For me, the most exciting aspect of academia is conferences: I love travelling to new places and meeting new people who are also, incidentally, excited by the same esoteric topic as I am. I study medieval philosophy, and while I love the research, it is not often that I get to share it with new people. We have a small but lovely group of scholars working on medieval philosophy at Cambridge. We meet regularly during term time to read medieval texts together, and during the pandemic, we were joined on Zoom by past students and scholars, and by interested people from all over the world.
And so when the CFA for a CRASSH conference funding circulated, I knew I wanted to bring together everyone I can, not only to share our research but also for a celebration. It has been too long since many of us could meet in person. I asked my supervisors to join me in the application, and they were happy to. We were very excited when we were told our application was successful.
Attending a conference is often straightforward: you write a talk, travel, and then present the talk. Organising a conference is anything but straightforward. Did I imagine I would have to get a certificate to serve alcohol for the conference when I applied to host it? Certainly not. There are so many different things to think of: the invited speakers, accommodation, facilities, meals and above all, the budget. In the months before the conference you learn to navigate the intricate system of colleges, faculties and offices which compose this university. I was lucky to have all the help I needed: my supervisors are experienced with hosting conferences and understand the system (and wines) much better than I do. With every administrative problem, I turned to Nicki, our contact person in CRASSH.
We took special care to make the conference as inclusive as possible, both in terms of speakers and content. The speakers were at all stages of their careers: from some of the most prominent names in medieval philosophy to MA students. The conference talks span a wide range of philosophical and historical topics, from 6th-century Christians in Alexandria to 18th-century Turkish philosophers influenced by medieval Muslim texts. The talks touched on medieval Muslim, Christian and Jewish thinkers. For each meal, we provided Kosher and Halal options, as well as any other dietary requirements. We also made an effort mostly to have vegetarian food.
If I were to advise anyone now starting to organise a conference, these are the things that worked well for us: we gave each speaker 30 minutes for their talk, and then 20 minutes for discussion. This meant that even if we started a couple of minutes late, we could stop on time and there was always ample time for discussion. We made sure to take coffee breaks and have meals together, but also took some time off in the afternoon. There was a good balance of academic interests and social interactions. We also used some of our budget to invite postgraduate students from around the UK to join us, which enriched the discussions and the social gatherings.
Although the preparations for the conference were at times stressful, the conference itself was splendid. It was a pleasure to meet old friends and to make new connections. We heartily thank CRASSH for the sponsorship and support, as well as the Spalding and the Hartwell foundations for their sponsorship. We very much hope to do this again soon.
- Suf Amichay is a PhD student at Trinity College, Cambridge.