In 2011, the Undergraduate Linguistics Association of Britain had its first conference. I’m going to be talking here about that experience, and what went into it.
What conference? If you had asked either me or my friend, David Arnold, what ULAB was in 2010, you would have come up with some blank stares. The United Libyan Association for Bombers? The Ugly Lemurs And Bats group? The truth is, it didn’t exist yet. In January, 2011, Dave and I were getting a coffee in Edinburgh, where we were both students (and he still is) at the University there. The conversation went like this: “I wish there was some sort of organisation for undergraduates in Britain.” “Me too.” “Let’s start one.” “Ok.”
We may or may not have had a few more words to say on the topic at the time, but slowly, over the next couple of months, ULAB began to take shape. None of this would have been possible without the dozens of helping hands from the Edinburgh University Linguistics and English Language Society, LangSoc, which Dave and I had restarted after it went defunct, the year before. Together with our friends there, we started planning a conference – and that’s how ULAB 2011 came into being.
How did you get involved in the conference organisation? So, in a sense, I’ve already answered this. But we didn’t get involved – we created it. I had already been president of LangSoc the year before, and knew a lot about organisation and the university, and what it would take to run a conference. I’d gone to a few conferences by this point, as that student in the background who asks incredibly dumb questions, and figured I’d like to ask questions around people who wouldn’t want to stare me down. I was also a member of the LAGB and the LSA student committees, and figured that I could rely upon their help if I needed it. And after some short work on a wordpress website, and a little creative naming, I was the coordinator.
What did your duties involve? Mostly chairing meetings and telling other people how they could help. We had one girl, Gina, who was absolutely excellent at putting in the hours getting emails and contact information for universities around Britain. Dave was fantastic at making logos; Kajsa was great at mobilising LangSoc to help out; the list goes on. I basically sat there, figured out with Dave what we wanted from ULAB, and tried to make that happen. Closer to the date, I made sure the website worked smoothly, coordinated with the organising team to make sure that everything from coffee to wheelchair exits were set to go, organised all of the peer review for the papers and dealt with emailing the participants who were coming, planned the schedule, and, on the days, sat around and tried to look important in a vest. Oh, I also gave a few short, extemporaneous speeches about ULAB.
How did the conference go? It went great. Something like 50 people turned up. There were two full days of Linguisticing around – following by two nights of going out, showing people Edinburgh, sometimes to Brits who had never seen it before. Many of the students had never presented at a conference, and the surroundings were welcoming, the questions fast and furious, and the after-talk tea hot. What more could you ask for? Presumably, a second conference – which did happen, this year, in Bristol. But that’s someone else’s story.
The good things about running the conference? You get that line on your CV, for one. But that’s not the only thing. You get to personally meet everyone you’ve only heard about while reviewing; you get to see their presentations; you get to see the university from the other side – you’re not sitting in the chairs dumbly, you’re driving the car and running the show. I learned a lot about committee meetings and different personalities and how a successful conference works. I also was able to make a lot of friends, and show them around. That might have been the best thing – the community.
The bad things about running the conference? Well, it can be damn stressful. One day you’ve just got your thesis to keep you company, and the next you’re staring down 50 dull eyes at 8:00am in the morning (why didn’t you just meet at ten, you ask yourself while brushing your teeth at 7:00). You’ve got to liven the room, and get people thinking about the talks, and make sure that everything goes to plan so that the five people who’ve actually read the schedule don’t freak out. This ranges from making sure the tea is plugged in, to making sure that you vacate the building when you do. Of course, none of this compares to the horror of trying to figure out where the funding is going to come from…
Any advice for those involved in conference organisation in the future? Don’t do a thing if you don’t have a good team with you. It’s almost impossible to run a conference on your own. I’ve seen some organisers break down in the middle, and no, I’m not joking. Make sure that you take into account vegetarians and disabled access and, horror of horrors, people who talk over their allotted time. But mainly – don’t get bogged down in the details! For an undergraduate or graduate conference, the main thing is networking. Let people talk, talk to some people yourself, and enjoy the show. Try and figure out what everyone is researching, and whether they’d be good coauthors. Or better, friends.