While at the PCB-AHA this week, one of the conference organizers asked a group of us about ways to stimulate the attendance and participation of graduate students. This question knocked around in my brain a bit as I talked with my cohort members later and as I spent hours traveling home (having bought a cheap flight with a long layover that was hundreds of miles out of my way). I also reflected on the THATCamp model and wondered if there might be some way to integrate the successes of an unconference to make a traditional academic conference more helpful to grad students. Here are some of my ideas:
1) Travel money: Yes, the reality is in the current economic climate, many of our universities have very little, if any, money allotted for conference travel. Everyone from my UC Irvine cohort paid for the PCB-AHA out of their own pocket, opting for the cheapest of travel options (train or discount flights because few of us have cars that work well enough to travel the desert in mid-summer) and then sleeping two to a bed to offset the pricey conference hotel rooms. The most frugal of us also brought along homemade sandwiches to defray meal expenses.
2) Banquet registration: None of my fellow grad students were able to afford the banquet options at the conference. Perhaps a system to ‘sponsor a grad student’ at the banquets would be helpful, as I suspect that many of us lost networking opportunities by not being able to attend. I could imagine a scenario where a senior-level faculty member would not only pay for the meal of a grad student, but also take said student under their wing at the meal and introduce him/her to other faculty members in their field.
3) Facilitating pre-conference collaboration for carpooling & room-sharing: A listserv or FaceBook group for grad students looking to share costs for travel to a conference would not only make the conference less pricey for student attendees, but could also foster other pre-conference collaborations, which leads me to point #4…
4) Fostering informal ‘unconference’-style student forums: One thing that I’ve learned from my work on the MHpodcast is that there are numerous graduate student concerns that could be benefit from cross-campus conversations. This booklet from the AHA is one attempt at addressing the needs of graduate students. However, facilitating focus groups at conferences would be even more helpful than a pamphlet in addressing specific grad student concerns. This could be organized in an ‘un-conference’ manner either by having students form interest groups prior to the conference through FaceBook or via an informal brainstorming session at the beginning of the conference. With either method, grads could propose groups based on their subfields of history or on topics related to the graduate experience (such as applying for external funding, using Zotero, dissertation writing, balancing parenting with academia, etc). Conference organizers could support the topic groups by setting aside a room for group meetings–perhaps a lounge or a room with a roundtable setting. These meetings would also fit nicely into mealtimes, so if a grad student discount could be arranged at the hotel restaurant or bar, that would be helpful (in my experience, the high cost of eating at the hotel venue typically prevents students from doing so).
In compiling this list, I should say that none of these suggestions are, in any way, meant as a critique of my PCB-AHA experience. This conference has the well-deserved reputation of being an accessible and friendly venue for graduate student participation. I am certainly grateful for the support and collegiality that I experienced while presenting my paper and attending various conference sessions and I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.