Behind the scenes at CA Live! 2018: how a conference came together

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I’ve attended Current Archaeology’s conference every year since joining the magazine as editorial assistant in 2011, and have helped plan and chair sessions for most of these – but 2018 was my first time fronting the event as editor. Now the dust has settled, and with my inbox nearly tamed, I’ve grabbed a moment to reflect on the experience and look ahead to 2019.

It has been a whirlwind, wonderful couple of days – I’m thrilled that the lecture hall was filled to maximum capacity, and there was a really buzzy atmosphere in the room, with lots of interesting, thoughtful questions from the audience after each talk. That kind of involvement is really encouraging, and while we’re still going through delegate feedback forms, the ones we have seen so far also speak of people very much enjoying themselves.

But it’s also been a pretty big learning curve, which is why I’m blogging today. CA Live! is a fairly huge thing to put together – we generally work 6 months on, 6 months off, on the conference – and I wanted to give you an idea of what goes on behind the scenes in the run-up to the event, and to open the floor to other people’s experiences of planning similar gatherings.

The whole shebang normally kicks off in the autumn, with meetings pinning down logistics, the venue, and catering (the date is fixed a year in advance). We are lucky to have a good relationship with the Institute of Classical Studies and the University of London, who have hosted us for the past few years – this kind of continuity make so many things much easier.

For the editorial team, the other main task to tackle early is planning the timetable. CA Live! has eight sessions, some of which are fixed topics – we always have a prehistory session, a Roman one, an international one, and one focusing on the work of commercial units and rescue archaeology. Others are more of a movable feast – we usually have a medieval session, but this year we used that slot to try a new idea, ‘island archaeology’ (which featured three prehistoric projects), and compensated for that by aiming for a more medieval flavour in the rescue archaeology talks.

Of the eight, three sessions are organised independently, two by the editors of our sister magazines – Current World Archaeology and Military History Monthly arranged the international and conflict archaeology speakers respectively – while Julian Richards always does a fantastic job of finding interesting speakers for ‘In search of the prehistoric’. The remaining sessions (this year, the Keynote lecture, the units session, Roman Britain, Island archaeology, and the final talk on the London Mithraeum) are fixed by the CA editorial team.

As for how we choose the speakers – I can only speak for CA here, but I assume Matt Symonds, Neil Faulkner, and Julian do similar for their sessions – it’s a mix of approaching individuals directly if we already know them (i.e. if they have previously written a feature for us), or otherwise contacting the head of the relevant unit or heritage body to invite a particular project, and they then let us know who will be coming to represent the research.

This year we had a lot of helpful feedback about the balance of men and women on the 2018 timetable, which I’m keen to acknowledge here. Representation was a subject of much discussion – and some frustration – during the planning process, but this year we still fell well short of a 50:50 split. I’m anxious not to diminish the contribution of those who spoke last weekend – everyone there was present because they are respected figures in archaeology who are engaged in interesting research, and they were very well received by our delegates. Equally, in raising this topic I would hate for any woman that we approach in the future to think that she is only being invited to speak to help tick boxes or make up numbers. But clearly there is work to do.

This is a subject that we’re acutely aware of at CA – the entire editorial team is female, and anyone at the conference would have noticed that most of the people running the conference on the day were women (between us, CA deputy editor Kathryn, MHM assistant editor Seema, and I chaired six of the eight sessions). We are also keen to share that the two most prestigious slots on the day, the Keynote speaker (Carenza Lewis of the University of Lincoln, delivering an inspiring talk on the power of archaeology to offer opportunities to marginalised groups) and the final speech closing the whole event (MOLA’s Louise Fowler, giving fascinating insights into the excavation and reconstruction of the Temple of Mithras in London) were filled by women. But in terms of overall balance of numbers, female voices were in the minority.

We did approach more women than ended up in the final timetable, though I don’t want to go into too many specifics as I would not want any of our speakers to feel like they were not our first choice. In most cases those who declined did not do so for obviously gender-specific reasons but due to prior work commitments on the day in question.  In another talk it was originally planned that two project co-directors, one male, one female, would share a slot, but ultimately the latter was unable to come; elsewhere we had invited a female archaeologist and a male colleague was volunteered in her place. Perhaps some of these issues are a consequence of mainly approaching projects rather than specific people – have other conference organisers experienced similar?

Here I would like to reach out to others who have been involved in academic conferences – what measures have you taken to improve balance, or to even up opportunities for speakers? We do pay reasonable travel and accommodation expenses, and if childcare is an issue it would be great to know how other conferences tackle this.

On a similar note, you might have noticed from the above that at the moment the timetable is largely down to us inviting people or projects – it’s actually pretty rare that people put themselves forward to speak, perhaps because we don’t issue a formal call for papers, but people are very welcome to contact us. At other academic conferences people seem happy to submit abstracts/titles for consideration, it’s the expected norm, and I would love it if more aspiring speakers got in touch – please know that you’re welcome and that I’ll always be happy to hear from you! Pitch us an article, offer us a talk – this is not to shift the impetus onto others, I acknowledge that we are responsible for improving the balance of representation at CA Live, but if we could make people feel empowered to put themselves forward that would be wonderful. Consider this our call for papers!

The other aspect of the timetable that keeps us on our toes is if there is a last-minute change to manage. This year we were told at 4pm on Conference Eve that one of our speakers was no longer going to be able to attend, but fortunately we knew that Prof David Breeze – a friend to the magazine and a very seasoned lecturer on the very subject in which we now had a vacancy – was planning to be in the audience of CA Live. At such short notice, having a known quantity who could speak on the very topic that we needed to fill and whose availability we already knew was a godsend. So, keeping everything crossed, I phoned him to see if there was any chance he might be able to save the day. With less than 24 hours’ notice he put together a lecture that slotted seamlessly into the timetable. Heroic stuff.

Another key task in the run-up to the conference is organising the CA Awards. This encompasses a range of jobs from the everyday to the more unusual – ordering plinths, commissioning four flint arrowheads to be individually knapped, and choosing the nominees. The selection process begins in the autumn, with a ‘long list’ of all the books and features that have appeared in the magazine over the past 12 months. The latter are divided into research and rescue projects, and then each category is whittled down into a shortlist of six (eight, in the case of books) to be submitted for a public vote. It’s always fascinating to see which people, projects, and publications have inspired the wider archaeological community.

Once the votes are in and carefully counted, we send the winners’ names to be engraved on their awards. Checking the resulting text is perhaps one of the most painstaking tasks of the whole process – due to an engraving error, we once came perilously close to presenting an award inscribed with the word ‘archaeololgy’ – no laughing matter!

Above all, the conference is a huge group effort. While all of the above is going on, other colleagues are organising the Archaeology Fair (a wide variety of vendors for delegates to browse during breaks), securing sponsors for the awards, speaking to caterers for our awards reception, and liaising with student volunteers who will help on the day. There are always a lot of plates spinning at any one time, and the importance of teamwork really can’t be exaggerated, but so far (touch wood!) it has always paid off.

Looking ahead to 2019, I’d love to hear the thoughts of other people who have been involved in organising similar conferences – what have been the most challenging aspects for you, and how have you dealt with them? I’d also like to reiterate what I said earlier: while we’ll certainly be factoring a lot of this year’s feedback into planning for the next conference, we’ll always be glad to hear from people who want to share their research with our readers and our delegates. Whether you’ve got an idea for a feature or a talk, we’re listening: come and say hello!

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