‘Dr Perkins’ is a term that I sometimes forget belongs to me. It’s a hard won association from finishing a PhD in German from the University of Otago. However, for the last four years, I’ve been working in policy analyst roles in the public sector in Wellington, New Zealand, largely away from academic life. Yet this has changed in the past year or so, as I’ve been re-connecting with my university past by moonlighting as an academic on the side of work.
The launching pad for this return has been the project of turning my thesis into a book ‘Travel texts and Moving Cultures’. In addition to building a research profile online, it has involved going back into the simultaneously complex and fulfilling world of academic conferences. Since December 2016, I’ve given presentations online, at a conference in Wellington, at a book launch in Dunedin, and most recently, at the University of Lancaster’s ‘Mobilites Literature Culture’ conference. In this blog entry I reflect on what it means to do academic work on the side of my public servant job, and share my recent experiences of returning to the world of academic conferences.
Moonlighting as an academic can be an expensive, and sometimes rather energy-zapping ‘hobby’. However, I see my continued involvement in scholarly debates as part of a broader set of life experiences I want to pursue. In one way, it’s quite simply me ‘following my passion’ which includes the buzz I get when engaging with people about the topics of mobilities, culture, literature and German studies. At another level, it’s perhaps a more complex identity question about knowing who I am and what kind of career path I want to pursue. To some extent I see my participation at conferences as me keeping my options open to a return to the ‘ivory tower’. Being an academic was a career I wanted to pursue, but with many people in New Zealand and further afield losing their jobs in the humanities (as universities become increasingly focused on STEM and significantly less enthused about critical thinking and skill sets which foster empathy and broader world views), it seems like this kind of trajectory is becoming something you really need to find the right position for, or compete for mightily. I have made a decision that public service is the path that I am following at the moment.
Attending a conference recently on the other side of the world, I felt a bit self-conscious when facing the question of why an environmental policy analyst from New Zealand might be presenting at an academic conference about the travel ideals of East Germans before the Fall of the Berlin wall through an analysis of travel literature. However, luckily, my insecurities as a non-full-time academic were quickly allayed. The atmosphere was very supportive; people were genuinely interested in me, my story and my work. They even pointed out the ways in which each area of my work experience informs the other. I was also reminded that I remain an expert in my own field of academic research and I have my own unique understanding and view of the interdisciplinary themes at hand.
While I was at the conference I observed the short-term intense and intimate character that is unique to smaller-scale academic conferences, which is different from my experience of government office life. I am not sure whether ‘friendships’, or ‘acquaintances’ or ‘colleagues’ is the right term for these relationships that are formed over a short period with their own solidarities, friend groups, even ‘in jokes’. Perhaps ‘conferenceships’ is the right way to describe these new connections. Conferenceships are played out and negotiated over drinks, question periods and live tweets (see also Conference Inference posts by Barbara Grant and James Burford). At times, there is awkwardness. Sometimes you are left with the conundrum of deciding whether to go to the parallel panel session closest to your topic, or to the session with the person with whom you made a connection on the tea break. Inevitably attendees are heard apologising to one another if they cannot make it to another attendee’s talk whom they just met.
I feel very privileged to be in the company of people from all around the world who are interested in asking the same academic questions as me about language, culture, identity and travel experience. I am told by one person visiting Lancaster that literature conferences are generally positive in atmosphere. Perhaps we as literature scholars are so often embedded in the deep world of the musings and concepts of (sometimes long gone) writers that we are eager to connect with others in this ‘real world’ on these literary tropes and contemporary meanings.
I am not entirely sure whether I will remain as a moonlighting academic into the future or not. Negotiating these two professional worlds at the same time can be complex. At the same time I see emerging trends which allow for flexibility of engagement such as online interactive conferences, shorter form academic blog pieces, and even staying abreast of research advances via twitter.
While there may be new and emerging ways to connect and engage in academic discussion, there is a special kind of unique atmosphere peculiar to being among people at an academic conference which I cannot envision being supplemented. Walking across the moonlit Lancaster campus after a day of mixing with a bunch of kind and astute people from all around the world gave me the feeling that I was in just the right place for me, now.
About Anita Perkins
German language and literature, culture, travel, and mobilities are some of the things capturing Anita Perkins’ attention. Anita’s first book ‘Travel Texts and Moving Cultures’ was published by Peter Lang in 2016. Aside from moonlighting as an academic, including presenting at academic conferences, Anita has worked in various policy roles for the New Zealand government including in foreign affairs and environmental management. Her current role is focused on New Zealand’s role the UN environmental agreement the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer. You can follow her on twitter @anitajperkins or find her on linkedin.