Of the many stressful aspects of becoming and being an academic, academic conferences are one in particular that stands out as being simultaneously overrated, othering and compulsory.
I find academic conferences to be overrated because they are so expensive and difficult to access and attend. Conferences and I seem to be involved in a relation of cruel optimism: I am attached to the idea and process of the academic conference and the opportunities it offers to share my research work, but I find most academic conferences to be unforgiving and unproductive. I suggest that this is particularly the case for those of us who are sole parents and academics.
The art of networking and strategically aligning oneself to the academic hierarchy is too often the business of conferences. Who attends your conference paper presentation? Does anyone actually even attend? What else could the institutional financial support have purchased to promote and support research work and career sustaining ideas and collaborations? Notwithstanding these limitations, academic conferences remain compulsory. The art is choosing the conference that suits your agenda, with interesting people in your field, and which is organised by generous and ethical colleagues.
Sole parent postgraduate students at conferences
In my experience, and in the experiences of HDR (Higher Degree Research) students I spoke with for my research work, academic conferences can be particularly difficult for sole parents. My research is based in the Australian academy but resonates with international experiences of equity and engagement in higher education for under-represented scholars.
Academic conferences have the capacity to reveal and ‘out’ one’s collisions of care-work and academic work. When I spoke with sole parent HDR students about their capacities to combine academic study and create career trajectories whilst raising children single-handedly, they nominated academic conferences as often impossible, and a problematic institutional expectation. Most of these sole parent postgraduate students were resigned to (and grumpy about) being unable to attend most academic conferences. They spoke of financial limitations, intensified child-care responsibilities and a failure of institutional awareness of these limitations together with no institutional financial support, combining to ensure that academic conferences were mostly out of the question (see another Conference Inference post on conferences and care).
These sole parent HDR students were acutely aware that academic conferences were seemingly compulsory to attend within the duration of their candidature. However, they were also acutely aware of the failure of academic supervisors and the supporting faculties and institutions to support and fund this expectation. The complexity in extracting oneself from sole parent duties to find the time to attend academic conferences, combined with financing the travel and conference registration fees on one limited HDR income can create difficult conditions for sole parents. These interrelated factors are compounded if/when international conferences are considered.
HDR travel awards that are paid retrospectively are also problematic for sole parents who can find paying for conference registration, flights, accommodation and childcare upfront exclusionary. The expectation to attend conferences, to be in a position to do so, and to be in a position to pay for it all upfront, are examples of how universities establish norms of recognisability for postgraduate students that can have negative effects on how sole parent postgraduates are able to be recognised within those normative structures. Many participants in my research confirmed my own experiences that academic conferences are incredibly difficult for sole parents to attend and to take advantage of the career trajectory manoeuvres, networking and collegial benefits involved in being at, and being seen at, academic conferences.
Child-care was the other obvious exclusion point. Often sole parents do not have back-up for child-care and cannot take time out from 24/7 care responsibilities to travel to and attend academic conferences. Early in my own PhD candidature I decided to bring my son along to academic conferences, rather than avoid or remain excluded from these spaces. Being a sole parent PhD student meant that bringing my son to academic conferences was the only way that I could be involved in the academic conference and manage my sole parenting care-work responsibilities. This has worked well for me, although it does curtail the level of engagement that is possible at the conference. Full days of papers and welcome drinks and academic dinners are out. This is one example of the negotiations between parental care-work and academic work I make everyday; they are just more visible within conference spaces. My aim is to be involved and to carve out a space for myself and my work at academic conferences within my conditions of account.
Becoming a sole parent academic
Now that I have moved passed the PhD zone and have the privilege and security of an academic position, the way I negotiate mixing academic conferences with my parenting has changed. Having my son travel with me to academic conferences also opens up the possibilities of sharing the joys of the academic life, such as travel. We have attended conferences on the way to our family holidays in other places. He has to wait for me to present academic papers and ‘network’ before he and I set off to share fun adventures. Last year before the Gender and Education Conference in London, we had a week riding bikes in the Loire Valley, and eating our way through Paris. So when many academics expressed sympathy for my son Jack having to wait around at the conference, he responded that two weeks in France is worth it!! These family connections are made possible by the privileges of an academic position and are an ongoing part of the negotiated becomings between my parenting and academic work.
Being ‘outed’ as a sole parent in a ‘child-free’ zone
I experience academic conferences as an extension of the ‘child-free’ zone created within other university spaces. Colleagues at academic conferences often express sympathy for Jack having to wait around for me at conference venues; sometimes observing – ‘that’s why I left my kids at home’. Sole parents can’t necessarily ‘leave their kids at home’ and we shouldn’t have to miss conferences because of this.
I have experienced academic conferences as an ‘outing’, or a slippage between the dedicated career-orientated unencumbered academic and my sole parenting everydayness. In Living a Feminist Life (2017), Sara Ahmed talks of the ‘burden of concealment’ (p. 123). Most of my academic work is done by me negotiating my academic work and my parental-work in private; messily and mostly badly. Academic conferences ‘out’ me by making these everyday negotiations of parental and academic accountability and recognition public, and at times awkward. This sense of being ‘outed’ is an un-covering of my hitherto hidden/private/familial limitations which refuses and questions the ‘all-in’ networked, published academic. The collision between both my full-time jobs; sole parenting and academic, results in my epistemological uncertainty within these spaces. In Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler (2005) describes the fraught nature of recognisability, the negotiations of being outside normative structures whatever and wherever they may be. The awkwardness of having a young person/child attend an academic conference and my compromised engagement with the full conference agenda is a negotiation, (both familial and career), and there are costs associated within these negotiated conditions. My mediated conference attendance and engagement is equally about that two weeks in France with my son as it is about forging an academic career. I problematize my recognisability as a researcher/postgraduate/academic/parent within conference spaces. These are critical spaces – places of visibility, aspiration and success but also alienation and boredom for attendees.
About Genine Hook
Genine Hook studied Sociology and Education (Secondary) as an undergraduate at Monash University and her studies culminated in a PhD from the Faculty of Education at Monash University in May 2015. Her research explored the experiences of sole parents at universities in Australia and her thesis was awarded the Monash University Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation for Thesis Excellence in 2015. Her first book – Sole parent students and Higher Education: Gender, Policy and Widening Participation– was published by Palgrave Macmillin (UK) in July 2016. Dr Hook now works at The University of the Sunshine Coast lecturing in Sociology. The subjects she currently teaches include Introduction to Indigenous Australia; Social Justice, Welfare and the State; Family and Children in Society; Youth and Delinquency; Mixed Methods in Research; Social Inequalities. Her research focuses on gender, higher education, family-based violence, familial norms, feminist pedagogy and social policy.