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Get an exclusive backstage pass to the School of Advanced Study’s postgraduate conference, FRAGMENTS. From daunting beginnings to inclusive planning, read about the team’s journey as they put together a two-day long event celebrating the diverse research happening within SAS. Discover the shaping of conference content, how they put together a programme and how they created a distinct visual identity for the theme of the conference. Join us on this behind-the-scenes adventure!
A Daunting Task: The Beginnings
Organising a conference can be a daunting task, filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation. It also requires teamwork, and for the School of Advanced Study’s postgraduate conference, FRAGMENTS, the power of the team was truly showcased. The triad of Monja Stahlberger (ILCS PhD Candidate; Conference Co-Organizer), Natalia Fantetti (IES PhD Candidate; Conference Co-Organizer), and Elena Zolotariov (IES PhD Candidate; Publicity Officer) worked tirelessly to create an event that celebrates diverse research conducted by the postgraduate community at SAS.
‘At first, it seemed like an impossible task: uniting a diverse student community here and abroad,’ recalls Monja. ‘We had to answer a multitude of questions. Should we opt for an online event, a hybrid one, or a mix? Where will we host it, and who will be the keynote speaker?’ Yet, even amidst these questions, Monja, Natalia, and Elena were determined to rise to the challenge, powered by their resolve to host a conference that showcased the breadth and depth of SAS students’ work.
One of the first hurdles was determining the conference’s theme. While it was initially daunting, the co-organisers were pleasantly surprised when ‘Fragments’ emerged as a natural choice. ‘Coming up with the theme was the first big hurdle,’ Monja explains. ‘I thought it would be a lot harder to find one, let alone agree on one. But, it turns out we actually had quite a lot of good ideas, and of all of them, ‘Fragments’ just stood out.’
Meanwhile, Natalia experienced a rush of mixed emotions as she delved into the organisational process. ‘This was the first conference that I’ve co-organised in which we had to think of everything – we had a totally blank canvas to start from,’ she says. ‘Much like the blank page of a word document that will become a thesis chapter draft, it was both terrifying and exciting.’
From the get-go, Natalia, Monja, and Elena knew two things: that the conference would take place towards the end of the academic year as a celebration of the students’ research, and that they would be putting out a call for papers to put together the programme. This initial clarity offered them a starting point to kickstart their creativity and planning.
As they moved forward with the organisation of the conference, their shared vision was further fleshed out. It was to be an inclusive and representative event, highlighting the remarkable intellectual richness of the SAS postgraduate community. This early phase, despite its complexity and challenges, laid a solid foundation for the rest of their journey, setting the stage for the meaningful and engaging academic event that Fragments promised to be.
Inclusivity at the Forefront
Inclusivity stood as a central tenet in the planning and execution of the ‘Fragments’ conference. The organising trio prioritised creating an environment that would reflect the richness and diversity of the student community at SAS, including both our London-based and distance-learners.
Monja readily acknowledged the inherent challenges of this task. ‘Inclusivity was our mantra,’ she states, ‘but it also posed a unique set of challenges. It was extremely difficult to know how to best cater to the needs of all students, including those studying remotely. We had to ask ourselves, what keynotes or workshops would resonate with them? How could we ensure their voices were heard?’
As they delved into the intricacies of the planning, the team made concerted efforts to ensure that each element of the conference would be relevant and accessible to all. They sought out keynotes who could speak on diverse topics and designed workshops that would appeal to the broad research interests represented at SAS.
Beyond just ensuring geographical diversity, the team also strived for a diversity of thought and research fields. This was especially evident in the conference’s theme, ‘Fragments,’ which aimed to capture the multiplicity of the SAS student community’s research niches.
‘The theme of ‘Fragments’ allowed us to include a multitude of disciplines and research areas,’ adds Natalia. ‘We hoped this approach would foster interdisciplinary dialogue and highlight the interconnectedness of our seemingly disparate research pursuits.’
In all these endeavours, the team’s focus remained clear – to craft an academic experience that was engaging, inclusive, and reflective of the varied perspectives that enrich the SAS postgraduate community.
A Division of Duties: The Organising Process
Organising a conference of Fragments’ scale required a multifaceted approach, with each team member taking on specific responsibilities. With Monja and Natalia steering the organisational helm and Elena handling content creation and publicity, the division of duties enabled the team to manage the complexities of the process more effectively.
Monja, candidly reflecting on the sheer workload, remarks, ‘You wouldn’t believe how much time and effort organising a conference actually is – especially if you’re also a full-time PhD student!’ She points to the multifarious tasks that they had to juggle. This included managing speaker communications, securing event logistics, creating engaging event pages, and strategising the promotion of the conference.
In addition to these operational challenges, the team also had to grapple with finding a balance between their academic commitments and their organisational roles. ‘We had to navigate our PhD research, other work commitments, and personal lives alongside organising the conference. It was like spinning plates,’ adds Elena, highlighting the dynamic and demanding nature of the process.
Natalia emphasises the power of teamwork, noting, ‘Monja, Elena and I have worked together on many a SASiety project, and so once the ball got rolling, and the conference theme as well as basic structure was decided, it was relatively easy to slide into our various roles. By now we know what each other’s strengths are and so we could divide up tasks without issue.’
Not only did this experience enhance their organisational and leadership skills, but it also allowed them to gain insights into the nuances of event planning and management. It taught them the importance of communication, resilience, and adaptability.
As they navigated the different stages of the process, they found that their individual strengths and areas of expertise complemented each other, fostering a synergistic work dynamic that played a crucial role in the conference’s successful organisation. This served as a testament to the power of collaboration and the importance of shared vision in driving such a large-scale project to fruition.
From Abstracts to Panels: Shaping the Conference
A significant factor contributing to the success of Fragments was the quality and diversity of the abstract submissions. This selection not only formed the backbone of the conference’s content but also reflected the vibrancy of the postgraduate community at SAS. Natalia, who was particularly involved in this phase, shares her experience.
‘I really enjoyed reading the abstract submissions as they came in,’ Natalia recalls, her enthusiasm evident. ‘It was a privilege to get a glimpse into the cutting-edge research that our peers were engaged in. Everything, from historical narratives to philosophical debates, cultural studies, political movements, art history to law, was represented. The variety was incredible.’
It wasn’t just the process of reading the abstracts that Natalia found rewarding but also the subsequent task of piecing together the panels. Natalia was deeply invested in curating the presentations, seeking to foster engaging discussions and interdisciplinary connections. She notes, ‘It was great to see where the potential connections could be between the papers, and the fact that SAS is home to many different institutes meant that we had a real opportunity to do some interdisciplinary work.’
Natalia’s meticulous approach towards curating the panels aimed to facilitate constructive conversations that could inspire and motivate the conference attendees. ‘The goal was to make each session a melting pot of ideas where diverse research interests and approaches intersected,’ she explains. ‘I think, and I hope that the attendees will agree, that in putting together these panels we have managed to showcase how there are things to be learnt from sharing different disciplinary perspectives.’
Adding Color and Shape: Publicising the Conference
Crafting a unique visual identity for Fragments was the mission of Elena, the team’s content creator and publicity officer. She aimed to ‘materialise abstract ideas,’ embodying the conference’s multifaceted essence and creating a synergy between past and present revolutionary movements.
The team developed a distinctive design—akin to a shattered mirror—reflecting diverse movements such as Pussy Riot, the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lives Matter, climate protests, and the Mahsa Amini protests. This dynamic visual language mirrored the rich assortment of research topics at the conference that transcended thematic, spatial, and temporal boundaries.
However, Elena’s role extended beyond aesthetics to striking a balance between visual appeal and relevance. ‘Creating engaging content is more than just aesthetics. It’s about resonance,’ she explains. Elena sought to ensure each piece of content, whether banners, logos, or social media posts, resonated with the diverse international postgraduate community attending the conference.
However, as a primary communication channel with attendees, the website posed a unique challenge that demanded both aesthetic and navigational efficiency. ‘The website needed to reflect our visual identity while being efficient and accessible,’ Elena notes. The team aspired for it to be an inviting gateway into the vibrant world of ‘Fragments’.
Interestingly, the team’s promotional strategies varied across social media platforms to diversify and represent different embodiments of fragments. For instance, on Instagram, they created a triptych (pictured above) featuring modified western works of art, subtly undermining the assumed stability of western identity.
Overall, the vision behind the imagery underpinning ‘Fragments’ was akin to the art of mosaic-making – repurposing shattered pieces to form a new, albeit disjointed, picture. The process itself is symbolic of fragmentation, indicative of disruption and the continuous, transformative power of ideas. It was not about creating a harmonious aesthetic, but rather, capturing the disruptive spirit of the conference.
An Anticipated Event: The Journey Ahead
As the conference draws near, anticipation fills the air. Monja, Natalia, and Elena eagerly await the 15th and 16th June when different postgraduate students will come together to present their work and exchange valuable knowledge. A sense of excitement and nervous energy permeates the team as they finalise the preparations for the conference.
Monja, with a sense of accomplishment, looks forward to the opening keynote, delivered by Professor Clare Lees (IES) on the subject of ‘Piecework: What Does Research Tell Us about the Arts and Humanities’. ‘I think it will really highlight what we wanted to achieve with this conference,’ Monja remarks. ‘Ultimately, it is incredibly satisfying seeing it all come together. I think we really managed to showcase the many different niches at SAS and have speakers representing the various institutes.’
Natalia shares this anticipation, focusing on the evening keynote, which will be given by Professor Anna Snaith (King’s College London) on ‘Noisescapes: Interwar Writing and the Sonic Legacy of the First World War’. ‘As a medieval-modernist, of course I am really excited about the evening keynote. But it is also like the finishing touch on a work of art. It promises to bring together the fragments of our conference in a thought-provoking finale,’ Natalia says. ‘I am also really looking forward to seeing what kinds of discussion will be generated from the papers given at the conference.
Elena is enthusiastic about the potential growth opportunities the conference offers to attendees. ‘In our academic setting, the objective is not only about conveying complex ideas in an understandable way. It is about creating an environment that promotes learning and collaboration,’ she asserts. ‘We hope this conference is a space where everyone, regardless of their academic stage, can present their ideas openly and confidently.’