Guest post by Pauline Reynolds: #theacademicconference: the hot and the not in representations of conferences in social media…and coffee

In this post, Pauline J. Reynolds analyses the uses of social media that pervade conferences – and focuses in on the ways conferences come alive in the world of @legogradstudent.

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“Being the only audience member at a panel, the grad student pities everyone in the room”

As a more recent (belated?) user of twitter for professional purposes, I’ve been struck this year about the way conferences manifest in social media. In addition to connecting me with scholars interested in my work and vice versa, or just generally those in my discipline, I’ve witnessed and participated in epic performances of academic socialization, stagnation, groupthink, challenge, engagement, and hierarchy related to conferences. I offer here some speculative thoughts about academic conferences in social media, particularly focusing on the creative work of @legogradstudent.

Conferences in social media

Social media expands the scope of conferences in exciting and nefarious ways. It increasingly provides layered, interactive spaces where conferences exist (or linger) digitally before, during, and after the designated meeting time. Multiple users control or engage in this space whether they are physically attending the conference, a selected presenter, or not – organizers, attendees, association members, non-members who are scholars affiliated with the conference, and non-academics. Conference time and space is extended through social media beyond the presentation room or exhibit hall.

Organizers develop hashtags for their conferences to generate buzz before, during, and after the conference among members and others. Before the conference, social media users proclaim “this” conference as the academic event to go to, and members tweet/post about “who’s going”, people not at the conference can “wish I was there” during the conference, while (self)congratulatory after-conference posting celebrates the sound judgment of those who attended, those who contributed to something “special,” seeing the “right” scholars at the “right” time, who can claim to the wishers “I was there”.  During the conference, organizers use their platforms to remind attendees of keynotes or certain panels, essentially guiding attendees to “what or who’s hot” as opposed to “what or who’s not” – that which they don’t tweet/post about. Conference organizers’ use of social media herds attendees towards certain ratified research, topics, and scholars, thereby potentially limiting and restraining conference engagement by suggesting what’s worth the time and energy of attendees who have choices to make.

Attendees themselves co-opt organizers’ messaging and reinforce the “hot or not” through their own social media use. Some engage in subversive practices, challenging “the hot.” But who complies and who subverts is linked with naming and anonymity in social media plus role and notoriety in higher education e.g. a grad student on the job market is unlikely to tweet their dissatisfaction with a big-named scholar in their field from an account in their own name (see the recent Conference Inference post by Órla Meadhbh Murray on academic precarity and conferences). Other attendees engage with the presentations they select, live-tweeting/posting about the findings of scholars for their friends/followers and providing ways to connect networks of scholars to one another. Social media at conferences for them becomes a way of engaging in scholarly conversation and networking, providing abbreviated introductions to peoples’ work. This is something that Inger Mewburn @thesiswhisperer does with her twitter and blog followers, for example.

Additionally, social media serves as a platform for deliberate commentary on conferences by observers of academic culture. @legogradstudent provides one example of this type of posting where he uses insider observations of individual and collective experiences in creative posts using lego settings and academic avatars to wryly examine a graduate student’s life in higher education. Some of his posts include journeying to, attendance at, and returning from conferences.

@legogradstudent goes to a conference

“Standing in line at a crowded coffee shop near the conference site, the grad student loathes the existence of other people”

@legogradstudent’s conference posts involve lego depictions of conventions or ritualized behaviours standardized across discipline and perhaps even some national borders: travel is a necessary component of a conference, it’s not a normal day at the office; panels of speakers present to an audience; audiences engage with comments and questions; poster sessions attract varying attention (see Nicholas Rowe’s Conference Inference post); hotels provide drab venues and accommodations; exhibition halls display the latest books and software; and, attendees gather at receptions. Almost as ubiquitous as the presentation room is the local coffee shop (or equivalent), with its extended lines of attendees. The only things missing as a symbol of conference attendance in these posts are lego lanyards, which I imagine are hard to come by and especially in bulk.

Ideas related to “who’s hot and who’s not” are very much displayed in @legogradstudent’s posts. Our hero, @legogradstudent himself (LGS), fairly consistently portrays himself as “not hot”. He frequently exaggerates features of graduate student conference attendance, especially those  related to difficulties in socialization and position in academic hierarchy. Academically, LGS doubts his work through self-deprecating posts about his contributions. In a severe case of pre-conference jitters he compares his paper to the smell of feces from the airplane toilet behind him, extends pity towards presenters when he is the only attendee, and notes his own mistakes on his poster presentation which is failing to lure attendees. These posts portray how difficult it can be for grad students to go to conferences where they are essentially on the bottom rung of academic hierarchy, and although organizers and faculty may try to diminish boundaries they are still felt and present for grad students like LGS.

“Purchasing his sixth coffee of the day, the grad student categorically, indisputably, and vehemently does not have a dependence”

Despite the veneer of adventure – a change in schedule and travels to a distance place – LGS’s conferences are not at all glamorous. His experiences are limited by funds so he shares a room and bed with colleague to save money, or makes repeated trips to the free cookies in the exhibition room. However, he might have more money for food if he didn’t spend so much on his multiple daily indulgences in exorbitantly priced coffee.

“Charging his phone in the middle of the conference hall, the grad student simultaneously drains his self-esteem”

Something that really strikes me though about LGS’s conference experiences is a sense of loneliness (https://t.co/nzJSD43k24). LGS is an island. Few of the posts position him interacting with peers. Strangers surround him, strangers who compete with him for everything, including coffee. A more hopeful visual of him seemingly discussing the conference with a colleague is destroyed by the juxtaposed text noting his “dismay” that she is more junior than he is. LGS’s imposter syndrome shrivels his sense of self-worth in the face of good work.

“Attending the panel that rejected his paper proposal, the grad student inwardly trashes each presenter’s research”

Perhaps in a note of hope as I wrap up, LGS also strikes back against the “not” and declares himself as “hot”. Although conferences are bleak, tortuous spaces, where, despite his ever-present lego-smile, LGS doesn’t appear to belong, he engages in private demolition of the work of others. Our hero may not name and shame, but the creator of LGS anonymously taps into the impulse to push back against seemingly arbitrary selections of who’s in or out, who’s hot or not, through this performance of academic conferences in social media.

About Pauline J. Reynolds

Pauline is an Associate Professor and Department Chair of Leadership and Higher Education in the School of Education at the University of Redlands, CA (USA).  Her work focuses on the representations of higher education in popular culture. Pauline’s published work includes Representing ‘U’: Popular culture, media, and higher education and a co-edited volume Anti-intellectual representations of American colleges and universities: Fictional higher education. You can contact her at Pauline_reynolds@redlands.edu or engage with her over twitter regarding #popHE through @RepresentingHE

Pauline obtained permission from @legogradstudent to include the images in this post.

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