Bodies, difference and learning: Reflections on two Fat Studies Conferences

James Burford discusses a recent publication written with Emily Henderson and Cat Pausé called Enlarging conference learning: At the crossroads of fat studies and conference pedagogies.

Fat Studies: Identity, Agency and Embodiment

As a new researcher of conferences there was one thing that I figured out pretty quickly: conferences are academic spaces where the academic body comes to the fore. As academics, we often first meet each other on the page of a book or an article. However, as Emily F. Henderson writes, conferences are different kinds of academic meeting zones, they are spaces where ‘bodies meet names, where professional relationships and hierarchies become tangled up with toilets, meals, and discos’ (p. 34). That is to say, conferences are embodied spaces where our fleshy selves emerge front and centre.

As many of the posts on Conference Inference attest, the fact that conferences involve the arrivals, care and co-mingling of human bodies gives rise to a range of questions about the exclusionary practices that exist across academia. For example, Emily F. Henderson, Briony Lipton and Genine Hook have all written about the ways that care responsibilities shape the accessibility and experience of conferences for academic carers. Liz Jackson has written about the gendered dimensions of ‘conference grabs’ and Barbara Grant and Ali Black have reflected on the ways that the collegiality of conferences gave them great comfort as academic women in a particular time and place. I’ve written a bit about the sexual dimensions of conferences as well as the neon wonders of the conference disco. And recently Dai O’Brien reflected on the conference experiences of deaf delegates.

All this is to say that at Conference Inference we have been especially curious about the specific and nuanced ways that bodies (do not) arrive to conferences, and how our bodies shape our experiences within conference spaces.

In this post I’m attempting to offer another way in to this wider discussion about conference bodies. Recently, Emily F. Henderson, Cat Pausé and I published an article in a special issue of Fat Studies called Enlarging conference learning: At the crossroads of fat studies and conference pedagogies. This article attempted to stage an encounter between the field of Fat Studies and conference pedagogy research. In the article, we took a close look at two International Fat Studies Conferences held in Aotearoa/NZ, in 2012 and 2016.

The main questions that we considered in this article were:

What happens when we configure Fat Studies conferences as pedagogical spaces? What learning theories can we discern? How might we enhance learning at them?

We began with the proposition that conferences are a form of ‘public pedagogy’ or an institutionalised site beyond formal schooling, that has been established with a hope that learning may occur. This enabled us to think about the kinds of pedagogical windows that the International Fat Studies Conferences may have opened, and what other ways of configuring conference learning might be possible. We drew on reflections from the conference chair (Cat) as well as recollections from a participant (Jamie) to understand the theories that shaped the design of the conferences, as well as the innovations and limitations of the events.

We considered what might motivate attendees to come to the conference in the first place. There are the standard motivations that delegates in many fields have: the chance to network, the opportunity to learn about new developments in knowledge, the desire to share research with colleagues. However, for those in marginalised fields, like Fat Studies, conferences offer an important opportunity for solidarity, a chance to connect with others who understand the shared purpose of the field and what its like to work in it.

After this, we examined what happened at the conferences, and what implicit theories of learning might have informed their design. There are already some fab pieces on the conferences at Cat’s blog Friend of Marilyn here and here, as well as media coverage here. So in this post I am going to focus mostly on the four key themes we found surrounding learning at the FSNZ conferences:

Conference pedagogy – in organizing the conference there was limited consideration paid to their design as ‘learning spaces’ per se. The organisers mostly built the conferences from models of previous gatherings they had attended, and paid greater attention to ‘what’ would be presented and ‘who’ would present, than ‘how’ learning might happen. However, there were some innovations that were trailed. For example, efforts were made to create dialogue at the conference by inviting attendees to introduce themselves in a plenary session at the beginning of the conference and to share their reasons for attending. A similar practice was used at the end of the conference, where delegates were invited to share their closing thoughts, feelings and questions.

Employment of fat pedagogical tools – the conference chair described key features of fat pedagogy as shaping the conference, such as being choiceful about the language used, the visuals presented, and the physical accessibility of the space (p. 75). These guiding philosophies were made concrete by using a diversity of images in conference and promotional materials, for example. This value was also manifested in practices of checking the physical accessibility of conference spaces (including meal spaces, bathrooms, and social spaces offsite). Questions included: is furniture comfortable for large bodies? And, does the arrangement of furniture allow for fat bodies to move through unencumbered?

In addition to a focus on the promotional materials and physical space, we also noticed some pedagogical practices, including ‘framing, layering and connecting’ that have been discussed by Fat Studies scholar Erin Cameron previously. At FSNZ16, for example, a poster from Nalgona Positive Pride was displayed by the front door. This requested delegates to refrain from engaging in diet talk, food shaming, and health/concern trolling. Following Cameron, we suggested that using this poster might be understood as a form of “framing,” which ‘attunes delegates to the expected atmosphere, boundaries, and objectives of the learning space’ (p. 75). We also noted pedagogical practices of layering and connecting, by offering strategic keynotes at the beginning of the conference in order to attend to the diverse starting points of conference participants, and also by inviting keynotes who were able to present different lenses and accounts of understanding fatness. For example, the organizing team felt that a combination of activist and academic keynotes would be useful, as it would allow for different stories and practices to be presented.

Accessibility and intersectionality – Across FSNZ12 and FSNZ16 the conference organising committee was concerned about issues of accessibility and intersectionality. It responded to these concerned by issuing a CFP, which was addressed to “academics, researchers, intellectuals, scholars, activists, and artists, in any field of study, and at any stage in their career”. Other ways of putting concerns about accessibility and intersectionality into practice included stratified registration costs and scholarships. Those who were unable to attend in person (perhaps due to caring commitments, financial hardship, or physical disability) were able to register as online delegates and have access to a livestream of FSNZ16. Online delegates were also able to participate by the use of live tweeting and questions for presenters via tweets.

However, the conference chair acknowledged that the greatest failure of both the conferences was its reproduction of whiteness in the academy. She noted that the conference ‘suffered from an inability to engage people of color (POC), as either speakers or attendees’ (p. 76). While the committee sought to ensure that the CFP was shared in networks facilitated by POC, most of the delegates who attended the conference were white.

Community engagement – FSNZ16 sought to make the most of community engagement opportunities by hosting events at a local library and museum. These events were open to the public in order to ensure that the learning community that could be expanded beyond those attending the conference.

Organising conferences: Considering the fat body

While the focus of our article was fixed on learning at Fat Studies conferences, it has also raised questions about the ways in which ‘fat pedagogy’, the project of “reimagining an experience of education that is inclusive of size diversity” (p. 2), may have wider application to academic conference management and design.

Thinking with fat pedagogy offers anybody who is taking responsibility for the creation of conference spaces (in any field) a series of useful questions to ask. Conference conveners and committees might ponder: who gets to experience a feeling of belonging at this conference? Who can’t fit in these seats? Who will find this table uncomfortable to sit at? Who might find these bathrooms difficult to access? Will anyone struggle to move around this room? And, most importantly, how might we remove these obstacles?

These questions are just a beginning, and there is much more thinking to be done here. But I hope that they demonstrate that our ethical concern about difference, embodiment and equity at conferences ought to include questions of size too.

Ps. please take a look at our piece – we’d love to hear any feedback!

22815199_10155026583477606_3325306964393820133_n (1)

James Burford is a Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University. His current research projects include a cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference, and a study on academic mobility to Thailand. James is co-editor of the academic blog Conference Inference and tweets as @jiaburford.

Author: CI_Jamie

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

One thought on “Bodies, difference and learning: Reflections on two Fat Studies Conferences”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: