Conferences are (not) holidays

In this post, Emily F. Henderson delves into the thorny issue of whether conferences are in fact holidays, and why we might wish to deny or confirm this allegation.

Not a Holiday by Rhiannon Nichols
Not a Holiday by Rhiannon Nichols

In informal conversations, social media posts and in the blogosphere, conferences often get dismissed as being ‘holidays’. I have been thinking about this for a few years now – a memorable moment was noticing an exchange on Facebook joking about conference destinations, where the word ‘conference’ was enclosed in inverted commas and accompanied by a winking emoticon. I have already touched on this issue in other places, particularly relating to the ways in which conferences are commonly constituted through two contradictory discourses, ‘defining moments’ and ‘conference fatigue’. One of the reasons that I have not yet written specifically about the conference/holiday issue is that it is a thorny issue that, if mishandled, could fuel further accusations of privilege and elitism that prematurely curtail many discussions of conferences. The challenge is that it is not as simple as jumping up and down and shouting ‘conferences are NOT holidays’. Because in some ways they are holidays (sometimes really bad holidays), and in some ways, as I go on to argue, that is defensible. In this post, I am finally trying to unpick and re-weave the confused and conflicting discourses surrounding the ‘conference or holiday?’ question.

Conferences as holidays – constituting discourses

While the ‘defining moment’ discourse is used to construct conferences as pivotal moments in the shaping of research fields and personal careers, the ‘conference fatigue’ discourse refers to conferences as irrelevant, boring, ridiculous – and elitist and luxury. A typical example of the ‘conference fatigue’ discourse is the statement in an article by Julian Kerchherr entitled ‘Expensive academic conferences give us old ideas and no new faces’: ‘There are always the same old faces, with a few more wrinkles every year, using obfuscating jargon to present the same old stuff.’ These portrayals are rife in the blogosphere, on social media, and in informal conversations between conference veterans. The conference/holiday issue is an important facet of the ‘conference fatigue’ discourse, in that the ‘holiday’ analogy serves as a vehicle to highlight the wasted money, the elitism and luxury that is endemic to ‘ivory tower’ representations of academia. For example, Jeannie Holstein defines conferences in a Guardian article as ‘holiday, hot air and hubris’, and, in an article tellingly entitled ‘The Scientific Conference Guide (Or, How to Make the Most of Your Free Holiday)’, Kat Arney proclaims that conferences are ‘underneath it all, a free holiday’. While the conference/holiday comparison often occurs as an attempted witticism, there are also serious ethical questions which underpin the jibes, as can be seen in a BBC article by Chana R Schoenberger, ‘It’s a conference, not a vacation – right?’, where she responds to a reader’s question about how to make the most of a conference where the sessions are half-full because the other delegates are ‘sleeping in, or hanging out at the pool or gym’.

There is widespread confusion about the purpose of conferences, the proper way of attending them, and the benefits that are supposed to ensue. While many ‘top tips’ accounts try to remedy this confusion by making practical recommendations (for a pastiche of this see a post by Kate Carruthers Thomas), our approach to conferences at Conference Inference is to embrace this confusion, and to explore the mysterious nature of conferences as phenomena that somehow produce defining moments while simultaneously producing conference fatigue. It is my view that the conference/holiday analogy arises from this confusion, and it also consolidates the conference fatigue discourse. While there are elements of the conference/holiday accusation that are justified, it is also ultimately not a helpful discourse to sustain. Because of the widespread dismissal of the salience of conferences within the ‘conference fatigue’ discourse, including in popular cultural representations of conferences eg. when Ross attends a conference the TV sitcom Friends and the ‘Professor von Igelfeld’ novels of Alexander McCall Smith, it is difficult to convey the importance of this area of research to other academics and friends and family outside of academia. Yet, as I have argued elsewhere, and as we are demonstrating through Conference Inference, conferences are key sites for the development of academic careers and research fields – but also as sites of ingrained inequality, the unmeasurable background to those elusive, hard-to-change but deeply unequal facets of academic careers such as ‘prestige’, ‘esteem’ and ‘reputation’.

The conference/holiday analogy is unhelpful in this regard as its widespread usage means that any argument relating to equal access to conferences has to first break through the perception that conferences are not really essential for an academic career – after all, they are just a holiday, aren’t they?

Conferences are (not) holidays

While it would be convenient to be able to simply deny the accusation that conferences are holidays, as usual with conferences there is no easy way out. This comes back to the mysterious nature of conferences, and what is actually supposed to happen at them. For there are several ways in which conferences are holidays, or include holiday-like facets, and maybe some of this is okay and not ethically wrong.

Firstly, I do think it is important to state that, as holidays go, conferences can make for a really bad holiday. The idea that a conference is a holiday feeds into the ongoing societal narrative about workaholic academics who have no boundaries between work and leisure. Frantically preparing a paper, wearing uncomfortable clothes and staying in a corporate hotel are not on my list of characteristics for a top holiday, even if some of it does also involve seeing new places and spending social time with old and new friends. Pamela L. Gay, in her article ‘The Unacknowledged Costs of Academic Travel’ makes a rebuke to the public discourse about academic conferences which I think sums it up: ‘Yes, being an academic is a privilege. Yes, we are lucky to get to see the insides of conference centers the world over.’ Sometimes academics use conference travel as the excuse to take a holiday with a partner and/or other family members, perhaps to exotic places, because it seems value-for-money when one flight is funded. Although the couples in Hyekyung Yoo’s study of accompanying partners seemed to be having a nice time in the main, I have also come across many accounts – anecdotally and in my empirical research on conferences – where trying to balance a family holiday and a conference has been a disastrous juggling act.

While conferences do not make for an ideal holiday, there are aspects in which conferences have some of the positive characteristics of holidays.

This is in part because academic conferences are after all part of the global mega-industry that is conference and events organising, and venues deliberately market their facilities and locations to academic associations in a bid to secure tender. Some conference venues base their bids for tender on the attractiveness of the location, deliberately appealing to the holiday-like facets of conferences (see eg. research by Leask & Hood), safe in the knowledge that delegates will jump at the chance to visit an exotic or unusual location. The ethics of this practice are questionable, particularly when the locations involve prohibitive costs for delegates and a hefty carbon footprint. However there are also occasions when conferences are deliberately located off the beaten track, for instance where the location reflects the theme of the conference (see Randy Malamud’s account of a conference in the world’s northernmost human settlement), or where an association wants to make a political point, such as the 2014 Indian Association for Women’s Studies conference, which was located in the North-East region of India, in order to raise the profile of this neglected region. At this conference, there was indeed a direct conflict of interest between conference sessions and tourism – some delegates departed on two-day trips during the conference which were offered by travel agents operating within the conference ‘market’ area. While this seemed like ‘skiving’ half of the conference, it also reflected a deliberate effort on the part of the conference organisers to improve delegates’ understanding of the region.

For early career researchers (ECRs), including doctoral students, funded conference attendance can constitute a rare opportunity to travel (as long as the funding is sufficient – see an article by Joseph Hong on this). ECR conference travel came up in my doctoral study on Women’s Studies conferences, where some of my participants and their friends were balancing conference participation with the opportunity to travel to a new place and stay in accommodation that they would not be able to afford otherwise. Here we encounter the ethical question of being paid to take a holiday, and the concomitant question of what constitutes ‘proper’ conference participation. In an article in Health Education Journal by Amy Thompson and colleagues, there are clear guidelines for conference professionalism, which equate ethical use of conference funding with attending the formal sessions. Attending the formal sessions is a clear way of separating conference=learning experience and conference=holiday. However, as Chana R Schoenberger writes in response to the aforementioned reader who wrote in about the conference/holiday question, ‘make plans to meet up with others, even if it’s poolside. That’s networking, too.’ Many accounts of conferences emphasise the importance of chance encounters and social time as where the magic happens, and this feeds into the mystery of conference accountability. If an ECR has institutional funding to attend a conference, attends no sessions but secures a book contract, or seals the deal on a research collaboration, or is invited to speak at an event, or finds out about a new type of research that pushes their work into a new domain, based on conversations over breakfast or ‘poolside networking’, have they ethically used the funding, or have they had a holiday? And how to distinguish in accountability mechanisms between someone who has attended all the sessions but met no one and learned nothing, and someone who skipped all the sessions and met no one and learned nothing, and the first person who skipped the sessions but gained so much? This is something that institutions and top tips writers have been trying to nail down for years, but it can’t really be nailed down.

The final point I want to make about it being okay for conferences to be like holidays is that conferences are vital as ‘work-holidays’ for academics with significant care responsibilities in their work (eg. director of studies or senior tutor role) and family lives. In a post about conferences on The Slow Academic, Agnes Bosanquet summed this up: ‘A bonus of conference attendance is the loosening pleasure of escaping from everyday work and family responsibilities.’ In my recent research project on the impact of caring responsibilities on academics’ conference participation, many participants discussed the welcome break from everyday caring schedules; they valued staying in a room alone and undisturbed, not having to prepare food or clean up, following an irregular schedule including late night socialising, having time to think, being able to swim or run in a new place as they chose. This was framed by some participants as self care, and these aspects of conference attendance closely mirror the qualities of a holiday. However the problem here was that the participants recognised their need for conference travel – in terms of self care and of maintaining their academic identity – but were also personally embroiled in the conference/holiday ‘conference fatigue’ discourse. The discourse tended to emerge as guilt – in general for leaving caring responsibilities and/or co-carers at home – and this guilt incorporated guilt at being in a ‘nice place’ without loved ones, and/or guilt for enjoying time away from home. The conference/holiday conflation also influenced the ways in which participants negotiated the care arrangements with co-carers during their absence, where co-carers may not understand the significance of conference travel, as discussed by Krystal Douglas in the short film for my research project. In one example, a participant’s partner took a holiday ‘in return’ for holding the fort at home while the participant was at the conference.

As I have argued in this post, perpetuating the conference/holiday analogy is unhelpful, as it prevents conferences from being taken seriously as sites which are laden with power. This impedes the exploration of the role of conferences in sustaining hidden inequalities in the academic and other professions. However I also cannot deny that conferences are holidays, or attempts at holidays, for a number of reasons, including family decisions; conference and events industry marketing strategies; exotic locations chosen for academic reasons; opportunities for ECRs to travel and have otherwise unaffordable experiences; opportunities for academics with caring responsibilities to engage in self-care. The suspicion that conferences are holidays appears in many forms, and it resides in institutional accountability systems as well as academics’ consciences. The conference/holiday conflation is not going to go away – not only is it part of the cultural imagination of conferences but it is also in some ways true – but I hope this blog post can provide others with a foundation for more nuanced discussion of this issue.

EH for conf infEmily F. Henderson is co-editor of Conference Inference and tweets as @EmilyFrascatore.


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