Conference Inference on Raewyn Connell’s “Surviving and thriving at academic conferences”

In this post Conference Inference editors Emily Henderson and James Burford read alongside Raewyn Connell’s recent blog series entitled “Surviving and Thriving at an Academic Conference”


If you are a Higher Degree Research student or an Early Career Researcher who is new to the world of academic conferences, it can be a challenge to figure out how to orient yourself. What’s what? Who’s who? And what are the possibilities for being in this space? In a recent series of five blog posts, social theorist Raewyn Connell has offered her take on academic conferences, accumulating thoughts about how they may have changed, and how researchers might think about them and act at them. Raewyn begins her posts by describing conferences as ‘sometimes brilliant, often boring, often alienating’ and recognises that ‘they are especially tough for new players’. In a playful romp across a number of topical issues, Raewyn sketches a map of conferencing for those who may be new to this terrain. In so doing, Raewyn’s posts can be understood as synthesising a form of ‘conference literacy’ in their attempt to lift the veil on conferences to reveal their inner workings, logics, and the habitual ways participants (mis)behave at them.

The project of opening up what a conference is, and how new researchers might ‘be’ at them is something we are also committed to here at Conference Inference (e.g. Lilia Mantai’s lessons for doctoral students attending conferences and James Burford’s conferences as transformative moments in a doctoral life). What is distinctive about Raewyn’s recent posts is her breadth of experience and her keen observations about the weird and wonderful world of conferencing. The suggestions and tips that Raewyn has shared might work for people who are new to conferences, or they might not – but what we take from Raewyn’s posts is an invitation to think more about conferences, and the ethical question of how to be at them.

In the following post, we survey some of the possibilities that Raewyn has surfaced, draw some connections with other Conference Inference posts to provide avenues for further thought, and close with some of the things that her posts left us talking about.     

Arriving at conferences

Arriving at a conference is a momentary experience, and being confronted with a huge labyrinthine venue or weaving through familiar university buildings can set the tone for a sense of un/belonging at a conference, as Raewyn notes in her first ‘outburst’ in the series (see also Fergus the Cat’s photo essay). The first post, which focuses on arriving at conferences, takes us through her own encounters with conference arrivals, as well as some generalised thoughts on trends in conference practices, based on her own experience of attending ‘a couple of hundred’ conferences over a number of decades. Arriving at a conference is now more likely to entail showing up at a large corporate hotel or convention centre, whereas conferences used to be predominantly located in universities, often organised by academics with “interesting” ideas about conference organisation. Despite the changes in organisational practices and above all cost, certain things haven’t changed – there are still dubious social events and discos (see James Burford’s post on the conference disco), conference bags with spurious contents, money-saving schemes for staying in dodgy accommodation. What Raewyn’s post shows us is that arriving at a conference is always a slightly odd and at times alienating experience (see also Holly Henderson’s post on placelessness at conferences), but that there are ways of creating our own feelings of belonging, by for example planning to attend as a group.

How to be an audience

While conference advice to postgraduate students and ECRs often focuses on the art of presenting, in her second post Raewyn reminds readers that it is just as important to reflect on how to be an audience member, after all ‘the main thing you will do at a conference is listen to other people’. In this post Raewyn considers how an audience member might choose sessions:  by stream (maybe), by fame (be warned: disappointment may lie ahead), by intellectual interest (above all). She suggests that audience members might aim for a mix of sessions that cover teaching interests, research interests and also a wild card option that might provide an ‘intellectual jolt’. Other advice: don’t sit at the back; be an active and engaged learner, lean in, take notes – write down names, figures, dates, and ‘test the ideas and claims as they arrive’. When it is question time, Raewyn advises the audience to remember that knowledge building is a collective endeavour:  

If there’s vagueness, ask for clarity. If you have reason to think that part of the presentation is wrong, you can say so. In fact you should.

If the session itself has not provided the intellectual stimulus you were looking for, fear not! As Raewyn reminds us, the intellectual engagement that many seek in the conference often occurs following/before/instead of the formal conference program.  

How to give a conference paper

The third installment in Raewyn’s conference series focuses on the art of giving a conference paper.  Raewyn begins by identifying what she sees as ‘three bad ways to give a paper:

  • Writing a journal article and trying to read it aloud
  • Trying to show off, often by an over-clever title.
  • Speaking to a clique (‘some papers are little more than academic faction-fighting in camouflage’).

On the contrary, Raewyn offers some strategies she has found useful. In the first case, she identifies preparation as key. As Raewyn notes, it is not only important to think about the content, but it is also important to think about your audience and how you will share your findings with them. As Raewyn reminds us, ‘the session is actually more about the audience than about you’. The second strategy she advises is to think about the conference paper as a form of oral communication, and so finding a way to connect with people in the room is of utmost importance. So how should you plan your conference talk? If you have 10 minutes Raewyn suggests a break up that looks like this:

  1. Problem (explain the key question): 2 minutes
  2. Main finding: 1 minute 30 seconds.
  3. Reasoning (How did I come to this conclusion? By doing X, and finding Y): 4 minutes 30 seconds.
  4. Relevance (explain the significance of what you have done): 2 minutes

Finally, just like our earlier post from Kate Carruthers Thomas, Raewyn advises prospective presenters to seize the floor ‘be of good heart, and show your feelings. This is a communication between people, not between robots. Tears and laughs are allowed in academic conferences’.

Why go to conferences?

While the first three posts in Raewyn’s blog series focus on practical issues of attending conferences, the final two encourage us to think about more existential questions relating to conferences. The first of this pair of posts asks the question, ‘Why go to conferences?’. This question has been asked and answered in many different venues, but there is a tendency to answer in a rather formal way, as if from a teacher to a pupil. Raewyn’s post does include some of what we could classify as the ‘sensible’ answers to this question, such as how conferences can lead to publications, networking and learning. However there is also a reassuring honesty to her recognition of conferences as labour markets, keynote speeches as ‘crazed mountaineering’ (see also Tai Peseta on keynotes), and the importance of treating conferences as places to catch up with friends. In a recent Conference Inference post, Emily Henderson addressed the question of whether conferences are or are not holidays, and Raewyn’s post addresses some of the same contradictions relating to the nature and purpose of conferences – what are conference delegates supposed to do, and why? Recognising that conferences foreground ‘the hot and the not’ of academia, Raewyn encourages a healthy degree skepticism and also a recognition that conferences can be challenging experiences for early career researchers.

Democratising conferences

The second of the pair of posts which pose tricky questions about the very existence of conferences is the final post in the series entitled ‘Democratising conferences’. This is an issue which is very close to our hearts at Conference Inference, so we were delighted to find a range of important issues covered in this post. Raewyn notes that conferences can take the form of ‘a bunch of intellectual workers huddled inside a building’, and that for this reason they can be highly exclusionary spaces. The list of ways in which conferences are exclusionary is long, and Raewyn’s post alone touches on sexual harassment, cliques and macho behaviour, power hierarchies, the financial burden for Global South scholars, and border politics. Conference Inference has also hosted guest posts on deaf delegates’ experiences of attending conferences; sole parent postgraduates attending conferences; gender and caste in relation to access to conferences, and ‘unwanted grabs’ at conferences. From these enumerations, conferences seem like a bad thing, and indeed Raewyn asks, ‘So: abolish conferences?’. This is a question that we have also been asked in various fora. And the answer we give mirrors Raewyn’s answer to her own question – ‘other things will have to change before the economy of knowledge can do without conferences’. As such, for now it is our duty to think critically about our conferencing practice and to consider, as Raewyn recommends, how to make conferences more democratic spaces.

Final thoughts on “Surviving and thriving” from Conference Inference

As conference studies researchers, we are now more often invited to lead sessions that have titles like: ‘how to present your conference paper’. This can pose a challenge for the both of us, each of whom identifies more as a critical conference studies researcher than an expert public speaker with limitless expertise about how delegates might communicate and embody their knowledge! In the same token we recognise that, for postgraduate students and ECRs who are new to conferences, some didactics about how to organise ideas and share them may well be in order. We have been experimenting with Raewyn’s model of Problem-main finding-reasoning-relevance for presenting at conferences. One of the helpful things about this formulation is that it recognises that a conference paper need not have the same logic and structure  as a written article. It recognises that in speaking we might un-pick some knotted logics of argumentation and reimagine other way of structuring communication. Another of the helpful things about this formulation is that it just encourages us to play, to try on new ideas, to wonder if this approach might help or not. We think such thoughtfulness about how we present at conferences is useful – it sees them as the knowledge building encounters that they are, and also recognises that they involve  presenters and an audience, dissemination and learning, you and them. While many more ways of viewing the key ‘moves’ in conference presentations might be possible, we reckon these are a useful platform to begin playing from.

Another thing that this series of blog posts does well is to recognise that conferences are complex and multi-faceted and strange. Lines are blurred between different roles, knowledge types, ways of interacting, and so on. This comes through clearly in Raewyn’s ‘outbursts’, where she moves from one issue to another through chains of association which show how different elements of conferencing cannot be separated out for study. She moves from the pleasure of socialising to the pressure of appearing employable, from show-off papers to bad coffee, from advice on ‘belting out’ your presentation to a tip to ‘be of good heart’. While the ‘top tips’ aspect to the blog post series is extremely helpful, perhaps one of the most valuable things to include in advice to new conference attendees is that conferences are strange, and complex, and that they make you feel strange and complex emotions, and that this is where some of the negativity relating to conferences comes from, and also the joy and the magic. Thank you Raewyn for your contribution to the conferences world!

Full links to the posts

Post 1 on arrivals:

Post 2 on being an audience:

Post 3 on giving a paper:

Post 4 on why go at all:

Post 5 on Democratising conferences:


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James Burford (@jiaburford) and Emily Henderson (@EmilyFrascatore) are co-editors of the Conference Inference blog.

Author: CI_Jamie

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

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