Adriana Alcaraz explains the process of organising an interdisciplinary conference by sharing her own experience. Adriana is a graduate student at the Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience at the University of Glasgow.
Organising our first academic conference
On the 23rd and 24th of February 2019, thanks to the Collaborative Research Awards (CRA) by the College of Arts, and conference funding from the Mind Association, the Scots Philosophical Association and the Analysis Trust, Raul Ros Morales and I, two graduate students at the Centre of the Perceptual Experience (Department of Philosophy, University of Glasgow) organised our first academic conference: the Dreams, Hallucinations and Imagination workshop.
The event consisted of a series of talks by different postgraduate and early career researchers working on questions related to the nature of dream experiences. With contributions from psychology, philosophy and neuroscience, the workshop resulted in a perfect interdisciplinary mix where the different strands of research blend altogether to give answer to similar research questions.
The aim: interdisciplinary practice
As a clear advocate of interdisciplinarity myself, I wanted to create a space for collaborative research where the different key players focused on a central question. The aim was to provide a platform for different postgraduate and early careers researchers to meet other people working on similar questions, discuss, and present their work to others.
Currently, in the UK, many universities organise postgraduate workshops aimed at students to present their work in progress or their research papers. However, it’s more difficult to find specialised workshops that are also targeted at early career researchers. Even more difficult is to find interdisciplinary conferences that bring together researchers from different disciplines.
Thus, I wanted to organise an event that had these two objectives:
(1) that was postgraduate friendly;
(2) that encouraged interdisciplinarity.
With these two objectives in mind, the theme of the conference, was set for giving answer, from a philosophical perspective, to the following questions: what kind of mental state best describes the nature of dreams? Are they hallucinatory-like or imaginative-like? Or are they something totally different?
Calling for abstracts
By drawing from philosophical and psychological research, we prepared a call for abstracts that considered the different literature and research addressing those questions.
On one side, some philosophers have proposed an Imagination Model of Dreams which argues that dreams are experiences that resemble imaginative acts. On the other side, psychologists have carried out experimental studies to find out what makes dreams different from hallucinatory experiences, like those that can be had by schizophrenic patients. Could dreams tell us more about the experience of psychosis?
After publishing the call, we received several applications from around the world, from individuals working on a more theoretical approach to others doing empirical research on the topic. The result was a selection of eight candidates whose research fitted nicely with each other.
The first day
On the first day, we had a series of presentations by graduates working on the philosophy of mind who presented different accounts on the Imagination Model of Dreams. Although not all of them agreed that dreams can be imaginative experiences, their arguments contributed to the research of others, ending on a productive discussion session where we considered why dreams are and are not imaginative experiences.
After the talks, we concluded the day with a visit to the Extremes of Imagination Exhibition, an art exhibition organised by the Exeter Eye’s Mind Project that displays works done by artists with Aphantasia and Hyperphantasia – individuals that lack the capacity to create mental images and those who show an incredible capacity for imagination.
The second day
On the second day, we complemented the philosophical discussions of the first sessions with presentations by researchers working on empirical research.
From psychotherapy to neuroscientific approaches, we had a wide range of talks that either presented different empirical dream research or questioned the possibility to create methodological tools to access dream experiences. Again, we had a fruitful discussion session which contrasted the more theoretical questions of the previous day with the available neuro-psychological research.
Meeting our goals
The availability of sessions from different research disciplines fully met with the interdisciplinary goal of the conference. What about the goal of targeting this to postgraduate students? We put in place the following actions to meet that aim.
Firstly, we only accepted submissions from Postgraduate students and Early Career Researchers.
Secondly, the call was for 500-words abstracts, thus facilitating submissions from students that haven’t completed all their research yet.
The conference was totally free, and, thanks to our sponsors, we covered accommodation for the stay during the workshop to all our speakers, including meals and subsistence.
Also, the presentations slots were 1 hour long with pauses between talks and Q&A, giving our speakers and attendees enough time to rest and to prepare their questions.
Fifthly, the call highly encouraged submissions from minorities in academia and resulted in a perfect 50% mix of female and male presenters.
In addition, we had presenters from different nationalities and studying at universities from around the world (some presenters even came from China and Australia to attend the conference).
Finally, I feel that I fully met my two initial goals for this conference. With the collaboration of Raul, we created an initial platform for researchers working on dream experiences to discuss their project with others. We provided them with a safe space where they could show their potential and gain useful feedback on their work. All speakers and attendees really enjoyed their time at the conference and left on the last day with a sense of having stretched their collaborative network.
Overall, this experience was very rewarding and undoubtedly, I would love to do it again. With the availability of funding such as the CRA, it’s easier to bring to term collaborative initiatives aiming at narrowing the bridges between research projects.
I also published a post on the PGR blog, offering some advice on how to organise a conference.