Conferences are part of an academic life. Indeed, I think of them as implicitly woven in and out of my own story of academic becoming. They are caught up in everything, in origins of longing: for connection, collaboration and a broader sense of care…
There are the conferences I didn’t attend because I didn’t have the money to travel interstate or overseas. The conferences I couldn’t attend because I had young children and the logistics were impossible. The conferences I did attend—with family in tow, so that I didn’t feel so guilty about the finances or the time away—only to feel incredibly stretched (in every way) and not able to bring my full attention to the role of ‘mother’ or ‘academic’ (see also posts by Emily Henderson and Briony Lipton). The conferences I did attend but wished I hadn’t— where the stench of self-promotion was suffocating and I had the misfortune of chatting with ‘important’ people who perpetually scanned the room for others ‘more important’ (than me) to engage in conversation with (see also post by Mark Readman) or who brought their love-struck minions with them so that ‘getting close’ was physically/emotionally impossible.
Origins of longing
Excerpt from Black, A.L. (in press). Responding to longings for slow scholarship: Writing ourselves into being. In. A.L. Black and Susanne Garvis (Eds). Women Activating Agency in Academia: Metaphors, Manifestos and Memoir. UK: Routledge.
I have been in academia a long time, more than twenty years. A lot has happened. Within the academy. Within me.
What are the embodied effects of this life in academe?
As I reflect across these years I connect with an aloneness. I was young when I began. Twenty-seven. And, in the month that I started work in higher education I lost my Grandmother to cancer, and my then husband walked away from our marriage. That same year my mother moved into a retirement village, and I too moved house. So much of my life was caught up in change. Yet, I kept it hidden, unspoken. There was no room at my workplace for the personal.
Isolating effects and embodied life/work conditions are too rarely discussed.
The academy seemed a strange place even then. Silos everywhere. Obtaining the position I applied for meant good people already in the academy were passed over. People who could have become friends/colleagues were hurt by the system and its decisions. So it took a while to find my place/space.
So many challenges to working together, to thriving together. Inequities challenge and devalue caring relations.
My probation time as a new member of staff was five years, conditional on attainment of a PhD by the end of that time. So, seeking job security I invested all my energy in my research and the meeting of this goal. How many of us know this pressure? Pressure to perform. Publish or perish. Pressure to meet objectives of various kinds by various deadlines. Or, else…
The neoliberal university likes high productivity in compressed timeframes.
My principal supervisor was an icon for me. She encapsulated so many enviable things. Creativity. Brilliance. Style. Wisdom. Kindness. Knowledge. She had philosophical depth and authenticity. Yet, somehow there was an absence of safety in the academy. Mean men and women, rivals, used toxic cultures and competition to challenge and wound. It wearied her. She walked away.
How can we build cultures of possibility for creative, caring people?
She retired just before my PhD was finished. It was for her an act of self-care. Protection. Self-preservation. Surrender. Perhaps this was when my longing began? The acutely felt loss linked to her going, her absence… the vulnerability that surfaced once the intimacy of someone ‘to share time and significance’ (Ahmed, 2014) was taken from me? The removal of nurturance and mentorship? The awareness of longing for belonging and the scouring for a tribe?
Care ethics matter if we hope to exist in this diminishing world (Ahmed, 2014). We need to look after ourselves, but we also need to build a broader sense of care.
I found it hard to find my own way. No one had my back. My research was ‘unconventional’ and there were few ‘like minds’. And life continued to happen. New life. Two beautiful children over the next three years. Time out of academia. Career interruptions, life distractions galore.
There is a richness to our individual experiences and stories that must not be reduced. From these can emerge a collective vision that speaks to our individual, emotional and embodied lives—lives which the neoliberal university too oft deems insignificant.
I am not alone in my longing for a friendlier, more open, more creative academy—and similarly, more friendly, open, creative gathering spaces. My everyday searching and storying is captured in several blogs and podcasts (linked below); this vulnerable sharing has somehow served as an invitation. People, fellow academics, have sought me out, connected, and in turn engaged in the sharing of their own longings and imaginings for the academic world. Over the last few years I have been engaging in ‘confer’-encing with an awesome group of women—we call ourselves The Women Who Write. Few of us have met in person. When we do, it is quite extraordinary to realise we have not ever ‘hugged’ before, and to see how tall or short the other is (we are all pretty short!). Our deep relationships have been formed through online video-conferencing using the tool ‘zoom’. It is incredible to recognise how this tool has enabled our gathering together, our rich sharing and intimacy, our ongoing conversation and creative and collective writing. Life-lasting friendships have been formed. Our generation of publications has quadrupled (but that kind of happened accidentally).
Perhaps it is because we have shared longings, and a shared purpose? Perhaps it is because we have found an inexpensive and enduring way to connect and commune, one that we can fit in amongst our hectic, full lives? One that is meeting our shared needs? We have a few manifestos, however this one does appear in our recent chapter, and which focuses on an ethic of caring.
For me, traditional conferences haven’t enabled the kind of sustainable caring connections, conversations and relationships I have been seeking. Certainly, I have met many good, ethical and kind people at ‘Conferences’ with a capital C, but my greater sense is we need to envision something new and something else. My sense is that in these neo-liberal times we need to begin with something infinite (see pp. 5-13 in this linked source).
In 2017, I had these big ideas to host a ‘new’ kind of conference at the end of 2018—the kind of ‘caring’ and ‘creative’ and ‘collective-generating’ focused conference I have longed for, that is shaped by what other women are saying they long for too. From our website, I created an online form so that women could share their thoughts. And the feedback so far has been rich. Already I have received 55 RSVPs from women around the world. Fifty-five women who want a new kind of conference, one that offers support and sustenance, one that acknowledges mind/body/soul connections, one that gives time to conversations and time for ‘being’ with and learning with other academics. It is clear from the responses that many of us are seeking something real, authentic and creative. Yarning circles. Creative writing. Passion-driven collaborations. Companionship. Kindness. Connection. Wellbeing. Relationships. Help to manage toxic work environments.
At the end of 2017 I was exhausted. I thought ahead, “could I facilitate a conference right now? Would I want to attend a conference right now?” There are lots of reasons not to bother: A reluctant Executive Dean with a restricted budget; no workload allocation; competing conferences at that time of year. And so now I am thinking creatively…. How about an online conference? Maybe with a focus on ‘confer’-encing we can support the creation of sustainable gatherings and communities just like The Women Who Write—communities that build a broader sense of care, that give time to the relational, and to conversation and connection over time.
Tell me what you think.
About Ali Black
Ali Black is a narrative researcher and early childhood educator in the School of Education, University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Her arts-based research and scholarly work seeks to foster connectedness, community, wellbeing and meaning-making through the building of reflective and creative lives and identities. Ali is interested in storied and visual approaches for dismantling personal/professional binaries and representing lives. Her research and writing is concerned with the power and impact of collaborative and relational knowledge construction.
Resources you might like to follow up:
- Ali’s Blog with The Research Whisperer
- Ali’s Podcast recording with Changing Academic Life
- Ali’s Podcast with Research in Action and bonus clip about planning a conference for women in academia.
- Ali’s Podcast with #3Wedu: In Vino Fabulum [In Wine, Story]