Practical preparations

So, one of the things that differentiates an unconference from a traditional conference is that, ideally, it should be free to attend. We’ve had to charge our attendees a small registration fee, but hopefully by the end of the unconference they’ll all agree that we made it go a lot further than the usually-painful day registration fees you’ll often find yourselves paying for big conferences (even with a postgraduate discount). The registration fees are helping to top up the very generous funding we’ve received from both CAPOD and the School of History here at St Andrews.

Obviously, there’s a reason why big conferences have high registration fees, and that’s because they cost a lot to run. They often take place in hotels or dedicated conference centres that are set up to deal with very large numbers of attendees, they rely on caterers to make sure the forty thousand (or so!) are properly fed, and they feature keynotes from distinguished professors who need to be flown in and appropriately entertained.

So, I don’t think you could run a huge, multi-day, 1000+ attendees conference on the minimal-cost-to-participants model of an unconference. Our unconference is going to be small (indeed, smaller than intended due to unforseen circumstances winnowing our numbers down a bit) – thirteen people in all. We’ll be self-catering, which means that everyone gets a bed for no extra cost. This also means that we’ll be feeding everyone for three days on less per head than the cost of a very cheap conference dinner. I’m pretty excited about the food, actually – I think we’ve ended up with a pretty tasty menu and because we’ve ‘cut corners’ on not getting in external caterers, that means that conversely we’ve been able to afford good-quality ingredients. My to-do list for Tuesday includes going to both the butcher’s and the baker’s in my village (Crail, about ten miles away from St Andrews) and picking up locally-produced bread and haggis.

The (hopefully inspirational!) Fife landscape. By Chris Combe, CC by 2.0.

The (hopefully inspirational!) Fife landscape. By Chris Combe, CC by 2.0.

The base we’ve found for the unconference looks pretty great too. We’ll be sleeping, cooking, and innovating in a Georgian farmhouse just outside the village of Balmullo, about nine miles away from St Andrews. We did consider staying in university accommodation in town, but we decided we wanted somewhere that was a bit of a retreat from the ‘buzz’ (those who know the place – don’t laugh!) of town. We will hopefully be taking an evening foray into St Andrews, as it seemed a bit unfair on those who’ll be travelling quite some way not to show them the sights, but most of our time will be spent in Hayston House, and I hope it proves to be the kind of comfortable setting in which everyone can focus on getting deep into the nitty-gritty of discussing their ideas. The farmhouse looks like it has some great spaces – a massive kitchen, a couple of big living rooms, a big garden – in which to have those discussions, too.

I should probably stop there for the time being; I have to go print off timetables!

– Dawn

The Origins of an Unconference…

One of the papers we’ll be discussing at the unconference talks about seeing the PhD as an apprenticeship rather than just a thesis to be written. I think I’ve always instinctively leaned towards this way of thinking about it and so when I started the PhD I had a series of things in mind that I wanted to do in addition to writing the thesis. One of these things was to run a conference – to test and, in CV terms, prove my organisational skills. At the start of the PhD I had this fantasy of a landscape studies conference, featuring formal panels and at least one or two big names in the field.

Then I attended a university workshop on the subject of ‘impact’. I left feeling as though many of the examples of ‘impact-ful’ research, inspiring though they were, didn’t really help to explain how a historian, particularly an early-career one, could practically set about to cause impact. This was partly, I felt, the result of external guidelines which didn’t fully appreciate the distinctions between different fields of research, the ways they operated, and the different types of impact they could reasonable be expected to produce. I expressed something along these lines to a fellow humanities PhD student at the workshop, and they shrugged and said that there was no point complaining about it, because we couldn’t change anything – we would just have to deal with it.

By tracyshaun, CC-BY-SA 2.0.

By tracyshaun, CC-BY-SA 2.0.

And so, the idea for the unconference was born. I definitely don’t want it to be about complaining about the state of the academic world today – although there are certainly things to be concerned about. Rather, I want it to be a space where postgraduates can say – that aspect of things doesn’t quite work, but here’s my idea for how it could be improved. After all, some people attending the unconference, at least, are going to be the heads of department and academic policy-makers of the future. And even if others aren’t, I think it’s important that the people at the bottom of the ladder don’t just shrug and say “there’s nothing we can do, so there’s no point talking about it”.

Regardless of where we all end up in the future, right now every person attending the unconference is a postgraduate or early career researcher, and they’re in that position because they have good ideas and an ability to work through data and draw out interpretations and conclusions. I can’t wait, for just a few days next week, to see that imagination and energy applied not to the problems of historical sources, but to some of the questions facing the historical profession itself. What should a PhD look like? Can research be communicated in new, different, and better ways? How can we develop the relationship between researchers and the general public? What are the positive steps that can be taken to improve the intellectual and personal experiences of an individual undertaking a PhD?

Essentially, for me, the unconference boils down to a single belief: that we should never think there is ‘no point’ in talking about things that affect us, because if we never voice our ideas for change then change will never happen.

Let’s talk.