Conference chronicles #1 of 3

In the wake of the pandemic, academics are on the move again, including me. I feel conflicted about being on the conference circuit again.

(Un)comfortable reflections

In the wake of the pandemic, academics are on the move again, including me. Norway seems to be a theme, as the 2 (of 2) in-person conferences I have been to since it has become possible (although not necessarily acceptable or safe) to travel have been NFEAP2022 in Oslo and now WRAB2023 in Trondheim. Both are on academic communication, especially writing.

I’m sharing my reflexions over 3 posts to help me understand what bothers me about academic conferences (despite the fact I learn and benefit from them, and always make one or two very meaningful and enduring connections) but also to signal that conferences are tricky sites of personal, interpersonal and professional socialisation and identity negotiation. This post is about conference formats.

Discomfort: my disclaimer

Julia Molinari looking bemused into the camera sitting at her office desk with a window and computer screen behind her.
Julia Molinari

I admit to feeling conflicted about being on the conference circuit again. After having been elated by it during 6 years of PhD, excluded from it during 2 years of covid lockdowns and now back on it again – postPhD, postLockdown and in a new professional role – I am wondering why I conference: what do I get from conferences? What does my institution get? What do I offer the research communities I conference with? Do I belong? Should I be conferencing at all and if so, why, how, where?

There are several affective and professional entanglements that are prompting these questions. Conferences can be really fraught spaces to navigate depending on perceived status, who you know and who knows you, who can go and who can’t (because of physical, financial, caring, immigration status and other constraints), personal and institutional expectations, personality types (socially anxious, extrovert, shy), disrupted and interrupted routines (food, sleep, headspace, medications), egos vying for attention, getting bruised or crushed or inflated. But they can also sit uncomfortably with personal values, eg their costs, something I will articulate in another post.

To note: these are entirely subjective responses linked to my experiences, expectations, personality, the research that interests me and conversations with colleagues over the years. I am not having a dig at any particular conference – I always love them – and I am grateful for and appreciative of all the work that goes into organising them and the good intentions behind them. I thank everyone who has ever funded my attendances over the past 10 years.

Conference formats

Imposing warrior-looking statue of Leiv Eiriksson in Trondheim, Norway, an important 1000 AD symbol of ethnic pride for Americans of Nordic Heritage. The statue is standing high up on a plinth looking out towards the Trondheim fjord.
Leiv Eiriksson, Trondheim, Norway

I’m no longer sure the traditional conference format of 20-minute presentations, 10-minute Q&As, parallel sessions, posters in the lobby and pre-scripted plenaries works for me. I understand why it remains the default, but it’s a genre that can lend itself to stilted performativity (eg reading from a script), defensiveness (eg assuming what motivations underlie questions and comments) and self-promotion (eg plugging the publication and eliciting adulation at the expense of having a deeper conversation).

Rushing to cram complex research into a finite time slot doesn’t always equate with reflexivity, inquisitive discussion, serendipity and awareness of taken-for-granted paradigms or contexts because the aim is to make your pitch – dragon’s den style – withstand and weather the scrunity and then hope someone wants to work with you (or at least buy your book).

When presenters don’t know who will show up or why someone has chosen to attend their talk, they inevitably present their stuff as a kind of fait accompli -here’s what I did and how, and this is what I found. It’s a closed pitch. I’ve done it myself many times because that’s how I’ve been asked to do it. But it doesn’t feel right for me anymore. Is that because I am now looking for something else from a conference? What, exactly?

What’s the alterantive?

There are other ways of conferencing – they will have their downsides, too, but I think they are worth considering, at least. Conferences with alternative formats that I have been to so far, with one coming up, include:

  • The in-person Undisciplining sociological Conference in Gateshead a few years ago invited live bloggers (of which I was one) to ‘blog on the go’, capturing and summarising talks and gatherings in a way that made me notice and think about things I wouldn’t have otherwise, such as the anxiety of asking a question, deciding where to sit at lunch or what ideas were inspiring me. Live blogging (as a kind of public note-taking) made me become more aware of how others might also have been feeling in this complex social gathering and I think it has made me more sensitive and less judgemental about how I perceive other attendees’ behaviour. The collective endeavour of a team of live bloggers also meant that those following the conference remotely were at once being included and offered differing perspectives of the event. It was a tiring experience and one fraught with other considerations (such as ethical ones) but one that assuaged my privilege of being able to be there because at least I was sharing and disseminating knowledge for others;
  • my joint online talk at Fadia Dakka’s Hopeful Matters: a 1000 Little Fires last July involved a pre-presentation blog that participants could read before attending so the talk made sense in context and those attending had time to think about the contribution they might also want to make. This made the session feel more like a seminar everyone took some responsibility for, with the 2 speakers acting as initiators of a conversation about their books, rather than simply pitching their stall;
  • and in April of this year, I will again be in a 1-hour in-person conversation at BALEAP with Amanda French to discuss what motivated us to write and to what extent our books speak to each other. Again, this feels like a more open format that leaves room for some serendipity, less scripted presentations and possibly a more collaborative speaker-audience relationship. This conversational format also feels more conducive to critical engagement with books and ideas and much less like a promotional plug.

Upcoming reflections

There are 2 other broad discomforts I feel a need to articulate but not sure what to call them, yet. One is about the cost of conferencing and how wasteful universities are, generally. The other one is about the affective dimension, how our sense of self might be challenged or exhalted by being at conferences.

I would love to know what others think about all this. I know there is a book on Making sense of academic conferences by James Burford and Emily Henderson, which I haven’t read, yet, but will and also order for my university library (if it’s not there already).

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