When formulating ideas for a research project, it is not always possible to predict how it will land when it gets ‘out there’. With empirical research which works with human participants, the transition from project plan to the collection of empirical materials can be a particularly fraught moment. While I was confident about the justification for my new research project, ‘In Two Places at Once: The Impact of Academics’ Caring Responsibilities on Conference Participation’, I nonetheless felt some trepidation at releasing the project into the wilds of social media in order to recruit participants for the study. I knew there was a basis for the study from my doctoral research on Women’s Studies conferences, where several of my participants described the complicated arrangements they had had to put in place in order to attend the conferences I was researching (see my recent Conference Inference post, ‘Individual Delegates, Multiple Lives’, for more on the justification for the project). However I was haunted by the possibility that I would receive two types of negative feedback from my call for participants.
Firstly, I wondered if people would write back to me saying that I had chosen to research a ‘first world’ problem and that perhaps I should focus my efforts – and funding – on eg. primary education or women’s literacy. I had visions of emails coming in reminding me that people who are working in academia are already privileged, and that going to conferences is even more of an elite privilege. I had framed these imagined responses in the discourse of ‘conference fatigue’ (see for example blog posts by Rasmus Karlsson and mbkitzel), which I have discussed elsewhere as a dismissive view of conferences as unnecessary luxuries of the academic profession (see SRHE conference paper, and write-up article in Times Higher). I had already formulated responses to these emails, stating that researching unequal access to conferences is part of the same drive to improve access to primary education and adult literacy, defending the importance of conferences as ‘defining moments’ which shape research fields and academics’ careers – and reminding my critics that access to global spaces of knowledge production is how ideas on combatting social injustice can be shaped and ideally democratised.
Secondly, I expected to receive emails from academics with caring responsibilities, telling me that I was being unreasonable in my expectation of participants’ commitment to the study. We already have too much on our plate, the voices told me, and now you want to add to that at the exact crux of caring intensity – namely before, during and after a conference. It’s as much as we can do to get out of the door, or to attend some sessions while at the conference – now you want us to add yet another responsibility to these complicated few days by recording detailed information on all of the processes we are only just managing to keep track of! How unreasonable I feel, asking this of people. And yet an integral part of this study is to capture the micro-detail of managing multiple roles and responsibilities at conferences, so it is not something I am willing to sacrifice.
In the event, neither of these critiques have yet materialised (though they still could!). I received one email from a potential participant who said that she is barely able to get to a conference – it is certainly true that my study does not pick up people who are completely excluded from attending conferences by their caring responsibilities or other factors. For the premise of participating is attending a conference (though I have ensured that a wide definition is included, including one-day events – and no expectation of travel is stated, so an academic who is attending a one-day conference at their own institution can be included). Rather than receiving these emails, I have instead received a veritable torrent of emails from academics (in which I include researchers, teachers in higher education, students…) in response to my call for participants. Because of the small-scale nature of the study, which is an exploratory project which will feed into a larger project on conferences and research culture, the funding I obtained was designed around 20 participants. Each participant would complete a questionnaire and time-log about their contact/communication (including thoughts) with/about their caring responsibilities for one conference, and then would be interviewed about that conference and their conference participation in general. I already had some sense that the project could recruit easily, as before the official call was launched seven people had already contacted me asking to participate, having seen my blog post about the project. I had also already received a number of responses to the blog, which I have put up on a ‘Reactions’ page on the project website. However I harboured fears that this early success was my beginner’s luck, and that my wider call might yet cause the endeavour to come unstuck.
On 3 May, I circulated the call for papers on my Facebook wall and on the Facebook page for Conference Inference – I did not receive any immediate responses. I also circulated the call to the members of the project’s Stakeholder Group, who are members of academic association committees and researchers of academia and care, asking them to forward the call on to their contacts. On 4 May, concerned about the lack of responses, I sent out the call on a select few mailing lists of which I am a member that cover different disciplines/research areas: Mobility Studies, Women’s Studies, Sociology, Sexuality Studies. I thought it was worth a try, and that I could always send targeted emails to friends and contacts to make up the numbers. The result of posting on these lists was astounding. Within minutes of posting the call, I started receiving emails from academics who were in all stages of the career, a wide range of disciplines, residing in several different countries and travelling to/within other countries again, with all number of different configurations of caring responsibilities. Over the course of that day and the next (I am writing this in an aeroplane so it is possible that more still have arrived today), I received 43 emails from potential participants.
The sheer volume of emails – from people I have never met and who don’t know me – was overwhelming. So many people have taken the care to respond to my call, to volunteer their time, and to offer some thoughts/comments in an initial email. To receive such uncalled for early validation of what is essentially a small-scale ‘pilot’ study produced a mixture of emotions that I cannot describe. Because of the volume of responses, I have decided to extend the circulation of the questionnaire/time-log to as many people as would like to participate. While I only have the resources to interview/transcribe 20 interviews, the questionnaire will allow many more perspectives to be included in the study.
There is a second facet to being overwhelmed, which I want to discuss in the last part of this post. Because of the volume of emails, I was obliged to quickly scan through the emails for the necessary information (eg. did they mention the date of the conference they wanted to focus on), and to mechanically send them on to Julie Mansuy, who is working as the Research Assistant on the project, so that she could get the information about the study out in a timely manner. Rather than read, digest and carefully respond to the emails that potential participants sent, they flashed before my eyes – the result of this was that the invaluable nuggets of information that people shared with me quickly passed from being quite shocking (‘Wow, that’s a complicated set-up! How do they manage?!’) to being normalised (‘Oh, another one with three children aged 1-17 and a dog’). The mechanical processing of that many snippets of that many lives in such a short time therefore produced an indigestible set of scenarios which were as such impossible for me to process in a deeper sense. But these snippets also bore more weight than it may have at first appeared, in fact because of their very status as snippets. For in the same week, I also conducted the first two in-depth interviews for the study, both of which lasted an hour – and the layering of practical organisation with emotional labour that emerged through these interviews showed just how much is going on for so many academics when they attend conferences. The delegate who appears to be bored and staring into space during lunch is probably calculating whether their dog walker will have arrived or if the babysitter will have handed over to the partner on time. The audience member who repeatedly checks their phone during your presentation may well be waiting for an overdue text of reassurance that their elderly parent has phoned their sibling to say that they have made it through the night. The juxtaposition, then, of the torrent of emails with the two interviews brought to each email a phantom background story, a sense that behind each of these emails lay yet more challenges and struggles. While the project strives to include the pleasures of caring and the positive impact of care on academics and the conferences they attend, what came through for me in that moment was an overwhelming sense of struggle.
If you would like to participate in the questionnaire/time-log for the study, please visit the call for participants page for the study.
Participants should be:
An academic/researcher/teacher in Higher Education/student attending a conference (including a one-day conference) between now and 17th July 2017…
…with caring responsibilities (including children, parents and other relatives, pets, friends and kin).
Further short reflections are also invited for the ‘Reactions’ page of the website.
If you would like to join the mailing list for the study, to hear about findings and dissemination events, please email Julie Mansuy (firstname.lastname@example.org).