Advice to proposers and chairs of panels
Excuse a few ideas now, inspired by grateful appreciation of your role in making the Celtic Conference possible. As universities change, we think that the kind of structure you are creating, specialist, open and friendly, unstressed and collaborative, is increasingly valuable as a supplement to university life and is likely to be seen as a model to imitate.
Keeping the present suggestions brief may make them sound like the `undemonstrated sayings of older men' of which Aristotle was so respectful. But 11 previous CCCs have, we hope, created a certain fund of organisers' experience.
Before the conference: recruiting a panel
Senior colleagues may hardly need guidance here – except about the CCC’s peculiarities. Younger colleagues, on the other hand, may read on with amusement.
In our experience a very effective model in general is the panel with two organisers, a younger one (whose original idea the panel may well be) and a senior one. Each will contribute to recruiting the balance of youth and experience that a panel usually needs in its speakers. Youth and experience…: there is a risk in stereotyping, but sometimes unless one recognizes the power of stereotypes one may fall victim to them. Relevant stereotypes here are: first, that young scholars especially are expected – indeed are paid – to produce valid novelties, and commonly succeed; and publishers, in contrast, are averse to collective projects involving no well-known names. Even the most experienced scholars and organisers do well, at the earliest stages of recruitment, to seek advice from trusted (and especially overseas) colleagues in their field, about who - in the world - should be invited. The international landscape - especially of young talent – changes almost by the month. Anglophone organisers are especially urged to remember the reservoir of scholarship which exists in the CCC’s permanent partner, France. (On papers in French, please see below.)
The title of a panel should perhaps err on the side of precision. Potential speakers may be put off by the appearance of over-generality in the subject matter, as the specialisms in our profession become deeper and more separate. There is, on the other hand, an art in identifying precise themes – and especially methods – which are shared by apparently disparate fields. We reflect on the success of the book of The Invention Tradition (eds. Hobsbawm and Ranger). Just about every classicist can see immediately the relevance of that theme to our subject, and yet (from memory) not a single chapter of the book in question is about the ancient world.
The wording of initial invitations to speakers is a delicate matter, and not only when a scholar of some eminence is being addressed. Here the input, and influence, of a senior colleague may be especially valuable. Where a particularly promising colleague – at a distance – accepts, organisers may wish immediately to offer them a special input, as in recommending an additional speaker or in chairing a session.
Where organisers are thinking of eventually making a collective volume based on their panel, the number and length of the initial, oral contributions is especially important. To take an extreme (but real) case: a panel of 25 excellent colleagues poses a problem. Papers will tend, at least initially, to be too short to be properly developed or assessed. And publishers commonly refuse huge multi-author volumes. Appraising and addressing the characteristics of 25 different authors is a burden for any editor, and huge books are usually uneconomic – or inaccessible because of their price. From experience, the CCC increasingly recommends full-length (35-40 minute papers), which means a maximum of some 15 speakers per panel. On the other hand, panels designed more as workshops than as a step towards a collective volume may have fewer problems with multiple short papers.
Once invitations to potential speakers have gone out, we have found that reactions form a strikingly regular pattern. Almost everyone who does eventually come to speak says `Yes’ firmly, within a few days of receiving their invitation. Conversely, equivocation rarely turns out well, and long silence is the worst of omens. Invitees who pose special conditions, such as `I would only be able to speak on the Thursday’, very often generate other difficulties later and quite often end by cancelling.
In the months between a speaker’s acceptance and the event, organisers should send to each a (fairly) circular message or two, not just to give news but also to reassure and check that all is well.
Great care is needed in inviting academic stars. Some stars have wonderful democratic manners, and will help the morale of a whole panel. Others may be unwilling to stay for the whole occasion; their late appearance, or premature disappearance, can depress the morale – and so the ambition, the achievement - of a panel. Also, in scholarship as in astronomy, a star may go on shining – at a distance – long after it has actually ceased to emit light. An art in recruiting speakers is to identify stars at the most democratic stages of their existence.
At the conference itself: running the panel
Please be politely ruthless about keeping speakers to time. The further speakers travel, the more serious it is if one, by overrunning, eats into the time of another. There may be a special difficulty when the chair of a particular session is young, and an overrunning speaker is eminent or powerful and not lightly to be crossed by the younger person. An experienced organiser of a panel should look sometimes to fortify a young chair in their authority.
Offering the chair, at some sessions, to deserving others is an excellent way to help cement goodwill and a sense of shared venture. In the best cases, this leads on to the creating of an enduring, informal team of researchers who may publish together over years.
The CCC tradition of allowing 10 minutes between sessions, to allow migration between panels, may look like bread-and-butter stuff. But it has a scholarly purpose – to allow the cross-fertilisation between specialisms which is increasingly needed and sometimes spectacularly valuable.
Please protect time for discussion. So many conferences are marred by shortage of it. And discussion is where cross-fertilisation between specialisms is most likely to happen.
Because some papers can help to define a whole panel, with their ideas recurring valuably in session after session, it may be well – if such papers can be identified in advance – to try to put them on early in the event.
Erosion of numbers at start and finish of an event is common and worth resisting. Once more, it's particularly sad if speakers who've crossed oceans get a diminished audience because timetabled very early or very late in an event. One technique for resisting erosion is to put on some of the more attractive speakers at start and end, even tho' that may clash with the principle mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Please don't, however tempted by unforeseen and serious developments, alter the timing of speakers after it has been published. Again, distances are relevant: it's terribly sad (or worse) to miss the chance of hearing a rarely-accessible colleague through misunderstanding about timetable.
Anglophone chairs will remember that French is the other official language of the CCC. We're very keen to include French colleagues and their institutions in the future, as we have in the past. And French colleagues do notice when les anglophones font un petit effort. But soyons réalistes: for a mainly-Francophone panel, we suggest that speakers print beforehand a short summary of their paper in English pour orienter ceux qui sont quasi-nuls en français.
Handouts and PowerPoint
In these two areas we hope to improve on standard conference procedure. The practices of distributing a multi-page handout, and of accompanying a lecture with lavish images or on-screen text, are – culturally-speaking - fairly new. And like much new technology, society masters it slowly. To encourage an audience to follow simultaneously both oral and on-screen text, full statements and bullet-points, complex argument and simultaneous encouragement to dip into an abundant handout, is a cognitive disaster, destined to fail, like a plurality of music in one place, from its own dissonance. Organisers are invited to urge speakers to limit themselves to handouts of one or two sheets (printed in advance, please). Fuller written material can be signalled as available electronically from the author afterwards, if required. (Even non-ecologists may appreciate the saving of paper.)
Organisers should also advise speakers with PowerPoint presentations to check them on the actual equipment in advance, wherever possible. Repeated failures with the technology in real time subvert the reception of a paper. Chairs should be known to carry a nuclear option: the power, after significant time has been wasted, to require speakers to proceed without PowerPoint.
Sending your draft timetable
Organisers of panels are responsible, please, for sending to the conference organisers a draft running-order of their panel. This should arrive a month before the event. The conference organisers will then probably have a few variations to propose to you. Usually, when all the panels' timetables are compared, a few potential synergies and clashes appear, and the organisers will, where possible, consult to suggest a few changes accordingly – to promote the famous cross-fertilisation between panels.
With a very large conference (of several hundred speakers), it's sadly probable that there will be a few very late changes caused, for example, by illness. To avoid publishing contradictory timetables, or greeting conference members as they arrive with a long slate of alterations (of which some members will not take due note), the definitive conference timetable will be published very late. Where panel organisers feel they must accede to a speaker's request, made before the conference, for a certain slot, please signal this to us. But if you are inclined to refuse such special treatment, you will have the conference organisers' full support. To end controversially: it is our undemonstrable belief that speakers making clearly inconvenient demands seldom give a good paper. Les grands (les vrais), we find, tend to show understanding of others, in their administrative behaviour as in their scholarship.