I did not blog at all Wednesday (my first official day at the JMM), because I was co-organizing an AMS Special Session with Lola Thompson from 8am to 6:15pm, attended the AWM reception, and then I was beat! Anyway, I thought instead of the usual rundown of the session, I would take this opportunity to give some pointers and tips on organizing an AMS Special Session! It’s never too early to start thinking about the next meeting.
The first thing you need is, as always, an idea. For Lola and myself, it was a few conversations that did it. We are both number theorists working at small Liberal Arts Colleges, and we adore teaching AND are very serious about our research. As people who have remained very active in research, we sometimes encounter people who can’t believe that one could do any serious work without other colleagues in your area within your department, a weekly disciplinary seminar, and graduate students and postdocs. But we exist, and in fact there are many of us! We focused on showcasing the work of some really fantastic people who work in our area of mathematics and in similar institutions. We had a first incarnation last year, and it went so well that we did it again!
So, you have an idea, now what? Now you write up a proposal for your session, title, and with a list of potential speakers. Last year, proposals for special sessions were due April 1. Write a compelling narrative for the session you want to propose (remember, you already have a good idea!), and think carefully about the people you are listing. I mean, do what you want, but this day and age, your list better have some women and people of color, and the AMS better reject the proposal if it doesn’t. Disclaimer: This is a personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the AMS. But yes, we can and should do better when it comes to inviting speakers. Anyway, more on that later, but you should have a list of people that would fit well into your session. Submit your proposal and voila, all you have to do now is wait.
For all these important points where we needed to make decisions, or write a proposal, or brainstorm speakers, we had a Skype meeting. It is very useful to see the person you are thinking with, and both Lola and I much preferred working like this than a long string of emails.
In early May we found out our proposal was accepted, and which dates and times were assigned to us, and then we had the green light to start inviting people. We reviewed our preliminary list and decided who to invite first, and for this we wrote a nice (but not personalized) invitation email. You want to explain what your session is about, give the time and date of your session, and you might want to add some AMS policies that they provide.
And then you split up the list, and send your invitations! If you haven’t done this before, it is useful to have some sort of shared file (in our case a Google doc) with the names, their emails, the list of backups. Then you can add information as it comes, like who sent the invite (Lola invited X, Adriana invited Y, and the dates, that way you know whether you should send an email nudge, definitely personalized this time), what their response was, whether they have restrictions in terms of scheduling, whether they submitted their abstracts, etc.
Now you wait a while. It is good to give people a deadline for responses, and it needs to be much sooner than the deadline for abstracts. We gave people about a month and a half (by the time we got together for invitations, it was late June, and we gave people a mid August deadline). Then we sent another round of invitations to a few more people.
Once you have your final list, each speaker has to submit an abstract through the JMM page. Last year, abstracts were due September 25th. As usual, some people need a little more prodding, so prod away, but be nice about it! Here is something fun, people can submit abstracts to your session even if they were not invited, and I’m so glad this is possible! Each year we had some great speakers that we just didn’t think about, and we were very happy to fit them in.
We had to also submit a schedule for the talks by October 1st, not that we had all the abstracts. Again, here is where that spreadsheet comes in handy, because you want to honor any other conflicts your speakers might have.
Then it’s pretty quiet until the JMM itself. It’s usually good to send an email telling people you are looking forward to the session (which works as a reminder). I always like to have the slides beforehand because then we can put everything in one laptop and make transitions from one talk to the next a little smoother. The night before works for me, but if you want them earlier, it’s been known to happen (your speakers will grumble a bit, but do it anyways).
NOTE: Bring a laptop, and a clicker with pointer, and a video/projection adaptor. I always forget the clicker. This time, we borrowed one that could move forwards, but not backwards! It was kind of funny. And very annoying. Make sure you bring your charger too, and that your computer doesn’t fall asleep right away (especially if it’s password protected and you have to be somewhere else — this happened last year).
During the session, share introduction duties with your co-organizer (if they are around). It’s nice to only have to do this for half the talks. I took the morning session, and Lola the afternoon.
Finally, be prepared for hiccups and unforeseen circumstances. We had a few, non-disastrous ones, most of which we could not control. For example, two of our speakers had to pull out, but these were completely understandable: one speaker was recovering from an earlier bike injury, the other was stuck outside the country because he couldn’t get his passport stamped with his new Visa because the government shutdown actually shut down his local US Embassy. So next time you say politics and math have nothing to do with each other… We had some technical hiccups, like the projector not working for our first speaker, or the clicker not going backwards, or power points not showing up correctly on a different computer. And even though we invited about 50% women speakers, we ended with more like 30% in the end. This taught me that if I want a 50% non-men representation, I should probably have a backup list that is not just men — let this be a lesson for you as well.
Overall, though, I think the MOST IMPORTANT thing is to co-organize with someone you really like to work with. And for me, that was Lola.
Now, best of luck submitting your session to the JMM in Denver! And if you experienced organizers have any other thoughts to share, please do so in the comments below.