There’s been loads of really informative and complimentary blogs about QED generally (there’s some links to them at the end of this post), but none so far (as of this moment!) about what it’s like to volunteer there. So, let’s put that right:
I signed up months ago, and got my orders a few weeks before the event. I’d been to QED before, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect, but I still had to attend a briefing session where they gave us the rota and our sexy uniforms (an orange T-shirt, which went with literally nothing. Hey, at least we were easy to spot). I wasn’t needed until the Saturday, but for me, the fun began on Friday at Skepticamp (clicky). I also got to stay over in the hotel on the Friday night, because Mr. Science Gentleman is one of the organisers. This was a mixed blessing – we got to be there to support each other, but I was basically ignored for most of the time as he was too busy making sure things were going smoothly, and I was running around all over the place herding, advising and being visible. But it was kind of nice not being in each other’s pockets; I’m independent anyway, and otherwise we would have driven each other insane / got nothing done.
Being a volunteer, you have three main duties:
- Get people in and out of the rooms where the talks are
- Direct people to where they need to be, and help with queries and other needs
- Look after the bookstall
As well as that, you have to be nice and approachable, but I’m sure you know what a great reputation we skeptics have so that’s definitely not a problem.
Each volunteer was given a specific set of times to be in certain places, and there seemed to be a slight surplus of people in orange shirts, so there was more than adequate cover – which was great. The bookstall got a bit crowded at times, but you can’t flog too many books, right?
One of the super-fun things about the weekend was finding and remembering all the different routes between places in the hotel. This is important because the “accessible route” took you through numerous winding corridors and ran between three floors (I’m pretty sure someone is having a laugh here). The hotel is a beautiful, old, rambling building, and as such it has more mezzanines, galleries, half-levels, secret passages, and doors to Narnia than more modern structures. I found at least seven different routes back to my room and I still can’t remember where it was. Fortunately someone put together a handy map of the hotel:
Attendees were used to seeing crew and volunteers popping in and out of the halls, so it was fairly easy to catch most of a talk and then discreetly make it to my place of duty. The only time I’d miss a whole talk is if I was assigned bookstore duty for an hour. This was great as I got to see pretty much everything I wanted to (barring clashes in the schedule – choices, choices) and still make myself useful.
Being a volunteer this time, I felt more a part of it than I did at my first QEDcon, and having to be disciplined (no oversleeping, no drinking so much that I’d get a crippling hangover), probably did me some good (yaaaaawn).
I also got to see a load of people I’d not seen in person for over a year, which was wonderful. Sure, this would have happened whether I was volunteering or not, but it’s still worth mentioning how important this event is for bringing like-minded people together and creating a sense of companionship (I’m not a fan of the word community, I feel it gets overused. Plus, I don’t need to belong to a “community” – but I acknowledge that some people do). I do speak with many of them online throughout the year, but it’s always cool to meet up with them face-to-face, and feel like we’ve only been apart for a matter of days or weeks.
I spent much of my spare time at the bar or enjoying posh dinners in Manchester’s finest establishments (nothing to do with being a volunteer; it’s just what I did), and this year I spent a lot of time conversing with the speakers. I’m going to be honest here, last year I was a bit of a shrinking violet and felt overwhelmed in the presence of greatness. Well, none of that crap this time. I was talking with anyone and everyone, and that is the coolest thing for me. Between lectures, or at the end of the day, just chatting about intellectual matters (and a ton of totally non-smart stuff, let’s not big ourselves up too much here) with similar people is so rewarding, and the reason I started going to skeptics events in the first place.
Loads of other people have written about QED, and on the talks and other activities, so I won’t add much more. But there are some really excellent accounts here, so you should check out these great blogs, and read some of their other posts too. There are people who have far more time to devote to this than I do, and as a result they write some incredibly interesting and well-constructed stuff. I recommend:
QEDcon happens next in October 2016 – if this post and the above blogs haven’t convinced you, you still have 18 months to do your homework (may I suggest some regular SitP followed by a course of Be Reasonable).