Confessions of a conference organizer

2013 conference organizers

2013 conference organizers. Front row, left to right: Christopher van den Berge, Megan Gregory, Michelle Beer; back: Melanie Zefferino, William Storm, Geoffrey Johns

2013 conference session

2013 conference session

A tour inside the Newberry’s closed stacks.

When I was first approached by my university’s liaison about assisting in the planning and running of The Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies’ annual graduate conference, my immediate response was to humbly decline. I had never served on the planning side of such an event and had certainly never chaired a session and felt as if my qualifications were woefully inadequate for the task at hand. My reservations aside, I have always been grateful for the intellectual space the Newberry Library has provided me over these many years and it was impossible to turn down the offer. My fears were quickly mitigated by the directors who assured me that it would be a fantastic opportunity and one I would not want to miss. They were right, of course.

The high caliber of scholarship evident at our first planning meeting was impressive. We formally reviewed more than two hundred abstracts which had been submitted for consideration. It was difficult having to turn down so many intriguing proposals by scholars who were clearly passionate and deeply invested in their subjects. The sheer variety of proposed topics and the number of academic disciplines represented in the submissions resulted in a very long afternoon for the organizing committee but in the end we were confident that we had chosen the best of the best.

Organizing the papers into coherent panels proved equally challenging. As we worked with our respective scholars over the next few months I began to wonder how a more coherent theme might evolve within the sessions we had created without them being so esoteric as to be completely meaningless to potential attendees. How many of us have sat through conference sessions in which the presenters and their research seemingly had nothing to do with one another, with the result that we suffered through several papers in order to hear the one we were genuinely interested in? Successful conferences serve as opportunities to expand beyond our intellectual comfort zones and to imagine new avenues of scholarship we might not otherwise have considered. Being able to take something away from each paper is a desirable though often elusive goal, and an interdisciplinary conference such as ours offered a unique set of challenges.   

Remarkably, despite their seemingly disparate natures, the papers worked well together. I think as apprentice historians the weight of producing original work which adds to the extant body of knowledge can seem a herculean task. What more can possibly be said that hasn’t been said already, especially on subjects and events from earlier periods such as ours? The papers and their presenters were a testament to the fact that every generation of scholars has a unique opportunity to challenge the presumptive authority of earlier historians; not to dismiss their contributions but to ask new questions and suggest different perspectives. As I sat listening to a panel discussion on sixteenth-century English female rulers I was struck by the rich diversity of perspectives each of the presenters offered, despite their subjects being quite similar. Based on the question-and-answer period following the presentations, it was obvious that everyone was able to take something away from the session, which is always encouraging.

The Newberry Library has consistently provided a nurturing intellectual environment while genuinely encouraging scholars to use the institution to its fullest potential. The Center’s annual graduate conference offered the maximum intellectual exchange at a minimum degree of stress. For prospective presenters at future graduate conferences and potential organizers who may be hesitant to jump in and assist, I can sincerely offer an enthusiastic recommendation. It was an incredibly rewarding three days.

Posted by Christopher van den Berge, History Department, University of Illinois at Chicago.


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