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To pre-congress or not pre-congress?

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In August 2015, the SEGS group hosted the ‘European Society for Rural Sociology (ESRS) Congress’. We organised a number of additional special events to accompany the congress, including a pre-congress workshop on visual methods. I was the chair of the local organising committee for the congress; in this post I reflect on the pros and cons of organising this pre-congress event.

The ESRS is the academic home for social scientists studying rural and agricultural issues in Europe. Its biennial congresses regularly attract 350-450 delegates from across Europe, as well as beyond (see for details). We organised the pre-congress workshop for many of the same reasons that we hosted the overall congress -our SEGS group comprises 35 staff plus 10 PhD students and represents the largest group of social scientists focusing on rural, land-based and environmental issues in the UK. Hosting the congress was one way to communicate the identity and scale of SEGS and the James Hutton Institute, and the quality of our research.Intense discussion at the ESRS Pre-congress Workshop. Copyright: James Hutton Institute

The original idea for a pre-congress event came from a colleague who thought it would be helpful to organise an event specifically for students, in order to help them gain networking skills and meet some of the other delegates. This idea evolved into a workshop on digital technologies and visual research methods, a particular specialism of the SEGS group, which we thought would appeal to a broad range of congress delegates. The main congress is organised into working groups by topic; focusing the event on research methods created an opportunity to bring together people from a wide range of topic areas. We aimed to attract 30-50 participants to this, so that we could host it at the Aberdeen site of the James Hutton Institute itself and show off our excellent grounds and facilities (the main congress was hosted at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference centre, which could accommodate the larger group).

In order to keep costs low, the pre-congress workshop was initially planned as a fairly low-key affair, with two keynote speakers and some interactive sessions with the different technologies we already use. However, we applied to the Macaulay Development Trust for sponsorship, and discovered that the Trust were keen to make it a showcase event. As a result we were able to invite additional keynote speakers from across the UK and New Zealand, as well as our own Katrina Brown, and to offer the workshop to congress delegates for a nominal fee. It was a fascinating day and half. We combined keynote speakers with the ‘flash talks’ (similar to those that described in Kirsty’s recent ‘Shaking up academic conferences’ post) so that everyone could present their work in some form. There was also plenty of time for discussion and interactive sessions using our touch table, participatory video, head cams, drones, 3D modelling and virtual reality headsets. In addition to Institute staff, the workshop attracted 40 congress delegates, including the editors of two major academic journals.

So it all sounds great, right? The pre-congress workshop definitely met its objectives. The feedback on it was extremely positive, and personally it’s the type of event I would be keen to attend again. It was a terrific opportunity to learn from the experts about the theoretical, practical and ethical underpinnings of visual research methods, and gain ‘hands-on’ experience with the new technologies available. The programme flowed well, despite a few technical hitches, which I suspect is common when dealing with the technical requirements of visual research and digital technologies (Tip: do check to confirm that software programs still run on your seminar room’s computer, even if they have done so before!).

The organisation of the workshop was challenging though. Delegates could register through the regular congress registration system, but we still had to organise the programme, book travel and accommodation for the keynote speakers, sort out catering and plan transport for the delegates. Then, running a pre-congress event on the days before the main congress is challenging because there are inevitably many details of venue set-up that need attention to ensure the main congress will run smoothly. Because of the size – and general willingness to pitch in – of the SEGS group, we got it all done, but it was exhausting for me personally.

Would I organise another pre-congress workshop? Under these circumstances, yes – it did achieve our objectives, and it provided a great opportunity to share ideas and establish new relationships. I think for our congress participants as a whole, it was worthwhile to have the opportunity to attend the pre-congress meeting as well as the main conference, although I know other congress delegates who were interested but couldn’t attend because of the additional time commitment and accommodation costs. I learned a lot, both about conference organisation, and the subject area, and I got to know delegates and keynote speakers well ahead of the main event – organising events is terrific for building networks. But I completely missed the setup of the main congress in order to participate in the workshop, and as a result there was a bit of running around on the first day of the main congress to correct things that I hadn’t had the chance to spot the day before. So I totally understand why other organisers don’t often organise pre-congress events. But if you’re like me, and really enjoy organising things, and have a great team behind you, then I say ‘go for it’.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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Printed from /blog/segs/ESRS-pre-congress on 28/02/24 03:17:17 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.