Untwist your knickers and sort out your timing

September 17, 2004

There is no excuse for a badly run conference, says Susan Bassnett, just take care over the details and delegate

When David Lodge published the tale of academic life, Small World , he changed the way academics viewed conferences. We could all recognise the appalling scenarios he depicted, from the vanities of well-known figures pontificating on pointless topics to the dismal quality of the warm wine in paper cups and tepid instant coffee supplied by host universities. In my time, I've been to conferences worse than any imagined by Lodge. One conference banned all speakers from delivering their papers and provided discussants to give three-minute summaries of papers. Another ran so many parallel sessions that most of the speakers were left without an audience.

One failed to provide enough accommodation for everyone, and the quality of the food in some conferences was just this side of abysmal. Worst of all, one conference advertised speakers who not only did not turn up, but had not even been invited.

Why do these disasters happen? One reason is that normally sane people get their knickers in a twist and panic when confronted with the (relatively simple) task of organising a conference. These days, there is no excuse for a badly run conference because so many places offer support and advice. If you are organising a conference, it is important to realise that the academic content and the physical wellbeing of participants are equally important. If you supply good speakers and forget the coffee, people will remember the latter, or if you provide wonderful facilities and terrible speakers, the poor quality of the papers will be derided for ever.

The secret of maintaining standards is to delegate. If you don't have the money to pay professionals, involve graduate students, who are usually every bit as good and will be glad of the chance to put conference organising on their CVs. Maintain control of the budget and the detail, but give specific tasks to people who will take the weight off.

Be realistic about time. You might want to cram seven short papers into two hours, but it won't work. However long you give people, they will take a few minutes longer. You also need to allow for wasted time, as no conference audience ever rushed in and sat down dead on time. Then, having planned how many papers can fit into one session and how many sessions people might be able to cope with in a day, make sure you appoint chairs who are tough enough to call time if everything is running wildly over the limit. Nobody enjoys sessions where papers run on too long - the audience becomes bored and the other speakers seethe with frustration. Allow some breathing space. Nobody can cope with an unremitting intellectual assault course, so schedule in free time. The most frequent complaint about conferences is that there was not enough time for discussion or private reflection.

What is often overlooked is that conferences generate a great deal of anxiety among participants. This anxiety is likely to be felt by the postgraduate giving a paper for the first time and by the experienced international figure, so make sure they all feel valued. Check to ensure that all the accommodation is in order and that someone has been in touch regarding any requirements they may have before they speak. Find time for a technical rehearsal. Send out full joining instructions, including phone numbers for any unforeseen emergency, and, if possible, offer to meet speakers at the station.

Conferences should be exciting events, at which people with a lot to offer come together to share knowledge and ideas. Sadly, they are often as dull as ditchwater, run by incompetents and fuelled by food that wouldn't be served in a transport cafe. Make sure yours is different.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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