Do You Think You Have What It Takes to Organize a Conference?

By Julianne Haefner

With the end of this year’s International Graduate Historical Studies Conference also comes the end of my tenure as conference coordinator. In the following post I am going to take you through my work as the coordinator. My main job description would probably be: make sure everything runs smoothly, and in the process write lots and lots of e-mails. These past two years have been a great experience in which I have learned organizational, multi-tasking, and problem-solving skills. Who knew that in this process I would also learn which countries require a visa to enter the U.S.? Or that the university does not allow the use of confetti in its event space?

The preparation for each year’s conference begins in the fall of the preceding year. Since our conference is an international one, the call for papers goes out both internally and externally: it gets sent to some of Central Michigan University’s departments and to universities all across the globe. In the weeks before the submission deadline I monitored the e-mail address, acknowledged the receipt of the abstracts, and informed the potential presenter of their acceptance to the conference. One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work as the coordinator has been reading all the abstracts. It is absolutely fascinating to see what other graduate students work on.  This ranges from studying Scottish razor gangs in Glasgow, to examining painted illustrations in Medieval Islamic Cartography, or studying female high school students’ activism in a New Jersey community.

Once the final submission has passed, the real work begins. One of the biggest challenges at this point is putting together the panels. Each panel has three presenters and a common theme, a geographic area, or time period. Some panels are a natural fit. Others are more difficult to group together and it takes some creativity to come up with a connection. After the panels are put together the conference director e-mails potential commenters and chairs. Commenters are from outside universities and provide valuable feedback for the presenters. Presenters in the past have often commented on how helpful the commenter’s feedback was for taking their work to the next level.  In addition, each panel has a chair. Chairs introduce the presenters and commenters, and have the hard but fundamental role to keep track of the time so that at the end of the presentations there is time for questions from and discussion with the audience.

As the conference comes close much of much work is to advertise it: send out the program to various departments, make sure all outside presenters and commenters are aware of the parking situation on campus, and answer any questions about transportation to and from Mount Pleasant. Especially in the last weeks before the conference, all members of the organization team come together to make sure it runs smoothly: the conference director, catering, the office staff who puts together the program and the conference folders, and graduate and faculty judges who read the papers for the awards. And it is at this stage that having rigorous organizational skills becomes a must. Indeed, being able to keep track of all the several things going on and of all the individuals involved so that everything runs smoothly requires good managerial and problem-solving abilities.

However, it is only after a lot of work behind the scenes that my favorite part of being the coordinator finally comes: meeting everyone on the days of the conference. After e-mailing with many of these people for months, it is a pleasure to finally meet them in person and get to know them. Graduate students from all walks of life, different nationalities, and specialties come together – and the one thing they all have in common is a passion for history. The days of the conference are usually the first time to take a deep breath. On the days of the conference most of my work was technology-related. However well prepared one is, technology also has its own will. (My best advice for that always is: Have you tried turning it off and on again?) Other than that the conference coordinator also gets to listen to the presenters, attend the keynote, and of course enjoy the conference dinner and luncheon.

At this point I would also like to thank everyone involved in the conference: from the conference director, to the History Department’s Office, catering, University Events, and members of the History Department. They all make it possible that the conference runs so smoothly. This year has been my final year as the conference coordinator. I am taking with me a range of skills: organization, time management, problem-solving, and the ability to multi-task. While I have enjoyed this learning experience, I am also looking forward to once again being a presenter at the 2019 International Graduate Historical Studies Conference, and I know that I won’t be bringing confetti to my presentation.

For more information regarding past conferences, please visit: http://ighsc.info/


Julianne Haefner is a German-American doctoral student. Her main research interests include the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Ford Presidency, and diplomatic history in general. She has been a CMU squirrel enthusiast ever since arriving on campus.