The 2017 British Women Writers Conference will be held at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I interviewed the co-organizers, Lauren Pinkerton and Doreen Thierauf, both graduate students at UNC, about their experiences planning and running the upcoming conference. The GSC hopes this post will serve as a helpful guide for other graduate students responsible for running multi-day events as well as encourage ASECS members to apply to present at this exciting conference!
How did you hear about the opportunity to host the British Women Writers Conference? What made you decide to put together a proposal?
Doreen: We attended BWWC 2015 in New York City for the first time and were very impressed with the organization. We hadn’t known that graduate students are in charge of the process and we loved the events that Livia Woods and Meechal Hoffman from CUNY had put together. When they welcomed everyone outside the venue during a break on the first day of the conference, Livia and Meechal mentioned that the BWWA was still looking for organizers for the 2017 conference. Lauren looked at me expectantly and we started laughing. We expressed our interest to some of the BWWA board members the same day and started contacting graduate students in our own department with the news right away. Since then, we haven’t stopped planning.
Could you talk a little about the BWWC itself? How do graduate students in particular benefit from this conference?
Lauren: The British Women Writers Association promotes research on historical women writers whose work has been neglected thus far. You can find more information about the Association here: https://britishwomenwriters.org/. For graduate students, it’s important to know that the BWWC is a particularly supportive and collegial conference. Although Doreen and I have only attended two BWWC conferences so far (the 2015 conference at CUNY and the 2016 conference at UGA), we noticed the organization’s inherent culture of mentorship and support. Not only do the organizers accept a large number of graduate student proposals every year (around 40% usually), but the atmosphere at the conference encourages non-hierarchical exchange of ideas as well as collegiality and friendship. Doreen and I also received plenty of support and advice from the BWWA board as we began planning the 2017 conference, but we were still encouraged to make the conference our own.
How did you go about setting a plan for the proposal. That is, how much planning, fundraising, etc. went into the proposal stage?
Doreen: We sat in on the board meeting at the 2015 BWWC after indicating that we were interested in running the event ourselves. The board–including previous organizers–were incredibly helpful with advice and shared their own proposals, budgets, and conference programs with us. Kirstyn Leuner–now a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth, but previously part of the BWWC steering committee at the University at Colorado–deserves a huge shoutout here because she answered all my questions patiently and allowed me to access her cache of conference-related documents. Once Lauren and I had sifted through all the information, we drew up our own proposal. It is a fairly formulaic genre, and we had four or five past proposals to work from, so it was mostly an issue of researching attractive locations, reaching out to faculty and graduate students in the department, and asking volunteers to pick a task or two. Once we had identified our faculty adviser, Dr. Kimberly Stern, and secured support from our department chair, we began contacting campus institutions that we hoped would likely support the conference, including the Graduate School, the Provost Office, and the College of Arts and Sciences. We received funding promises in excess of $10,000 while still drafting the proposal, and of course we let the BWWA know that UNC was enthusiastic about bringing the BWWC to our campus.
What challenges and advantages did you face as a graduate student attempting to put together a conference of this size?
Lauren: Doreen and I have a wonderful support system—our faculty advisor, our steering committee, the UNC English department—but, as co-chairs, we shoulder most of the responsibility. By the time the conference happens next June, Doreen and I will have been planning BWWC 2017 for two years. We have spent countless hours drafting fundraising proposals, touring potential spaces for panels and keynotes, reviewing catering quotes, creating the conference website and program, and sending out hundreds of emails. Of course, while definitely challenging, conference planning as a graduate student has been an invaluable lesson as to what professional life at the university looks like. And—I definitely want to emphasize this—it’s been really, really fun!
How did you decide on the conference theme? How did the theme influence your choice of speakers?
Doreen: I believe I blurted out the conference theme while sitting over dinner with Lauren, Meechal, and Livia at the Harlem Tavern during BWWC 2015. We pondered the importance of the BWWA’s 25th anniversary, particularly in terms of paying tribute to its founders and early attendees–who are now senior scholars–and inviting early-career researchers to help shape the future of the profession. I had read somewhere that the average human generation is a quarter-century long and I thought it would be a neat theme for this sort of juncture. If I remember correctly, someone said “that’s it,” and it was decided. When drafting the proposal, we came up with a long list of possible keynote speakers, but our top picks all agreed right away so we didn’t have to whittle down the list. From the start, we had planned to include a 25th-anniversary retrospective and invited Pamela Corpron Parker, Cindy Lacom, and Donelle Ruwe, co-founders of the BWWA, for a plenary or a shared keynote. We were devastated when Dr. Parker passed away earlier this summer, so the whole conference–and the opening keynote in particular–will be dedicated to Dr. Parker’s memory and legacy.
What is the format of this year’s conference?
Lauren: The majority of our events will be daily paper sessions, spread across three days, along with seven roundtables (please check out our website for individual roundtable CFPs), three professionalization workshops for graduate students, a rare book exhibit, and, of course, the three major keynotes, one every night. Next to the retrospective keynote we already mentioned, we are delighted to welcome Andrew Stauffer (UVA) as well as Marjorie Stone (Dalhousie) and Beverly Taylor (UNC) as our keynote speakers. In addition, we will have a musical performance–“The Song Cycles of Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head”–with an introductory lecture by Professor Beth Dolan (Lehigh). We also have a plenary discussion devoted to the topic of supporting contingent faculty research, moderated by Professor Miranda Yaggi (Indiana University). The main banquet at The Carolina Inn and a daily Southern breakfast are included in the conference fee. Other program highlights include a birthday party to celebrate the BWWC’s 25th anniversary, a welcome reception for those arriving a day early, an opening reception, a pub crawl, and a twilight campus tour.
What kinds of proposals do you hope to attract this year?
Doreen: We’re interested in “Generation” in the broadest terms–as a literary, critical, historical, political, or biological category. You can find our call for papers here: http://bwwc17.web.unc.edu/call-for-papers/. Essentially, we’re looking for ways to think about ruptures, shifts, and transitions over time in women’s writing and in feminist academic and pedagogical practice. Proposals should be 300 words long and accompanied by a short bio paragraph. Send one document to firstname.lastname@example.org by January 15, 2017. The BWWA sponsors travel grants for graduate students who submit excellent proposals–so you should apply for those, too! We will circulate information about the travel grants in the coming weeks.
What are your hopes for the 2017 conference?
Lauren: I hope that all of our attendees will have an enjoyable and productive time at the conference. There will be lots of individual events as well as sufficiently long breaks in between for attendees to chat, catch up, or get to know each other. Doreen and I have had such a great time at past BWWC conferences. Our main goal is to make the 2017 one live up to those before us!
Doreen: We have been working on this event for a long time already, so my greatest hope is that everything will go as planned. We anticipate that we will have to solve some unexpected issues on the spot, but we’re doing all we can to ensure a smooth and enjoyable conference for everyone.