Hosting an Academic Symposium

John Attridge, PhD Researcher in English Literature writes about hosting an academic symposium at Surrey through the Doctoral College’s Building Research and Innovation Culture Competition (BRICC).

My idea for a one-day, interdisciplinary conference was centred around the “untold tales” of those who had (or still) struggle with aspects of sex, sexuality, gender, and LGBTQ+ identity. Although my own English Literature thesis is primarily focused on the representation of class in E. M. Forster novels, the fact that this author was gay but felt compelled to hide this fact from the general public throughout his long career got me thinking about other marginalised communities. In particular, I was interested in how the LGBTQ+ community would have struggled to record and write down their experiences until very recently.

I therefore submitted a conference proposal that was designed to bring together academics and researchers who were interested in amplifying current and historic LGBTQ+ voices. Building upon my existing work with PIER (the Postgraduate Interdisciplinary Equality Research Group at Surrey), and by establishing further connections with members of SGS (the Sex, Gender and Sexualities Research Group), I wrote an application which emphasised the importance of this kind of research in the current social, political and academic climates; the potential for cross-institution collaboration; and how other members of these groups might continue to put on similar kinds of events at Surrey in the future.

I quickly put together an organising committee by inviting friends from various schools and departments to help in planning the conference; I then applied for a grant of £2000 to assist in its delivery. This covered a keynote fee, as well as catering for breakfast and teas and coffees throughout the day, and a small drinks reception afterwards. It also enabled us to print professional brochures for the conference – these included the daily schedule, and a book of contributors’ abstracts. Finally, we opted to reimburse travel expenses for four PGRs from other institutions. It wasn’t always easy navigating the necessary financial forms, but fortunately DC colleagues were on hand to answer our urgent questions and help where they could – particularly with the catering side of things.

Panels on the day including research into contemporary storytelling; the representation of gender and sexuality in literature and on film; the exploration of alternative physical sites of queer expression; and the specific expression of trans and lesbian experiences. I strongly recommend getting in as early as possible on the day of a symposium you’re organising – two cancelled buses meant there were a few issues to iron out in registration, but afterwards things moved along pretty smoothly! We had booked out the room and tested the computer and speakers/microphones a few days before, and we had the printed brochures, name badges and rainbow lanyards all ready to hand out.

Overall feedback to the conference was extremely positive too – plenty of people expressed an interest in returning for a similar type of event the following year. When filling out the BRICC application I was able to have a brief chat with a DC team member outlining my ideas, and they talked me through how to produce a clear budget and rationale for the conference in the application forms. As long as you have a reliable team around you (and plan everything well in advance), the conference itself is also relatively easy to manage on the day!

I strongly recommend anyone with a clear idea and/or passion for research culture to apply to the fund in the future – the entire process has been invaluable in figuring out how to organise a one-day symposium, and overall the day itself was extremely rewarding – it was great to see the conference come alive and hear so many interesting papers by equally passionate researchers.