FemRhet 2019 Town Hall: Evolutions of the FemRhet Conference

The CFSHRC and FemRhet conference team are genuinely excited about welcoming you to James Madison University in November for Feminisms and Rhetorics 2019, for what promises to be an exceptional conference due in no small measure to the extraordinary efforts of this year’s conference hosts. At the same time, we are acutely aware of the real problem that conference costs pose for a growing number of us – graduate students, contingent faculty, and academic workers of all ranks and roles who have experienced recent furloughs and/or ongoing salary compression.

This year’s conference committee, together with the Coalition, plans to have this conversation as part of its 30-year retrospective. The 2019 conference – focused on grassroots, local, feminist activism – makes an ideal space for the Feminisms and Rhetorics community to consider, discuss, and address not only the history and evolution of the conference, and the ways it has attended to equity and accessibility in the past, but also more creative and concrete necessary steps that we might take as a community (and as individuals) to address problems with conference-going in the future. If you will be attending the conference – in person or online – please mark in your conference program the Town Hall, co-sponsored by the CFSHRC and FemRhet, on Friday, Nov 15 from 8:00-9:15 am EST. The Town Hall is tentatively titled “Evolutions of the FemRhet Conference.” (Follow us on Twitter at #femrhet19 and #femrhet.)

In advance of that Town Hall, the FemRhet 2019 conference planning team has given us a peek behind the curtain of this year’s conference, helping us to continue to identify salient factors in planning FemRhet:

  • Space is by far the most expensive part of hosting a conference of this size during the regular academic year. Given particular space management constraints at JMU this year, the conference team chose to centralize conference events for easier physical access in the university’s brand-new hotel and conference center, Hotel Madison, for two half days (Wednesday and Saturday) and two full days (Thursday and Friday) – at a cost of $16,000, which does not include technology support and setup. 
  • So as to better accommodate participants, the conference team also opted to pay extra for installed technologies.
  • Shared meals have been a hallmark of Feminisms and Rhetorics, providing a valuable space to fellowship and network and continue mentoring conversations. After investigating several meal plans and options (including making meals optional), and learning that the venue required a minimum number of attendees for meals to offer competitive rates, the JMU conference team opted to supply breakfast buffets for three days, lunch for one day, break stations for two days, and a wine and hors d’oeuvre reception and plated dinner for one evening at an approximate cost of $30,000.
  • Another cost frequently associated with conferences are speaker fees. The quandary is how to balance the desire to honor speakers’ time and expertise while also attempting to be good stewards of conference attendees’ resources. For this conference, the JMU conference team has secured three exceptional speakers who agreed to come at a reduced rate in support of the conference: two academics and one performer, at a cost of $7,000.
  • To improve accessibility within the conference environment, this year’s team at JMU are expecting to hire 6 to 8 ASL interpreters to work for full conference days, and the cost will likely be in the thousands of dollars for just that service.
  • In an effort to cut costs, this year’s team has foregone the printed program in favor of a PDF and online alternatives. They have also foregone attaining official conference swag in favor of a DIY Swag Swap station, where they encourage folks to share swag from their home departments and to bring old swag (bags, t-shirts, water bottles, etc.) that will be repurposed at a conference maker space.
  • Finally, this year’s conference team also made the decision to increase full-time faculty registration fees to $350, asking those faculty to absorb costs in order to drop graduate student, adjunct faculty and community member registration to $200. They have also extended early registration rates for graduate students and adjunct faculty an additional month to try to minimize the time that conference fees will sit on graduate students’ and adjunct faculty credit cards.  

Those new to the organization or to the conference might not realize that both entities have made it a hallmark – since the first FemRhet conference in 1997 – to live out an expansively growing mission, to take seriously (not only ethically, but also procedurally) the needs of an ever-changing membership, and to get ahead of institutional inequities in the places where they occur. Many years, our long-term efforts bring short-term challenges, all of which must be delicately balanced and constantly recalibrated. As we prepare to reflect together on the conference’s (and our field’s) evolution since 1997, we are reminded of the ways FemRhet is unique, and even distinctive from other conferences that share similar ethics. We absolutely celebrate this uniqueness and distinction, but each year we are reminded of how difficult it is to uphold these values:

  • The conference maintains autonomy from its mother organization so as to be conducted according to its local and institutional flavor. Rather than having the organization control and manage all aspects of the conference, the CWSHRC (now the CFSHRC) initially opted to provide specific forms of support enabling individual site hosts to maintain maximum autonomy, allowing them to set the themes of the conference in ways that were more conducive to localized decisions and activities, and with the intent of inviting conference goers to contribute intellectual activism that would best serve each institution and locale. This has been an important factor in raising the profile of smaller campuses that are not well-resourced, located in large cities, or buoyed by lines of support. To help offset conference costs, the Coalition has kept its membership rates quite low so as not to put additional undue burden on conference goers or on the hosting institution; it has also worked steadily since 1997 to create, grow, and multiply the forms of financial support it can offer conference-goers through grants and awards.
  • A commitment to fair labor practices. Both the CFSHRC and FemRhet desire to support fair labor practices and not diminish labor opportunities, dual ethics we have consistently upheld. Fortunately we have been able to do so, but unfortunately these costs are often invisibly absorbed into the registration. In reality, they are factors of space and other associated fees whose mandate will offer workers valuable protection.
  • A commitment to environmental accessibility. We have been unwilling to compromise on physical accessibility for our members, including arranging for gender-neutral restrooms, installing technology for remote participation, providing quiet/nursing spaces, and hiring or providing accessibility structures and interpretive services. Unfortunately, these services are rarely cost-effective; fortunately, we have had them available to us.
  • A commitment to site-host inclusion. Both the CFSHRC and FemRhet have shared an organizational commitment to making site-hosting opportunities equitable across all institution types, and it has historically been the case that we receive many more site-hosting proposals from medium-sized and smaller schools than from larger universities. We have opted not to disqualify conference site hosts based solely on the size of their campus or region, though there is a rigorous vetting process in place, requiring all potential site hosts to demonstrate measures of cost-effectiveness where they can. Travel has become increasingly expensive for conference-goers, leading conference planning teams to work harder to coordinate transportation services inasmuch as they are available. It may well have other effects on future site hosting proposals.

We invite you to join us at the Town Hall for what we hope will be a thoughtful and collaborative consideration (if not a challenging one) of how to continue hosting and managing FemRhet in the face of rapidly diminishing sources of funding and rapidly increasing unfunded lines across academe.