‘Academics in the arena’ – showcasing conferences research at SRHE 2017

Emily Henderson writes on fulfilling her dream of convening a symposium on conferences research at the Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference

SRHE 2017 Conferences Symposium
‘Academics in the Arena’: Marie-Pierre Moreau, James Burford, Helen Perkins, Emily Henderson, Pauline Reynolds, Nicholas Rowe, Barbara Read (left to right)

When we set out to create an academic blog on conferences, it was in part because conferences research is so disparate – in terms of discipline and geographical location. The Conference Inference blog has provided us with a wonderful platform to share research and comment on conferences over the course of 2017, including from a fantastic array of guest contributors – and we will be thinking more about this first year in our 1-year anniversary celebrations in early 2018. However this post reports back from a very special treat – namely, five papers on conferences grouped together in the same room at a conference! The symposium, entitled ‘Academics in the Arena: Foregrounding Academic Conferences as Sites for Higher Education Research’ (see information here, pp. 25-27) brought together a variety of critical perspectives on conferences, along with a discussant contribution from Helen Perkins, Director of SRHE (Society for Research in Higher Education).

The first paper presented early analysis from an ongoing research project on fictional representations of conferences by Conference Inference co-editor Emily F Henderson and guest contributor Pauline Reynolds (see Pauline’s guest post). The paper, entitled ‘“Novel delegates”: representations of academic identities in fictional conferences’, focused in particular on academic identities at conferences as they are portrayed in novels, short stories and graphic novels. Fictional conferences act to both equalise and reproduce academic hierarchy; delegates are homogenised as masses and crowds, uniformly badged and seated, just as delegate-professors are singled out for VIP treatment and delegate-students are denied access to certain spaces and conversations.

Another Conference Inference guest contributor, Nicholas Rowe (see Nicholas’ guest post), presented a paper that called into question the calculations that are used to assess the value of conferences. In ‘The value, scope and cost of of conferences: looking beyond the events industry’, Nicholas argued that the monetary value – and cost – of the academic conferences industry is hugely undervalued. His calculations moved beyond the registration fee into the realms of travel, time and carbon footprint, using the SRHE conference as a case study. For a symposium which had brought speakers together from the US, Thailand, Finland, Scotland, Birmingham and Cambridge, this was certainly food for thought.

Marie-Pierre Moreau’s paper, ‘Academic carers performing mobile subjectivities in the neoliberal university’, drew on her recent study of academic careers and carers, which included analysis of the relationship between care and academic mobility, and within this conferences were also covered (see other posts on conferences and caring responsibilities here, here and here). She provided a very useful holistic picture of the limitations to the ways in which care is currently conceptualised in academia, and showed how conferences are just one of many challenges that academics negotiate.

Conference Inference co-editor James Burford reported on preliminary findings from a larger project that is producing a cultural history of the Academic Identities conference (see Academic Identities 2018 cfp) in his paper ‘Researching the development of an academic field: conferences as a way in’. The paper, as with Christiane Momm’s Conference Inference post, showed how conferences can provide an alternative to eg. citation analysis or signature concepts in exploring the development of a research field. While the project includes a variety of participants and data sources, James’ paper at SRHE focused on the data from doctoral students, who experienced some aspects of a conference focussed on academic identity as a baptism of fire.

The final paper in the symposium, ‘Gender, early career academics and the performance of self at academic conferences’, was presented by Barbara Read. The paper drew on data relating to gender and public speaking in academia that Barbara first collected in the early 2000s, and then updated in the 2010s. Her paper was a reminder that conferences really do do involve ‘academics in the arena’, and that many participants experience presenting – particularly question time – as an antagonistic space where more senior academics at times seem to take pleasure in tearing down their junior colleagues in public.

In convening the symposium, I invited Helen Perkins, Director of SRHE, to act as discussant because of her years of experience in relation to the SRHE conference and more broadly to the shaping of the higher education research field in the UK. She did not disappoint in her response! Some of her ideas and questions…

  • Conferences have so many rituals…but why are these rituals not more developmental?
  • Conferences almost always have an evaluation to complete afterwards…but what should we actually be evaluating?
  • At times, more attention is paid to dietary requirements than caring responsibilities, as care often seems to pass under the radar. Fewer and fewer children are accompanying delegates to SRHE – why is this?
  • Conferences often ask if expectations have been met – but should we be asking delegates what they hope for before the conference?
  • Performing at conferences makes even the most experienced presenters nervous – what changes with seniority is in part the under-reporting of nerves!

Helen’s discussion was followed by questions and comments from a very engaged and thoughtful audience. Some of the audience members responded to Barbara’s paper by sharing some of their experiences of being torn down at conferences – ‘There’s nothing new in what you said’ was an example of a common tactic. Another audience member recognised the reproduction of hierarchies at conferences as discussed in Pauline and my paper, and asked if there is something we can do about it? I asked in return – can any of the issues around conferences and inequalities be translated into equality measures such as Athena SWAN? Nicholas pointed out that, despite sophisticated digital systems, there is still insufficient data around conferences to allow for full equalities monitoring. Marie-Pierre also brought up care provision at conferences, which is at times laid on to increase access to conferences, but not always taken up. Towards the end of the discussion, an audience member introduced the important idea of confidence as a social idea as a means of countering the call for individual resilience in the face of tough conference experiences. Over the remainder of the conference a number of audience members who didn’t have a chance to ask questions in the session also made time to share their conference stories and analyses with us.

Thank you to the presenters, discussant, and audience members of the ‘Academics in the arena’ symposium!

This post marks the end of our first year of Conference Inference blogging. Thank you to everyone who has engaged with our posts over the past year, we have really enjoyed hearing back from you! We will have a break over the winter holiday and will return with an anniversary special on 29 January 2018!

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