into ideological echo chambers. Some fields in the social sciences have their own distinctive demographics which can make achieving ‘balanced’ panels a challenge, but it is well worth the effort to foster productive dialogue and creative exchanges that can transcend intra-disciplinary barriers and hierarchies.

Organizers should clearly set out in the ‘call for papers’ what the purpose of the conference is (why scholars should participate), and also what the format of the conference will be (how the event will be organized, and why). To avoid the common situation where a group of closely-connected faculty colleagues and their graduate students present papers on the same panel to propagate a ‘party line’ on a particular subject, and to instead foster engagement across academic subcultures and scholars who take different approaches to the same burning questions, use the ‘call for papers’ to encourage panel diversity. This might involve asking for individual paper proposals rather than accepting panel proposals (leaving the composition of panels in the hands of organizers), or specifying that panels should include a mix of established and early career scholars, age and gender balance, and presenters from a range of institutions and using different theoretical perspectives.

For some conferences, panels that are composed largely of presenters from the same institution and who take the same approach to a subject may be the desired outcome. In most cases, however, and in the social sciences in particular, intellectual pluralism and cross-institutional diversity is likely to yield more robust and stimulating debate and insights than having panels based on ‘ontological gangs’ who talk past each other or dismiss alternative approaches out-of-hand. To further encourage stimulating debate it is important to avoid over-loading the conference programme with too many roundtable and panel sessions with only short breaks between each session. It is essential for a successful conference to allow sufficient time between sessions, and before and after conference meals, for participants to engage in informal research conversations.

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Professionalism is a virtue

We have all attended academic events where, for reasons known only to themselves and select insiders, the organizers take a perverse pride in disorganization and a lack of professionalism, those where chairs fail to turn up to manage individual panels, or where half the presenters from a panel withdraw without the organizers updating the programme or making appropriate adjustments. Worse, still, is the event which is a vanity project designed to showcase the organizers’ own intellectual talents and to induce adherence to a preferred perspective or approach. Amateur conferences leave lasting bad impressions on participants, who will consider they have wasted their time and money in attending an event that the organizers have not taken seriously themselves. A professional standard should be applied to all aspects of conference organization, from timely and coherent correspondence with delegates to clear, accurate, and typo-free programmes.

Professionalism does not mean perfectionism, however. For a range of legitimate reasons, a small number of delegates may have to pull out of a conference at the last minute, a problem that may be compounded if delegates are travelling internationally over long distances. In such circumstances some panels may have to change after the programme is printed, which is unavoidable. But to the greatest extent possible, an academic conference should be run as a professional and formal event; participants will appreciate well-run conferences and will remember them.

Conferences should have a purpose

To say that conferences should have a clear intellectual purpose is not to suggest they should only bring together like-minded scholars who agree on a common research agenda. The most valuable conferences are those that bring together a diverse range of scholars with a plurality of research agendas, methods, and approaches. At the same time, conferences should not be made up of random groupings of scholars with no discernible overlap or connection between their research interests, which makes productive dialogue difficult.

For the New Directions in International Political Economy conference the organizers had two primary purposes. The first was to foster a high rate of participation from early- and mid-career scholars who will be shaping the field during the next twenty years, rather than primarily inviting those who may have shaped the field in the last twenty years. The second was to encourage participation in five thematic areas we see as cutting-edge research areas in the field. A good academic conference can have one overarching focus or a number of distinct streams, but well-thought out section themes increase the appeal to scholars to submit paper proposals and also shape how intellectually productive the event is for participants. A paradox of contemporary academia is that the number of conferences that are run in a given year has substantially increased in recent years, at the same time as the ability of academics to fully engage in numerous conferences each year has decreased as other pressures on academic time have risen. With an increasingly busy conference calendar, scholars must be discerning about which events to attend and which to politely pass on. A conference that has a clear and stimulating thematic focus will appeal over one that is a blanket invitation to all scholars everywhere to come to a university for a ‘mutual appreciation society’ talking shop.

Scholars in Europe and around the world would benefit from further discussion and exchange of ideas on how to best run successful academic events. Two issues are particularly worth briefly highlighting for this discussion. The first issue is the critical question of how, or whether, conference organizers might provide the option of childcare services, to facilitate participation from scholars who are parents of young children. The second issue is whether ‘less is more’ in terms of the increasingly busy conference calendar that scholars in many fields face. There is the possibility that fewer conferences could lead to better conferences, and could encourage greater interaction across academic subcultures rather than permitting ‘tribalism’ to develop through conference proliferation.

Academic conferences that are organized by collaborative initiatives among colleagues provide a highly valuable service to the profession, one that is distinct from the benefits enjoyed by participants at annual conventions organized within the framework of professional associations and academic bodies. Both are an integral feature of academic life, but productive dialogue across academic subcultures, institutions, and disciplinary boundaries requires academics to continue to organize conference events outside the framework of professional associations, even if they utilize support from them. Organizing a successful academic conference is an art that involves some hard graft and careful planning by organizers, but a well-run event delivers substantial benefits to participants by creating a forum for intellectual engagement, research exchange, and face-to-face dialogue. In this respect, the art of organizing a successful academic conference remains a critical feature of the life of the mind in the twenty-first century.

business_portrait_web_resolutionAndré Broome is Associate Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Warwick. He is convenor of the IMF Research Network, and is the IPE Section Program Chair of the International Studies Association for 2015-16

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