Conferences and Caring Responsibilities – Individual Delegates, Multiple Lives

Emily Henderson introduces her new funded research project, ‘In Two Places at Once: The Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation’


EH care name tags

In many representations of conferences, delegates are depicted as unfettered individuals, travelling freely from place to place in the pursuit of knowledge, networks, or expenses-paid hedonism. Indeed, in most of the relatively scant literature on academic conferences, delegates are not portrayed as having identities or lives outside of the conference. They are learners, attendees, recipients of an experience. They are numbers, badges, bums on seats.

Where delegates are constructed as people with identities, preferences, desires, they are often represented as single – or at least travelling alone, as in Parker and Weik’s account of the ‘academic in the aeroplane‘, who passes seamlessly through indistinguishable airport lounges and international hotel chains. These academic conference delegates are opportunists and chancers, who hook up for one-night stands (as discussed in James’ post on conferences and sex), and all-night conversations. In Bolaño’s novel 2666, the storyline can only unfold because the three academics at a sequence of German literature conferences are able to dedicate hours to getting to know each other, their time unbroken by phone calls or text messages. Similarly, the encounters that punctuate David Lodge’s conference novel Small Worlds always unfold against a backdrop of absent spouses and partners.

On the other side of this portrayal is the delegate who experiences a conference as a welcome break from caring responsibilities and the mundanities of the day-to-day routine. At the 2014 SRHE conference, I presented a paper entitled ‘Queering the conference delegate: Disrupting the proper subject of academic mobility’, which was about performing or disrupting the role of the ‘proper’ conference delegate. I set out the role of ‘proper delegate’ as one of docility, passivity, of institutionalisation and foreclosed disruption. During the discussion that followed my paper, an audience member pointed out that, for her, performing the role of ‘proper delegate’ was a relief, a break from having to constantly take responsibility for a number of competing roles. At the conference, she could relax, knowing that her caring responsibilities were taken care of by her pre-planned arrangements, and eat food prepared for her and get into a ready-made bed. This struck me as an important counter-narrative to the argument I had set out, and moreover to the care-free portrayals of conference delegates.

So far in this post, I have focused on a delegate who is first and foremost an individual at the conference – and who can easily take up the delegate badge. However there are, as I wrote about in more detail in my earlier post about conferences and tables, ways in which conference delegates do not slip so easily into their delegate role. Some of these ways involve individual delegates whose identities or embodiments do not allow them to seamlessly arrive and transition into a conference delegate. This includes classed feelings of not belonging and exclusion, which are endemic to the academy as a whole but which, as recounted in Jo Stanley’s piece ‘Pain(t) for healing‘, may be accentuated by the conference environment. This may also include gendered embodiment, as when Mary Lou Rasmussen was told at a conference that she was in the wrong bathroom, and/or recognition of racial difference, as analysed by Sara Ahmed in On Being Included, and/or an expectation of normative able-bodied embodiment (see Hodge). Toni Bruce has written about the experience of translating an ‘abstract’ abstract submitted for a conference, where she proposed an autoethnographic exploration of her experiences of early menopause, into an all-too-real conference paper in which she was obliged to link her condition to her embodied presence. Conferences bring together academic bodies in rooms in a way that they cannot hide behind their written texts – delegates have bodies and identities which may fit more or less neatly into their designated delegate role.

EH two sets of stuff

However even these portrayals, which unpick the assumption of an individual who can seamlessly transition into ‘conference delegate’, still rest on the portrayal of an individual, an academic who is unfettered and without other responsibilities. This tendency to represent academics as individuals is echoed across feminist research on higher education in general (see eg. Genine Hook or Kacey Beddoes and Alice Pawley), so arguably academic conferences are simply an extension of higher education institutions; indeed Gail Lewis has analysed conferences as ‘temporary institutions’ which reflect institutional processes of marginalisation. Alternatively, we might see conferences as different or perhaps more intense spaces of academia than academics ‘home’ institutions. For conferences are temporary events, which demand a large proportion of the hours in the day for just a few days – this means a break with routine, a disruption to the arrangements put in place for the ‘normal’ working week, but also no opportunity to establish a new routine, to set a new pattern of care and communication. Furthermore, conferences often involve relocating geographically, potentially over long distances, to unfamiliar places. If caring responsibilities are left behind, will the wifi work to enable easy and cheap communication? Will there be mobile signal? Will there be time in the schedule to make a call, or will there be a choice between attending a session and checking that all is well at home? If a delegate is accompanied to the conference, will there be facilities to cover their needs? Will there be anything to do?

In my new research project, ‘In Two Places at Once‘ (funded by the University of Warwick Research and Development Fund) I am opening up the individualistic conceptualisations of conference delegates to explore the ways in which academics attending conferences manage their caring responsibilities in order to be able to attend and participate in conferences. In my project, I am working with as wide as possible a definition of care, to avoid stipulating normative caring roles. As such, included in my study are delegates’ children, partners, parents and other family members, pets, friends and kin. I am looking at (i) how caring responsibilities affect academics’ decisions to attend conferences, and whether the issues are different for international conferences, and (ii) how caring responsibilities affect academics’ participation at conferences once they are there.

The project was inspired by a collection of stories and experiences, which gradually crystallised into a research idea. During my doctoral research on conferences, many of my participants discussed the arrangements they had made in order to attend the conferences I was researching. In one case, a participant described the chain of events that had occurred during her brief absence as a ‘shit show’ – her daughter had become ill and had to go to hospital, one of the cats had bitten someone, the other cat had unusually pooed in the house… Other participants had thought about bringing their children with them, but didn’t want to be ‘the woman with the baby’. I also thought about other conferences I have attended where people have brought their children with them, and stories friends have told me about this. While children are a major issue in this topic, I was also led to think about care more widely when a colleague and I both found that we had both brought our partners along on a trip to a conference in Glasgow because we felt that we weren’t spending enough time with them, and were as a result negotiating which aspects of the conference we could skip in order to make it worth their while to have come along. Since beginning to notice these issues and incidents, it has come to my attention just how dominated conference attendance is by trying to smooth over the disruption that conferences cause in the lives of those they rely on and care for.

Could you be a participant in my study?

Are you an academic (including students)? All disciplines and locations welcome.

Are you attending a conference (an event lasting at least one whole day) in April, May or June 2017?

Do you have at least one caring responsibility, however you would define this?

Participating in my project is simple – it involves completing a simple time questionnaire at and after a conference, followed by an interview by phone or Skype (or face-to-face if I can get to you) about the conference and your conference attendance more generally.

Please get in touch if you know you will be attending a conference and would like to participate!

In addition to contributing to the under-researched field of academic conferences, the project aims to provide more information to academic associations about the issues academics face when attending conferences (and what prevents academics with caring responsibilities attending some conferences at all). I am currently establishing a ‘stakeholder group’ of academics and academic association officers to advise on the project, especially around producing data/information that is of use to academic associations. Currently confirmed in the stakeholder group are representatives from Gender and Education Association, Feminist and Women’s Studies Association, and British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies. I am currently in touch with other associations about being part of the stakeholder group – do get in touch if your association would be interested!

I would be interested to hear any comments you may have on my project so far, so please do leave comments below or email me if you have comments/questions.

The project website is now up and running and more details will be available as the project unfolds.

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