The Science for Humanitarian Emergencies and Resilience Student Cohort is split across five universities, and covers a wide range of research topics related to natural hazards, risk, and vulnerability. Here a trio of PhD students from the cohort with particular interests in aspects of research communication reflect on how they digitally collaborated to propose and convene a conference session.
As PhD students, we are encouraged to take as many opportunities as possible to share our research. Since we work in academia, this is often through presentations at conferences. So when we heard about the opportunity to propose and convene a session for the Postgraduate Forum (PGF) of the 2019 Royal Geographical Conference, we jumped at the chance. The PGF aims to both provide opportunities for postgraduates and promote postgraduate content across the UK. We thought this would be a great platform to combine our individual projects and perspectives around disaster risk reduction (DRR) into a themed session that we could chair together, while inviting other postgraduates to contribute and present their research as part of the session too.
Even though we are all part of the same PhD programme (the SHEAR SSC), we are all based at different universities and have a wide range of research interests. Furthermore, Caroline was in Nepal conducting her fieldwork whilst we were developing the session. So we had both physical and time differences to contend with.
Luckily, it’s 2019, and we had a plethora of digital tools to help us overcome this space.
Brainstorming the proposal
We used Slack, an online collaborative channel with chat rooms (channels) that can be organised by topic or private groups, and which allows direct messaging. It has a free plan that allows you to search and view your 10,000 most recent messages, and this works well. We created a specific channel for the proposal, then chatted online over the course of a few days, sharing ideas and brainstorming different potential topics. We discussed our research interests and shared relevant articles. By doing this in a very casual way, and taking our time, the links between our related areas of research emerged naturally. We didn’t feel pressured to find the links and immediately develop a topic and theme, thus it was a very organic process which lead to a unique theme.
Refining the proposal
Once we had decided on a general topic, we wrote the session proposal together. We scheduled a two-hour planning session when we would all be able to be online at the same time, and used Google Docs to work on the document at the same time. This worked really well. We could see what each person was writing in real-time, suggest changes and edits, and chat within the document window to brainstorm and develop ideas. We were all very careful to explain our edits, for example why we preferred certain phrasing, or why we thought it was really important to include certain case studies, and we were all also open to compromise. This worked well, and we were able to quickly and effectively develop our session proposal.
Success! Our session proposal “Reasons to be Cheerful? Interdisciplinarity and innovation in Disaster Risk Reduction” was accepted! It was then up to us to promote the session and encourage other postgraduates to apply to present during the session. We advertised via email, across different social media channels, and using Whatsapp groups of colleagues we had met at other conferences and meetings. We received session applications via email, and saved them to our private Slack channel so that we could read them all in one place and choose the best ones together. We then added successful applicants to a new Slack channel for presenters, where we could easily contact them all at once, and they could ask us questions and share advice.
On the first day of the conference, we finally saw each other in person for the first time in over a year. We set up a WhatsApp group so that we could easily connect to each other during the conference, recommend sessions, and find each other at lunchtime. During one of these lunchtimes we discussed the logistics of our session, wrote a brief introduction, and chose who would read it to open the session. We also agreed a time when we check over our room and facilities together.
On the morning of our session, we were all quite nervous. We had all been tweeting throughout the conference, and made sure to advertise our session on our profiles. We didn’t feel as prepared as we would have liked, because we weren’t used to doing so much planning remotely and felt we hadn’t spent enough time together planning in person. Before the session started, we made sure to introduce ourselves individually to all of our guest presenters. They had all brought their presentations on USB sticks, so to avoid technical hitches during the session we saved all of the presentations into a specific folder on the laptop that the conference had provided, and checked that they worked as intended when opened. We also numbered the files in order of presentation to ensure that transitions between presenters ran as smoothly as possible.
In the end, our session was a great success! Nearly 30 people attended, which was above average for the conference. The session ran to time, with each of the PhD presenters being conscientious about not running into other people’s allocated time. There was a fruitful discussion with more experienced audience members, who were aware that this was a postgraduate session and so were particularly constructive and engaged, and we got some great feedback about our “interesting, well-convened” session.
Through this experience, we all learnt the value of digital tools when used correctly. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the number of communication channels and platforms that are now available, especially when collaborating on a project. However, by being open to compromise, and by communicating clearly, we used our chosen tools effectively and overcame the space between all of us.