June 20, 2022

Bridging the gap: reflections on running an interdisciplinary conference

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/hrc/confs/supernatural/

In this blog post Imogen and Frankie reflect on their experience putting on an interdisciplinary conference, and offer some advice for others hoping to do the same.

When we set about planning for our conference, The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World, we knew it would be an interdisciplinary one. Partly this was because the Humanities Research Centre require the conferences they fund to be interdisciplinary, but without this stipulation we recognised the important work in the broad field of ‘the supernatural’ coming from a range of disciplines. We firmly felt that any conference we put on, particularly around the supernatural, would be better for being interdisciplinary, but as two historians, we were concerned about how we might actually achieve this.

It’s fortunate that our research interests, and the focus of the conference, hit upon themes that had real potential for interdisciplinarity. As mentioned already in this blog post and in our publicity, the supernatural is a topic that scholars from a range of fields have addressed - history, literature, and psychology, to name just a few! Suffering too, can be approached from a broad range of perspectives, and we kept the temporal and geographical boundaries deliberately broad (pre-modern world) to avoid limiting the disciplines from which people could apply. Having themes that were too broad was a concern, but on the day, we realised we had got this just right, when we witnessed scholars from different disciplines engaging in fruitful dialogue with one another.

Thomas Fludd, Tomus secundus

Thomas Fludd, Tomus secundus...de supernaturali, naturali, praeternaturali et contranaturali microcosmi historia, in tractatus tres distribute (Frankfurt, 1619-21), via Wellcome Collection

We made particular efforts to make the call for papers attractive to a range of disciplines. Our definitions were kept deliberately broad, to allow applicants to bring their own perspectives on our core themes. We also provided a long (but not exhaustive) list of potential topics which we hoped would appeal to researchers working in different fields.

Another aspect of interdisciplinarity was our keynote speaker. Professor Diane Purkiss is based in the English faculty at Oxford, but also makes use of historical and psychological approaches in her work. Having her as our keynote signalled to potential applicants and attendees that this would be an interdisciplinary conference, and, as two historian-organisers, we felt we ought to have a keynote outside our field to prevent the conference becoming dominated by our own discipline.

Interdisciplinary was a key consideration in our publicity. As historians, we knew of locations to post an advert to other (particularly early modern) historians, but were less well versed about the places other disciplines looked for calls and information about upcoming conferences. We posted the information with a number of interdisciplinary organisations, including the Renaissance Society of America, and circulated via a range of interdisciplinary university groups, such as CEMS at Exeter. Twitter was also a valuable tool to get the news out about our conference, and, through appropriate hashtagging and tagging, it was picked up by groups such as the Folklore Society which helped to share the conference more widely.

W. P., The History of Witches and Wizards

W. P., The History of Witches and Wizards (London, 1720), p. 23, via Wellcome Collection

When it came to narrowing down the abstracts to successful applications, we were careful not to overrepresent one discipline or topic within the conference. This did unfortunately mean that we were unable to accept many fantastic abstracts, at the risk of tipping the conference in one particular direction. We also made a particular effort to prevent any one discipline taking up a whole panel, so that each individual session would be interdisciplinary. As it turned out, all of our applications (both those successful and unsuccessful) were from fields within arts and humanities, which may not have been surprising given the topic and the purview of the HRC. We were delighted with the dialogue the panellists and all attendees were able to have with each other, across their different disciplines.

The interdisciplinarity of The Supernatural: Sites of Suffering in the Pre-Modern World was certainly one of its strengths, more so than we could have imagined when we set out to put on the conference. The feedback we received from speakers and attendees highlighted the value and enjoyment they had got from this interdisciplinary approach, and we couldn’t agree more.

Our advice for those planning an interdisciplinary conference:

• Choose your conference themes carefully - can you base your conference around a topic that is of interest to scholars from different backgrounds, or can be considered from multiple angles?

• Avoid using discipline specific terminology in the call for papers, or if you do, make sure to also include terms used by other subject areas

• Pick a keynote that can speak to and is of interest to scholars working in different fields

• Make sure your publicity reflects the interdisciplinary aims of your conference - don’t just send to the places you would look for CfPs

• When choosing who to accept, prevent one discipline from dominating the conference

• Group the panels thematically, rather than by topic or discipline

• Pick chairs from different backgrounds, or that you know will be able to ask relevant questions to those outside their own subject area (and if you’re chairing your own panels, try to step outside your role as a ‘historian’, ‘linguist’ or etc when interacting with your speakers)

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