Guest post by Anita Perkins: Moonlighting at academic conferences

In this post Dr. Anita Perkins reflects on what it’s like to find yourself returning to academic life via conferences, and the peculiar joys of forming ‘conferenceships’ with new contacts.

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Anita Perkins at a mobilities conference at Lancaster University 2017 

‘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 

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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.

 

 

Author: CI_Jamie

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

2 thoughts on “Guest post by Anita Perkins: Moonlighting at academic conferences”

  1. A really refreshing take on ‘academia revisited’ ! Strewn with words such as kind, supportive, interested … the concept of ‘conferenceships’ is a key thing about these events. The interactions we have with others not only provide the conference experience, but shape our attitude to so many aspects of our work. Thanks for sharing this perspective 🙂

    As Anita is a language, travel, culture and mobilities expert, it would be interesting to hear future posts on how language impacts upon individual conferences goers. As soon as the main conference language is not your own, then most of us are at a disadvantage. As well as reading and comprehension limitations, there are impacts upon how we engage with others, the conversations we have, and the level at which we can communicate our thoughts, feelings and ideas. Also interesting in the post was that even at smaller events, people were finding themselves unable to attend all the presentations they wanted to. This brings into question whether we are doing enough to make work more widely available both per- / post-conference.

    In the events industry, there is an underlying concept of ‘Legacy’. In other words, if we are going to spend X million (billion) on staging on an event, then what will be left for others to use, once the event is over? Back in 1963, UNESCO noted that this was a key problem of conferences, and one of the specially highlighted issues was that of language – it can act as a distinct barrier to us sharing our work effectively. Over 95% of published research is in English, 60% of which is produced by non-anglophone researchers. The days of polyglot proficiency in academia (and elsewhere) are gone, and in some regards, English has become more of a ‘tool’ than just a language. However, the ways that language is addressed in conferences & the management of conference outputs would be a really interesting line of research to be pursued. I am sure that a host of governmental and funding bodies would take an interest.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for your very thoughtful comments. As a linguist I am constantly seeing the world through words and how realities are negotiated and constructed using language. As you mentioned, power dynamics are often at play here too and even though these can be quite invisible or unregarded. I think this is especially the case for people who have English as a first language and have not known the difficulty of learning and communicating in another language. I was recently at a UN environmental conference. I was both ‘geeking out’ and absolutely astounded by the interpreters working on I think it was 6 different languages. One of the two co-chairs spoke in French, and the other in English. I also could not begin to believe how difficult it would be for some delegation representatives to express themselves in English (which they often chose to do) and to pick up the nuance in the high stakes argumentation taking place. Even though I am quite confident in speaking German I would be hard pressed to do this in this kind of context. I suppose to play devil’s advocate we can look also to the argument the benefits of accessibility when having a lingua franca (English…Esperanto). However, it just so happens to be easier when that language happens to be your first, of course! Thinking about how we can uncover and make visible the power dynamics at play when choosing specific languages and conferences is important. By writing this in English, am I preventing accessibility to others? Apparently in Switzerland if one works for the this in English, am I preventing accessibility to others? Apparently in Switzerland if one works for the government, one can speak whichever of around 4 languages during meetings. One can then reply in a different language if one wants. This sounds like a kind of linguistic utopia to me!

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