Behind the Scenes at #OzHA2018

Samuel Furphy at the lecturn on the left with 7 people lined up on the right

Conference convenor, Samuel Furphy thanking those who worked behind the scenes to make this such a good conference. Event manager and historian, Dr Karen Downing is third from the right.

This week I have given you some snippets from the fabulous program at this year’s Australian Historical Association conference, known on Twitter as #OzHA2018. But while it is important, it is not just the program that makes a conference enjoyable. There are two other factors in a successful conference – the manner in which it is organised and administered, and the attitude and behaviour of the participants. We had a fabulous conference not only because of the thought-provoking papers, but also because of the attitude and work of the organisers behind the scenes and the particpants.

How Thoughtful! – the organisation of the conference

Everyone that I spoke to at the conference was incredibly impressed with the way that it was organised. I was really impressed that the organisers were using the conference hashtag to promote it on Twitter months before the start of the conference. This ensures that historians on Twitter (#twitterstorians), knew about the conference and what the conference hashtag was. The conference program had a good section on Twitter etiquette, details about the university wifi for us to log into, and the wifi access worked right from the start.

But for many people the first indication they had that this conference took organisation and thoughtfulness to a new level was when they pulled out their name tags. The lanyards were made by women at the ‘Welcome House’ in the Philippines which helps young women who have been caught up in people trafficking for the sex industry. These are sold in Australia by a not-for-profit organistion called The Trading Circle. I have never seen so many photos of conference name tags on Twitter. Conference participants were delighted to be supporting such a worthy cause. How thoughtful.

Throughout the conference we were reminded just how thoughtful the organisers were. I loved the fact that the conference bags were made out of bamboo – I will reuse it again and again, thereby promoting the Association. The conference handbook explained how biodegradable crockery and cutlery were being used and that the caterers would be organising for leftover food to be delivered to Canberra’s charities for people in need. How thoughtful.

The morning teas featured food from historic recipes. I have always wanted to taste pound cake as I have read about it in historic sources. We had 1918 War Cake, ‘Gynger Bread’ from a medieval recipe and Oatmeal macaroons made from a recipe included in a popular Australian recipe book first published in 1909. How thoughtful.

Page from conference program titled 'Morning Teas'

The list of food from historic recipes we tasted at morning teas.

We received helpful maps of the campus and central Canberra and a summary of exhibitions in Canberra. There was a room for the conference book sales run by the Muse Bookshop. It had a fabulous array of books and I like the music they had playing. It was a lovely space to quietly peruse books, and apparently sales were good.

It is people that are the crucial element behind the organisation of any conference. At every level of organisation, the people behind the conference excelled. Whenever we needed help, we could always find helpful people in red t-shirts who quickly attended to our needs. The convenor, Samuel Furphy, and the event manager (and historian), Karen Downing led from the front. I am not privy to what went on behind the scenes but the outcomes were there for everyone to see. It was fitting that a conference participant stepped in after Samuel Furphy thanked the volunteers, and spontaneously said a public thank you to the organisers on behalf of the participants.

Foster clapping, Samuel Furphy, Karen Downing & 6 other conference workers looking on smiling

Conference participant, Stephen Foster (left) spontaneously thanked the organisers on behalf of the participants – a fitting end for a wonderful event.

Warm and Welcoming Participants

Every person who attends a conference contributes to the event, even if they are not presenting. A conference lifts to a new level if the participants mingle in a friendly manner and make an effort to talk to people who might not know anyone.

People expressed their appreciation online. Among these was Dr Katy Roscoe from London who was at her first Australian Historical Association conference. “My first ever #OzHA2018 was a complete pleasure”, she said. It was the “friendliest large conference I’ve ever been to, with some really wonderful research papers. Thanks all who made me feel welcome in person and online!”

Imogen Wegman, who will be awarded her PhD next month, finished the conference with a series of tweets that I think are important for everyone to read.

1/ Every year I hear the same complaints about the @AustHistAssoc conference: too long, too many parallel sessions, it should break into topic specific conferences, etc etc. I am not ashamed to say that I love how ridiculously big it all is.

2/ As someone from a tiny uni at the bottom of the world, my face to face academic circles are very small. As someone who dabbles in disciplines, focused conferences are the worst – too much on one thing I have a loose grasp on. 

3/ For me this conference isn’t only about the papers or the official networking. It’s the boost in my arm when I feel isolated, the shot of inspiration when it all gets a bit dull or boring.

4/ This year I felt confident in my skills and content in my pursuit of history. The result was that I felt able to “have a quick word” with established academics from those “big unis”, where previously I’d have been too “little uni, junior researcher” shy.

5/ We kept joking about the power of twitter at #OzHA2018. It was truly incredible. But don’t also forget just how lonely the remote unis can get, and just how empowering big conferences can be. 

6/ The papers are only part of these events. The casual mixing of diverse approaches, topics, career stages, backgrounds, and hometowns are what make #OzHA2018. Ende.

This is a plea to keep the big and broad-ranging Australian Historical Association conferences going. There is a lot of concern because many historians cannot afford to attend. This is largely due to the economic problems surrounding history in Australia. The costs of the conference are not extravagant, but many historians are on low incomes. The lack of money available in Australia to employ historians is the underlying issue which needs to be addressed.

The behaviour of participants was not perfect and I am glad that at various stages people felt comfortable enough to call for more care in behaviour. But I see this as part of the health of the micro-culture of the conference – people felt that they could raise their voice when they saw behaviour which was not up to standard.

But the overwhelming feeling I got from people I talked to was how impressed they were with the friendliness of the participants. This enriched our experience of the conference as we could have deep, professional chats with many people. This is what the conference is about.

I am glad that the twitterstorians contributed to this sense of collegiality and inclusiveness. We connect people from all around the world to the conference proceedings. Many of us have come to know each other online. It is wonderful to then meet people in person. We are mostly a bunch of students, early career researchers and historians not working in academia and we know what it is like to feel on the periphery of the profession. I think that we helped to make people feel included and welcome.

The participants hard at work mingling and eating in a break on day 3 of the conference. Photo via @ANUcass.

Inclusivity and Diversity – We can do better

The moment that we get self-congratulatory is the moment that the conference and the profession slip up. There is definitely room for improvement. At the beginning of the conference the President of the Australian Historical Association, Professor Lynette Russell, called for more diversity and inclusivity in the profession. What can we do to encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to enter the profession and make them feel welcome? The profession in Australia does not reflect the multicultural nature of Australia, and we need a lot more historians of indigenous backgrounds. We still have some way to go regarding the treatment of women.

There are no easy answers to any of these issues, but it is up to each one of us to contribute to change.

Related Posts

This is the sixth post in a series I have written about the 2018 Australian Historical Association conference. The other posts in this series are:

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5 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes at #OzHA2018

  1. Every time I go to a conference, whether as a presenter or as a participant, I am always impressed by the willingness of volunteers to help, but it sounds like these organisers have really set the bar. I really like the way they addressed sustainability in practical ways too.

    I have a theory about why the history profession lacks diversity. The endless focus on Anzacs and WW1 can have an alienating effect for migrants – who don’t have an Anzac in the family. Indeed, the aggressive patriotism of some Australians can sometimes make it feel as if having an Anzac ancestry is a sorting mechanism for ‘being a “real” Aussie’ especially for people of non-Anglo origin. (My grandfather, an Englishman, fought in WW1 and even I sometimes feel as if Anzac has nothing to do with me). Of course I recognise that Anzac is an important part of Australian identity for the majority, but I can well understand that a secondary school diet of Anzac year after year might put off some students from pursuing a career in a history that appears not to be relevant to them.

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    • True, I certainly felt that when my grade 4 teacher talked about ‘our’ convict ancestors and the bushrangers that ‘our’ great grandparents probably knew about. Most historians don’t do WWI history – but it gets a huge amount of publicity due to the government’s funding and promotion of it.

      You have a good point. The histories of migrants has been much neglected. I have not written about it yet, but there was a big push at the conference to give this a lot more prominence. I hope to blog about this soon.

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  2. Anzac history is so pervasive that I hadn’t thought about personal connections (Dad’s father served in France later in the war). Of course it’s purpose has always been political and migrants are expected to fit in. But Lisa has sidetracked me – I wanted to know did you have a good time in Canberra. Were you in organized accommodation which enabled you to socialize with ‘strangers’, so that the conference continued after hours etc?

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    • I stayed at the youth hostel and in a delightful coincidence, an hour after I arrived another person entered the room who was also attending the conference. Through Twitter we went out a couple of nights with other conference participants. Some of these people we already knew via Twitter, and there were also some new people (including my room mate) who we got to know. Overall I found it a very friendly conference, and other people who had never attended remarked on that too.

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