Survive & Thrive at an Academic Conference, 5: Democratising Conferences

Academic conferences do some important jobs. They allow intellectual workers from different regions to meet and talk. They provide life-support for disciplinary Associations, if we think they are still needed (as I do). They introduce young players to the world beyond their own departments. In principle they embody the public interest in freely-circulating knowledge.
In practice, it’s not so good. They are enclosed: a bunch of intellectual workers huddle inside a building, shut the world out, and talk to each other for days. I was once at an international conference – a good meeting, about an important social issue - that was held in a beautiful, empty seaside hotel with handsome grounds entirely surrounded by high mesh fences. It was like living in a billionaire’s chicken-run.
Within the huddle, toxic things can and do happen. Sexual harassment is now more recognized for what it is. It is made more likely by the inequalities of power, the out-of-town venue that becomes a state of exception, the obligatory socializing and the alcohol. I don’t have any statistics but I’ve seen it happen, and it adds to the anxiety and oppressiveness for younger women especially.
There are other problems. Cliques form, and ignore or exclude outsiders. I have mentioned alienation in earlier posts: for young people, big conferences may mean corridors without a known face and lunches eaten with the seagulls. Inside, Big Men engage in status competitions and faction fights. Even worse, Big Men fight each other by bullying each others’ students.
... there is an A-list ...
Most conference-goers suspect there is an A-list of insiders, the people in the know, whom you glimpse hurrying away to Important Meetings. The suspicion is correct. I’ve been on the A-list sometimes. Part consists of the people doing the organizing shit-work, part consists of the people with prestige. Sometimes these parts overlap.
The cost of a mainstream conference is a huge issue, especially for scholars from the global South. The air fare for an intercontinental flight, the registration fee (minimum 440 US dollars for the one I’ve been to most recently), the visas and medical insurance, not to mention the cost of accommodation and food, put it out of reach for most young academics and graduate students. If their university has any travel money, it’s likely to go to senior people, and still be too small. In a relatively well-off African university that I know, the conference grant does not even cover an economy air ticket to the global North.
‘Border protection’ by governments often excludes leftists, Muslims, and intellectuals from societies in conflict. I was at one conference in a rich white-majority country where a keynote speaker arrived, was seized by immigration police at the airport, and immediately deported - strange to tell, a woman of colour. Heroically she managed to give the keynote address by Skype.
Sadly, there is a lot of wasted effort. Most of the plenary sessions are ritual, and boring ritual at that. (We should borrow an archbishop and learn do it in style!) Many papers are given by people who don’t have much to say, but are obliged to appear on the programme for career purposes. Even with good papers, the usual format chops up time into tiny cubes, interrupts promising conversations, and keeps discussion on the surface.
So: abolish conferences? It’s worth considering. We would save time and money. The carbon costs of international air travel are troubling. It would be good to live without these human costs of stress, anxiety and exploitation. But other things in the world will have to change before the economy of knowledge can do without conferences. So: what can we do to democratise them?
With big ones, there are some obvious moves. Cut the cost; make them shorter; open them to the public; have many fewer papers; have more sustained discussions. Conferences should never be in a three-hundred-dollar-a-night hotel. Modest demeanour should be our watchword.
But bold ambition! We should replace the glum introspection of plenaries (The Crisis in Nanophysics. Herpetology at the Crossroads. Whither Sociology Today?) with events designed for a much wider public. There’s a real need to involve schools as well as colleges in these gatherings of professional researchers.
Not much will change until we disconnect the fact of participating in a conference from the obligation to give a paper. This is the link that produces crazy, crowded agendas, and chopped-up time. We need other models of active participation, and other ways to document for funding. At conferences in Latin America it is common to give everyone present a certificate of attendance to take home, and that is a start.
Let’s reconsider the need to gather thousands together in the one place, every year or every two. Could we have a World Congress of X that happens simultaneously in 20 or 40 different centres, linked electronically?  Current video-conferencing technology is not very successful, so this will not be equivalent to face-to-face discussion. But with some imagination and hard work, we could surely arrive at a format that combined some video-linking with a lot of electronic exchange of texts, and text-based discussion. That might achieve some purposes of big conferences at a fraction of the money and carbon cost, and allow wider participation. There may be other ways of unpacking the big-conference format, too.
In earlier posts I have highlighted the informal discussions that happen in conferences. Perhaps we should put much more energy into small regional events. These may have a specific intellectual or practical focus and not try to cover the waterfront. Even with a plenaries-and-papers format, they would have lower travel costs, a better chance for sustained discussions, and a scale that doesn’t require an events-management corporation to organize.
The downside: the risk of marginalization, reinforcing global hierarchy. A regional conference held in Massachusetts will currently have more cachet, and a heap more resources, than one held in Malawi. I don’t know a way around this until states and academic organizations are serious about redistributing resources globally. But I doubt the inequality would be more severe than what we experience now.
Technology of the future?
Large or small, we need practices that replace the paper-presentation format with collective discussions. This is not a new idea. I remember a sociology conference in the early 1970s where the organizers, mainly young sociologists from the University of New South Wales, tried to change the culture of conferencing.  Instead of a list of formal papers, they set up thematic workshops.  They took away the rows of chairs and brought out cushions and beanbags.  Instead of lecturers there were convenors of discussions.  The event was meant to be participatory, fluid, equal – abolishing distinctions between speaker and audience, opening the ground for more people to engage.
I have been to several like this since; I have even organized one or two. Similar formats are used by summer schools, doctoral schools, and some highly specialized research networks. The format is exhilarating, risky and demanding. To work well these events need preparation by all the participants, and effective facilitators – something academics are not always good at. I’m not sure that my back today would manage an hour sitting on a bean-bag, but perhaps I can learn.
Enough! I’m sure there are other models floating around, and I’d love to hear of people’s experiences with them. Meeting-and-talking matters for intellectual life, for all the reasons I gave at the start of this post. We do need more imaginative, inclusive and democratic ways of doing it.

Decolonising Sociology

For the text of my 2018 article "Decolonizing Sociology", in the journal Contemporary Sociology, please click here.

Survive & Thrive at an Academic Conference #4: Why Go At All?

First, consider the excellent reasons not to go to a conference. As the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said, Let me count the ways. 1. It’s too expensive. 2. It takes a sizeable chunk of your time and energy. 3. Most of the papers are not exciting, and some are downright terrible. 4. The buildings are usually ugly. 5. Wandering around for days among a mass of strangers is alienating and lonely. 6. You can have toxic experiences: harassment, bullying, or other aggression.
So why go at all? Let’s come right out and say it: conferences are labour markets. At the first one I visited in the USA, in 1970, I discovered a back room known as the Meat Market. Here, young folk desperate for jobs left their resumés in plastic folders for all to see; and older men (it was almost all men) with safe jobs at the less prestigious colleges read the resumés and held job interviews.
Years later I discovered the market behind the market, the invisible college where the more prestigious universities recruited new academic staff from each others’ graduands. Selectivity and patronage were the essence.
The party frock, and go networking...
What can a conference do for a career? You can give a paper, a small but definite step. A conference is a useful deadline on the way towards journal publication, which is a bigger step. You can join a committee and begin a life of inch-by-inch Service To The Profession. You can meet important people (important in your discipline’s little world, that is). At a big conference you can visit the book and journal display and you might meet a commissioning editor, a step towards a book contract. And you can crank up the smile, put on the party frock, and go networking around the social functions.
I am being sardonic, but this really is serious business for young people starting to work as academics.  Academic labour has got desperately precarious in recent years (while higher education has been expanding worldwide, funny about that!).
Then there are the intellectual reasons for going. Conference are supposed to be about circulating knowledge. Everyone hopes to hear recent developments in the field, interesting theories and important studies. Some of this really does happen.
It’s hard to pick the sessions where it will, even when you know the ropes. I evolved a two-paper theory of conferences: if I heard two really good papers by the time I left, it was a good conference.  A suggestion: look in the programme index for people who have written papers you admire, especially non-famous people. Probably the presentation won’t be as good as the paper you know, yet sometimes it is even better.
The plenary, from the speaker's point of view
The big plenary sessions with famous names strutting their stuff are not intellectual cutting-edge. That is not really a keynoter’s task. Her task is to zoom across the sub-fields with their different cutting edges, stir up everyone, and somehow pull the conference together. (Count the mixed metaphors in the last sentence, and see what the poor keynoter is up against!) Think of a keynote as crazed mountaineering – the Matterhorn, K2, the North Face of the Eiger. Will the heroic effort reach the summit, or plunge into the abyss? You, the democracy of conference-goers, will decide.
Conferences have a lot of organizational business, less visible to newcomers.  Many are, technically, annual meetings of a discipline association. In that case, the sub-sections will have business meetings, ceremonies for the award of gongs, and elections for committees. The editorial boards of journals often meet at conferences, because they can’t pay travel costs any other way.
In the USA particularly, university departments hold receptions for their graduates. Publishers’ receptions and book launches happen. Corporate sponsors hold events proving how honest and generous they are, offering food and drink. The food looks like crashed hummingbirds on flattened bottle-tops, and is not a reliable source of vitamins. The drink is OK.
You don’t have to go to any of this. But if you plan to work long-term in research and teaching, go to some of it, and see the machinery at work.  At your next conference, join in and lend a hand.
Finally, there is the social life, and this is important.  Have breakfast (don’t forget breakfast!) or coffee with other people in your field. These discussions can be better than the papers. Older academics spend a lot of their time at conferences meeting friends and colleagues. Your connections build up from one conference to another.
Social life at conferences: families too
There is a myth that a conference is a modern Sodom & Gomorrah.  A charming myth, but generally speaking, a conference is not a very practical place for an affair. There are other sides of social life. Gaggles of friends come, and families too.  For young parents, decent conferences provide child care. There is serious eating and drinking. Good conference convenors provide lists of restaurants nearby; word-of-mouth will tell which ones are cheap and good.
And then: the parties. There are risks here. I once gave a plenary talk at a conference famous for its last-night dance. That year, the party had a disco format. Among hundreds of younger conference-goers, I happened to dance past the DJ’s stand. He took one look at me, and put a new record on the turntable. It was ‘Love Me Do’. (War Babies and Baby Boomers will understand. At least it wasn’t ‘Hound Dog’.)
The socializing can be a great pleasure, but also a source of stress. Younger people can feel they are constantly in a market. Since the power structures don’t go away, younger women especially are exposed to sexual harassment or exploitation. There’s a need for collective responsibility to make conferences safe spaces.

Survive & thrive 3: How to give a conference paper

When I went to my first discipline-based conference, as a grad student, it was not to give a paper.  The event consisted of lectures by tenured senior academics.  Most of the crowd had come simply to listen. But that was changing, and the democratic virus has been spreading ever since.
Now it is common for graduate students, and compulsory for junior academics, to offer conference papers. It's the obvious way to learn this genre; and as those ghastly career workshops explain, it is an easy way to build your c.v.  (‘C.v.’ now means a resumé of your career. The Latin phrase curriculum vitae means the course of your life. Let’s hope we can still detect the difference.)
There are traps in this business.  Here are three bad ways to give a paper: 1. Writing a journal article and trying to read it out in a conference. In a 10 or 15 minute slot you cannot read a journal article aloud. 2. Trying to show off. Often signalled by an over-clever title: ‘Queer(y)ing Hamlet: The Anti-Hero in/beyond the Anthropocene’. (I blush to admit that I called one of my early papers ‘Symbolic logic as an axiomatic-analogue model in the analysis of children's thinking about politics and large-scale social organization’. In six words: ‘Formal models for children’s social thought’.). 3. Speaking to a clique. Some papers are little more than academic faction-fighting in camouflage. You can detect them by the in-house jargon, snide put-downs, and good-guys-vs-bad-guys melodrama.
The well prepared speaker arrives at the session
Avoiding these traps, how can we do the job well? Here is my never-fail recipe, distilled from a thousand cups of evil conference coffee with a few toads and bats stirred in:
            1. Be Well Prepared. This is about 80% of the task. It doesn’t mean you have to agonize over every word, or solve the Problem of the Universe. It does mean you should think, not only about the content of your report, but also about the way you will report.
The key issue is to think about your audience. You are trying to get in direct touch with them, and the formality of the conference format creates distance (see picture below). Remember that the session is actually more about the audience than about you. The size of the crowd doesn’t matter. I have given a paper to an audience totalling seven, including the three other presenters and the chairperson, and we had a good discussion. Respect what the audience know already. (In Sociology conferences, please don’t recite that sentence from The 18th Brumaire, everyone has read it long ago!) Consider what will be new and relevant to them, and focus on that.

2. Think about the genre. This is oral communication. When I am giving a conference paper I speak from a maximum of one page of brief bold notes. They are essentially the headlines. By having no more than this, I can talk with the people in the room and not past them.
If you need to write out a full text, that’s OK: but write it as speech. If you don’t know how to do that, look at a play by Bernard Shaw or Bertolt Brecht, who wrote about ideas as drama.
It’s fine to spice your talk with a few images and a bit of text – once I used overhead projector slides, now I use PowerPoint. But do this very simply, very briefly, so the technology doesn’t mask your message. For Heaven’s sake, don’t turn around and read lumps of text off a PowerPoint slide on the big screen. Apart from the alarming crick in your neck, this completely breaks your connection with the people in the room.
The formality of the format creates distance
            3. Plan sequence & time. You are likely to have 10 minutes in an ordinary conference session. Don’t run over the allocated time: that is unfair to other participants, and people will not respect you for it.
So use your golden minutes well! Cast your survey-of-the-literature into the Everlasting Bonfire, there is no time for that. Go straight to the nub of the problem. A good rule is to state your most important idea within the first four minutes. Don’t leave this to the end, because it is easy to mis-judge the time while speaking, and you may not reach it. Which would be a pity, after coming all this way...
The order of material in a conference paper is different from a journal article or a dissertation – it’s a different situation. Here is a template that will often work (you can check the timing by rehearsing with a friend):
(a) Problem, 2 minutes: Explain very crisply the question you are wrestling with.
(b) Main finding, 1 minute 30 seconds. In a conference presentation, this can legitimately come before method and data.
(c) Reasoning, 30 seconds + 4 minutes 30 seconds. Say ‘How did I come to this conclusion?’ By doing such-and-such (Method, very very very short); and here is what I found (Materials, in a bit more detail).  Give a slice of your raw material, which really helps the audience to understand. It will be a thin slice, but that’s OK, in a conference you are really offering a sample of your work.
(d) Relevance, 2 minutes. Tell the significance of what you have done. If it does suggest something about the literature, say so here at the end: ‘Finally, as you will realize, this finding overthrows both Keynes’ model of effective demand and Einstein’s general theory of relativity’. Whoops, we are 30 seconds over the time limit, will have to trim something.

            4. When you have the floor, use it with confidence. You are, after all, the person in the room (perhaps in the world!) who knows most about this problem. You have some news worth telling. And you have an intelligent audience, proved by the fact that they have shown up at your session. Invite them into the discussion, and you will have done well.
The story goes that an Anglican bishop was asked by a young minister ‘How should I preach?’, to which the bishop replied: ‘Preach about God and preach about 20 minutes.’ In the conference you have just 10 minutes to preach, so belt it out!
In doing that, be of good heart, and show your feelings. This is a communication between people, not between robots. Tears and laughs are allowed in academic conferences. You may not be Charlie Chaplin, but every human touch will help.
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