Ok. I admit it. I make judgements – for good and ill – about whether academic conferences are worth attending based on who has been invited to give the keynote address. I totally accept that this could be foolhardy. Yet I can’t shake my considerable attachment to acts of meaning-making that a brilliant keynote is wont to do. Keynotes matter to me because they communicate something about the tenor and texture of a conference, and in particular, how a conference understands itself as a project that contributes to the development of a scholarly field of inquiry. I don’t only see conferences as a place for communicating the process and outcomes of individuals’ research, they are also places for community building (see Roma Smart Joseph’s and Anita Perkins’ Conference Inference posts on this), personal development, finding an academic job, landing a book contract, and being seen, among other possibilities.
At higher education (HE) conferences (my research field), I have encountered keynotes of all kinds: a Vice Chancellor or Pro Vice Chancellor going on about the global challenges facing the sector and how their particular university is cautiously leading the way with this or that initiative; then there’s the slightly baffled award-winning university teacher showcasing how they’ve managed to negotiate considerable institutional odds to support student learning at scale; we might also see a glimpse of the international rock-star armed with a collection of rollicking anecdotes (or indeed, one who swans about the conference in bare feet as I witnessed recently); and more and more, we are starting to see the emergence of (undergraduate) students giving keynotes about their experiences of being in higher education as itself a kind of virtue. Yet for all this variation, it’s incredibly rare these days to see a HE keynote at one of these large, generic, hotel-located conferences that presents ambitious theoretical work without the accusation of being exclusive, elitist or more troublingly, irrelevant.
To my mind, the lack of ambitious theoretical work has been a devastating absence from the keynote scene in HE for some time. It’s an absence that functions to keep these large conferences trucking along (and in gross profit) without ever making much of a statement about the state of the research field itself or the nature of inquiry that the field demands. To give an example, I recently went along to large and routinely very expensive HE conference and was stunned to discover that the delegates had no access to the keynotes’ titles or abstracts – just a list of their considerable achievements. So instead of going along to that first keynote, I watched the reaction on twitter wondering why on earth I had hassled my university to fork out the nearly thousand-dollar registration fee for me to go. As it happens, I walked out of the second keynote, puzzling over just how heroic stories of ‘initiative implementation’ have come to stand in for critical, scholarly and theoretical work. One or two others walked out with me. I can well understand how disruptive and rude that act might be for a keynote, yet for me, it was a tiny act of resistance.
As someone who has convened HE conferences and argued with committee members about what a keynote should do; as someone who has been invited to give the odd keynote (with all the anxiety and clumsiness I have described above), and as someone who has spent too many hours in conversation with academic friends analysing our delight and disappointment at keynotes, let me try to be a little more balanced about this. I can guess at some of the administrative reasons why keynote details are missed from a conference program. I once gave a keynote and didn’t offer an abstract. I had been struggling to finish it. I too am guilty of the very same things I am accusing others of here. What I am more interested in is how academics invited to give keynotes understand the role and responsibilities of a conference keynote for the scholarly fields that the conference represents, and how conference committees/convenors make decisions about who to invite into a keynote space and why.
Researching the International Academic Identities Conference
In the last year or so, I have been working with several colleagues* on an empirical research project that is seeking to shape a cultural history of the International Academic Identities conference (IAIC) – as a contribution to two emerging sub-fields: one, academic identities scholarship, and two, academic conference pedagogy. I’ve been involved with the IAIC in some way since 2010. The conference is small, often described as ‘boutique’. It began as a conversation between two academic women – a historian and a literary scholar – in Northern England in 2008, and continues to be nurtured today out of love by a rotating crew of (mostly) academic women. This is a significant point. The IAIC is not hosted by a professional association in the same way that many Education Studies conferences are (such as SRHE, HERDSA, AARE, NZARE, BERA…) so it is not subsidised and it has no access to a membership levy. Nor does it belong to any particular university. It has travelled to Glasgow, Auckland, back to Durham (England), Sydney, and in 2018, it will be hosted in Hiroshima. It is still relatively young and fresh on the HE conference scene.
In crafting the project, the research team noted two issues. First, there are actually very few cultural histories (or organisational ethnographies) on particular HE conferences. An exception to this is this piece by Alistair McCulloch and Michelle Picard, which reviews the Quality in Postgraduate Research conference. On her blog patter, education academic Pat Thompson wrote a post offering sharp advice about how research students starting out might choose which conferences to participate in. And in the opening of his 2017 book Academic Conferences as neoliberal commodities, Donald J. Nicholson offers something of a potted history of several key disciplinary conferences that have made a permanent mark on the scholarly legacy and tradition of their fields. In revisiting these texts, I am left trying to imagine the dialogue in a HE conference committee where an intention to shift the field is chief among the reasons for selecting keynotes.
Second, there is very little in the academic conference pedagogy literature about the purpose and art of keynoting as a distinct mode of address. It is an absence that raises curious questions about how one learns what a keynote is for, how to put one together, and what it means to be in the audience. Is a keynote just an extended conference paper? Is it a chance to perform yourself and your research in a more flamboyant way? Is it a chance to spruik your latest book, project or big idea? When we interviewed IAIC convenors and keynotes, there were robust views about what a keynote should do for a conference.
Between intention and affect: An upcoming paper on conference keynotes
At the upcoming IAIC in Hiroshima our research team plans to offer a symposium on the history of the very conference that delegates arrive to participate in. While other team members will offer presentations on conferences as communities of care, and the idea of presenters ‘meeting the audience’, Catherine Manathunga and I will present a paper titled ‘Between intention and affect in the conference keynote: tracing emotion and desire’. In this paper, we use the IAIC as an opportunity to interrogate the space between the intention of a keynote address and its associated affects.
We start our paper with the recognition that keynote presentations are often much-anticipated events. Often intended to communicate the cutting edge of a field or to provoke the audience to think otherwise about canonical debates, there can be a genuine thrill in seeing a speaker offer and defend their ideas in person as a particular mode of performing academic identity. And because keynote presentations usually open a conference, the excitement and inspiration generated tends to galvanise a good feeling. People arrive early to get a good seat. Yet surprisingly little has been written about the pedagogy of conference keynotes, despite other kinds of speaking pedagogies having been considered (see Emily Henderson’s piece on the pedagogy of the guest speaker). While there are references in the literature to aspects of the keynote’s particularity, for instance, guidelines for selecting good conference keynote speakers; the use of micro-blogging in keynotes, or academic women receiving fewer invitations to give keynotes; there is also a good deal of critical questioning about the ongoing relevance of keynote presentations (e.g. Looser, 2016; Bell, 2018).
In our paper we plan to theorise the conduct and operations of emotion and desire to firstly, reveal the aims that conference convenors had in selecting particular academics to give keynotes; secondly, we take up what the keynotes themselves intended their presentation do for the conference and the field of academic identities; and finally, we unravel the emotional resonances of the AIC keynotes on conference delegates themselves. Our ambition is to interrogate the practice of keynoting not only as a distinct mode of address but also to represent it as an uneasy practice that interrupts the development of academic identity.
These are just early thoughts, and we would welcome feedback on how we are framing keynotes at this stage of our project. What do you think keynotes are for? Have you noticed any trends in the conferences you’ve been attending? And have you spotted any work on keynotes that we should know about? Our research team would love to hear from you.
*A decade of dialogue: a cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference 2008-208, funded by the Research Institute for Higher Education (RIHE), Hiroshima University. The research team includes: Dr Tai Peseta (Western SydneyU), A/Prof Machi Sato (HiroshimaU), Prof Catherine Manathunga (USunshine Coast), Dr Jan Smith (independent scholar), Dr James Burford (ThammasatU), Dr Agnes Bosanquet (MacquarieU), Dr Jeanette Fyffe and Fiona Salisbury (La TrobeU).
Bio: Dr Tai Peseta is Senior Lecturer, Learning Transformations at Western Sydney University in Australia. While she likely has too many research interests, she has written on academic identity, doctoral curriculum and education, students as partners, the scholarship of academic development, and university teaching development at the meso-level, what probably ties them together is a commitment to interrogating ideas of the university. With Simon Barrie and Jan McLean, Tai edited the Special Issue Academic life in the measured university: pleasures, paradoxes and politics (for Higher Education Research & Development), and she is one of the co-editors of the collection Identity Work in the Contemporary University: exploring an uneasy profession (Sense). Both these collections are reflections of the 2016 (Sydney) and 2014 (Durham) International Academic Identities conferences. She tweets @tpeseta.