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Training postgrads by organising a conference / workshop

By Steve Draper,   Department of Psychology,   University of Glasgow.

This idea comes from Alison Phipps, who implemented it once in 2002 for postgrads in the faculty of Arts here. I heard her talk about it at the 2003 TLS conference.

The basic idea is, as a professional development exercise for postgraduate (PhD) students, to give them a budget and have them create and run a whole conference. Big success (they say):
Conference website.
A report.
(See also next year's conference.)

They called it a "conference", others (in other disciplines) might have called it a "workshop". (After all, some academic conferences have thousands of participants and a budget of millions of pounds / dollars / euros.) Basically 3 days, 20 presentations, 55 participants.

Duration of conference (3 days?) 3 days
Number of delegates at the conference; began with 30 rose to about 50-60 as "word spread"
Speakers: 19 talks by postgrads from here, plus a talk by invited speakers.
Fees charged to delegates. 10/25
Size of conference subsidy: ?2000
Typically each committee member had already attended one or two such conferences before.

600 (about) postgraduate students in the Graduate School for Arts and Humanities at the time (according to their website).
7 of these were on the conference organising committee
18 Arts faculty postgraduates gave presentations at the conference.
X Arts faculty postgraduates attended the conference
Y others also attended the conference

Pedagogical rationale

I would argue for it as (i.e. this is my theoretical restatement of a rationale for it):
  1. It addressed the perceived prior pedagogical problem: that for Arts faculty students, there is very, very little to support what Tinto would call academic and social integration i.e. there is little occasion for them to talk to each other or to anyone (in strong contrast to science postgrads in a sizeable lab, where they work with others every day).

  2. Running a research conference or workshop can indeed be seen as the quintessential core activity for academics. Just as a research project is a final year exercise for undergraduate psychologists (with similar things in many other departments) that brings together the component skills they have been taught (e.g. literature review, experimental design, statistics, academic writing) into a single meaningful ("authentic") task, so running a research meeting is a task that combines many of the characteristic activities of a professional researcher.

  3. Getting people to be responsible is the way to motivate them, and also to unleash their creativity.

So would it be good for postgrads in other areas?
The first reason might not apply, but the other two would. Furthermore, it may be that it would be a valuable antidote for postgrads in disciplines where they get all too much advice, attention, being told what to do. Running a conference forces you to think about how to get value out of research meetings, rather than giving talks to formats because other people tell you that's what you have to do, rather than because you have thought about what is actually valuable.

Would it be good for the conference itself? Probably. The usual thing for conferences is that they are run by old timers in the field. Tradition gets transmittted, with too little reconsidering from first principles, too little originality, too little checking that it serves core academic needs for all attenders -- not just the old timers and their social network.

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