Conference going has been a rich element in my unplanned academic life, offering travel to new places for both body and thought. Sustainingly, conference encounters reassured me that my academic work was of interest to others and stimulated me to enter into dialogues with new, often challenging, ideas. But the ‘going’ was not always an unalloyed joy!
As I began this blog, my unreliable memory told me that my first conference was in my home city of Auckland (Aotearoa/New Zealand) in 1989 or 1990. But the historical record did not bear me out: the nearest HERDSA (Higher Education & Research Development Society of Australasia) conferences held in this city were in 1984 and 1998. It turns out that my first conference was in Wellington (in 1991), a city over 600 kms to the south! I remember the event as friendly and lively. At the time I was working very part-time at the university as a study skills tutor and studying courses towards my MA. My very first conference paper, entitled Homo academicus whaddaya, was co-authored with my then-Masters lecturer (soon to be supervisor), John Jones, who was a leader within the HERDSA community and known for his warmth and contagious humour.
John and I wrote Homo academicus whaddaya as a full paper – never published, the yellowing hardcopy sits tiredly on my bookshelf – but we also wrote it as a script and this was what we presented at the conference. One of us narrated and we invited members of the audience to read particular characters as they strutted their stuff on the stages of John’s and my febrile imaginations: there was homo academicus californius, homo academicus feminus, homo academicus corporatus, among others. This line-up of academic characters, weird but recognizable, was in turn observed and commented upon by a café table group of equally stereotypical ‘students’, who were also recruited as readers from the audience. As a lively moment of readers’ theatre, it was cathartic for us, the authors, but also I suspect for the audience, who engaged with verve. Rereading the script recently I found the humour somewhat embarrassingly dated!
Unexpectedly this paper underpinned the beginnings of an abiding interest in academic subjectivities: the ethical relations we have with ourselves and the dynamic relations of power (Foucault, 1986) that extend between us and the others of our practice – students but also colleagues. This interest has run like a red thread through over 30 years of research work in what I now call, following Jeffrey J. Williams (2012), the field of ‘critical university studies’.
That first conference high point, which marked the beginning of seeing myself as possibly becoming an academic (just possibly), was counterbalanced by some terrible moments. At several subsequent conferences, including the 1998 HERDSA one in Auckland, I suffered the most disabling and shaming attacks of panic before giving my papers. To this day I don’t know how I made it through the presentations – I think the definite shame of not fronting up outweighed the likely shame of making no sense at all to the audience. Even as I write about this, my body begins to alarm. So let me write of other things.
There is nothing quite like conferences for the embodied buzz of seeing well known people give keynotes and presentations and of meeting people who go on to become enduring colleagues and friends. These connections have provided webs of meaning and support – introductions to new ideas and lines of enquiry, academic companionships maintained over space and time – that have helped define the academic I have become. They have also given me great comfort in times when being the woman academic I am in a particular place and time has been very painful.
And yet at the same time, that embodied buzz can be a miserable place to be. I am an intensely self-conscious person, so I have experienced excruciating times hovering on the edges of that animated crowd – especially at international conferences – and having no-one, no-one, to talk to. And feeling literally unable to approach anybody. Mercifully age has softened that feeling: whatever drove the acute self-consciousness of my adult life from adolescence onwards has waned considerably. Maybe it’s the invisibility that comes with being an older woman; maybe it’s something about not caring about such matters any more. (It’s true what they say – you don’t!) But maybe, too, it’s an effect of becoming more senior and more recognised as an academic. It’s true that these days when I go to conferences I often know many people and spend a lot of time catching up with old friends. I find myself noticing this and sometimes seeking to include new conference goers so they won’t feel the same loneliness and exclusion I felt.
Because of these struggles, I have never attended any of the super-big conferences in my field and I feel a little sorry about that, as if I have missed out, or perhaps failed somehow. I have come to hold a strong preference for small conferences (well under 100 people) with more sharply defined themes – like the biennial Academic Identities Conference that I’ve been associated with over the past few years or the Oxford Ethnography Conference I attended recently.
Given what I’ve written above, it may be surprising to learn that I am an enduring fan of conferences – even though, in the interests of the planet, we should probably start to make them more local. The living breathing world of academics talking, arguing and laughing about things that matter to them – to you – is a thing to behold. In my experience, conference going offers a powerful invitation into the academic life, which – like conferences themselves – is a mix of privilege, joy and difficulty. Long may academic conferences last!
About Barbara Grant..
Barbara Grant is an Associate Professor in the School of Critical Studies in Education at the University of Auckland. Barbara’s research and writing interests lie in the area of (post)critical accounts of higher education – sometimes called “critical university studies” – especially the supervision of graduate research students and doctoral education more broadly, academic identities and work, non-traditional research methodologies for education, and academic writing. Until recently the Executive Editor for Higher Education Research & Development, Barbara currently serves on the international editorial boards of several journals for higher education.
Foucault, M. (1986). The subject and power. In B. Wallis (Ed.), Art after modernism: Rethinking representation (pp. 417–432). New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art.