A reply to Barbara Grant: Conferences as transformative moments in a doctoral life

In this post, James Burford replies to Barbara Grant’s recent post in praise (really!) of academic conferences by reflecting on the transformative role that conferences played in his doctoral life.



Jamie and Barbara on Jamie’s graduation day in 2017

As Barbara Grant (my PhD supervisor) noted in her earlier blogpost, conference going offers rich pleasures, mixed feelings and ethical questions for researchers to contemplate. I have written this post in response to Barbara’s piece, with the hope that sharing the conference reflections of both a well-established scholar (Barbara) and a freshly minted PhD (me) might help to build a picture of the role that conferences can play at different points in an academic career. In this post I have reflected across the conferences I attended as a PhD student, searching for moments that had a transformative impact. In a reflective spirit (enhanced by the fact that the drafting of this piece began on my final doctoral day!), I identify that discovering an academic community, a group of imagined readers and a supportive friendship network were all defining – and conference mediated – features of my doctoral experience.

Finding a community: The International Academic Identities Conference  

Finding a conference ‘home base’ was a key transformative moment in my doctoral experience. Doctoral education is commonly referred to as a process of socialisation, the action of acquiring the literacies of (and ultimately becoming a part of) particular discourse communities. I was fortunate that I found a ‘home base’ for myself quite early on at a biennial academic conference about Academic Identities. My supervisor Barbara Grant was the conference chair for the 2012 International Academic Identities Conference hosted in Auckland, and I joined the conference committee, which was comprised of researchers from Australia, New Zealand and the UK. I found committee work to be a rich and sociable experience. In our case, the committee became involved in thinking through interesting details like the conference title and themes, the selection of keynote speakers, and wider discussions about location, marketing, the conference dinner and welcome. At the 2012 conference I also took on a paid role of secretary; this involved sending out emails and keeping track of abstracts and presenter details. Both of these roles were fantastic opportunities. Joining the conference committee meant that I had already had a chance to work with members of the community, and I began to feel a sense of belonging and responsibility for the conference itself. Taking on the role of conference secretary enhanced this further. It meant that I’d been in email contact with each of the delegates before the event, which made it much easier to strike up conversations at the conference.

The 2012 conference remains a bit of a blur for me intellectually, much of the time I had my head down focusing on hosting work (finding safety pins for someone who had a hole appear in their clothing, shepherding people to the right room, locating clickers, or calling a taxi – see also my earlier Conference Inference post on international academic events in Thailand). Despite being a blur it was a really important moment for my sense of becoming a part of an academic community. As time went on, connections established during this period solidified into opportunities to join the discourse community and publish work in publications that arose out of the conference. And as of this year I have joined an international research project called “A Decade of Dialogue” which is conducting a cultural history of the Academic Identities conference. Indeed, when I travelled back home to New Zealand for my graduation recently I had the opportunity to interview past delegates, keynotes and convenors to about their experiences attending the conference. I now feel well and truly part of this community of researchers, and I trace much of this sense of belonging back to my early experience of committee work at the beginning of my degree.

Finding imagined readers

For the first couple of years of my PhD I couldn’t imagine who on earth would be interested in my research. My study roamed across the fields of higher education, feminist and queer theory and writing studies. While I found the unusual way these fields rubbed alongside each other to be invigorating, I wasn’t sure that colleagues in each of these disciplines felt the same way! I hadn’t found many others who were writing in the same kind of niche I was, and as a distance student it is safe to say that the going on my doctoral project was lonely. Yet there was a transformative moment. It occurred when I discovered a post that Emily had circulated inviting contributors to submit applications for a symposium on queering higher education at the 2014 SRHE conference in Wales. I duly submitted an abstract, which was accepted, and began arranging my travel to the UK. However, the opportunities were extended when Emily proposed to also host a symposium along a similar theme in London. At the time I recall feeling surprised that there might actually be a community of scholars who were interested in the same space I was. Suddenly, the small space I’d been working in began to feel like it connected to other spaces and writers. I realised that I may not just be writing by myself in my bedroom, but I might actually be communicating with a group of researchers! After attending the events in the UK I could even picture these researchers in my mind as I was writing my PhD, or research articles (“Ah Genine might like this”, “hmmm Emily might get that joke” etc.). The change in my confidence and sense of purpose was momentous – it meant that I finally had a sense that I was participating in an exchange of ideas.

A sustaining rhythm: Conference buddies  

Once a friend and I attended a faculty presentation in Auckland. A presenter was telling us about the AERA conference in the United States, and the strategies she used to navigate a gathering that is well known in the field of education for, among other things, its extremely large size. During this presentation the speaker reported on some advice she’d picked up at the conference. Most of this has been lost in the untidy piles of my memory bank, but one thing has stuck with me. She offered an evocative description of the beautiful friendship developed by two balding academic men who were self-described ‘conference buddies’. These two men had decided early on in their careers that they would support each other. When they attended conferences they often presented together, or made sure to show up at their friend’s presentation to offer support. According to the presenter, these two academic men described their conference-mediated friendship as one of the sustaining rhythms of their professional lives. Perhaps many readers won’t be surprised by this account of conference bromance, or the idea that academic men might collaborate and support each other – but I found something magical in the telling of the story.

After this presentation I looked over to my friend, Cat Mitchell, and I realised that we’d been doing something similar during our PhDs. Our conference buddyship has seen us travel down the road to Waikato University, over the ditch to Australia a couple of times, and taken us on one memorable trip together to South Africa. Cat loves many of the things that I love about academic work, and also worries many of the same worries. Having Cat as my buddy to time-check my conference talk, facilitate introductions during afternoon tea, or help me out if I get mugged while overseas on a conference (yes – really!) has been invaluable. I’m glad we have continued showing up for each other.

Conferences and friendship

There is a thread that links these three transformative experiences involving doctoral life and conferences: friendship and sociality. From the beginning of my time as a doctoral student I was fortunate to feel linked into an academic community, and began to make friends and establish connections. As time went on I travelled with or presented with friends, met people who would later become friends as well as the kind of people I could see myself talking with in my doctoral thesis and research articles. Conferences helped me feel a part of something bigger than my own project – a part of wider conversations, international communities and broader knowledge projects. I wanted to write these reflections as a reply to Barbara’s piece because my story of feeling included and involved in the academic world via conferences is also a story about Barbara’s supervision pedagogy – it demonstrates her talents at weaving people into community. 

As Barbara noted in her piece, conferences are a mix of ‘privilege, joy and difficulty’. Before I close this post it is worth reflecting a little on the privilege that can be traced across my own reflections. It is important to acknowledge that I have been fortunate to study in an institution that provides funding for PhD students to travel to international conferences, and to have been mentored by supervisors who are in the position of organising international academic gatherings. As earlier Conference Inference contributors like Órla Meadhbh Murray have pointed out, my experiences in this regard are not universal. We need to remember that there are questions of equity surrounding who gets to become an international conference delegate, and under what conditions they travel. And as Yvette Taylor and Emily Henderson have both argued, we also need to think about those who bear the labours of conferences, both at the venue and in the domestic sphere.

Like Barbara, I’ve also encountered difficult moments at conferences. I am not a natural networker, and I tend to get easily overwhelmed by crowds of people and a deluge of information. Yet I agree that conference going ‘offers a powerful invitation into the academic life’. Across my doctoral journey conferences have helped me to develop the kinds of friendships that make an academic life worth living. 


Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at Thammasat University. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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