“Teach the university”. Teach the conference?!

In this post James Burford outlines how he has applied Jeffrey Williams’ invitation to ‘teach the university’ to the teaching of conferences in his role as Lecturer in Research Education and Development at La Trobe University.

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“I work in Critical University Studies”.

These days, this is most likely the sentence I will offer up if I am asked to describe my scholarly tribe.

By affiliating with Critical University Studies (CUS), I am choosing to pitch my tent with a gathering of scholars who explore the way that ‘the university’ functions as a social institution. CUS is an interdisciplinary field which draws on sociological, literary, cultural and labour studies research traditions, and is broadly ‘critical’ in orientation (i.e. advocates for a political reading of universities and their practices).

According to Jeffrey Williams, CUS was born in the 1990s with the publication of books like Leasing the Ivory Tower: The Corporate Takeover of Academia (1995), The University in Ruins (1997) and Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University (1999). This was followed up by a slew of texts including Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education (2005), Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces (2010), Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class (2011) and others which Williams has outlined here (cf. para. 7).

Key issues that CUS researchers have been concerned with over the past several decades include:

  • The impact of neoliberalism on universities
  • The shift from an emphasis on higher education for the ‘public good’ to privatisation and a focus on individual benefit
  • The growth of student debt
  • An increasing corporate character to universities – including expanded managerialism, audit and surveillance cultures
  • The precaritisation and casualisation of academic labour
  • The recasting of students as consumers
  • Hostility toward the humanities
  • The growth of discourses such as ‘entreprenurialism’ and ‘innovation’
  • Experiences of intersectional disadvantage for academics and students alike

As Williams (2012) argues CUS is similar in orientation to Critical Legal Studies, in that it:

turns a cold eye on higher education, typically considered a neutral institution for the public good and foregrounds its politics, particularly how it is a site of struggle between private commercial interests and more public ones (para. 11).

Nowadays, the research area of CUS has grown to the extent that it has journals that are associated with it as well as book series by publishers such as Johns Hopkins University Press and Palgrave.

Teach the University

In my view, one of the most important CUS texts is Williams’ own Teach the University (2007). While Williams begins his piece by acknowledging that it is ‘hard not to be depressed if you care about the university’ (p. 25), he advocates for scholars to do more than meet these changes ‘with chagrin, resignation, or antidepressants’ (p. 25).

Indeed, as Williams (2007) outlines, one thing that is within the realm of possibility for many academics is to ‘teach the university’ itself.

‘We are teachers, so the one thing that we can do, with direct and appropriate effect is to teach’ (p. 27).

He also  gives some very good reasons for doing so. As Williams (2007) argues, we ought to ‘teach the university’ because it is a ‘central institution of contemporary life’, and one which ‘speaks to the distribution of resources and welfare of citizens’ (p. 26). As he notes:

‘if over 70 percent of American citizens attend college at some point, it is not a sideline or an intra-academic concern but a central public issue’ (p. 26).

The aims of Williams’ (2007) call to ‘teach the university’ are quite simple. By teaching the university he hopes that we might give ‘students a language to articulate some of the stakes in current policies and practices, to define its cultural images, and to discern steps in its evolution’ (p. 32). By teaching the university we might also set out ‘terms upon which to judge and assess particular incarnations of the university’ (p. 32). We might, for example, ask questions about what has been gained and lost as the university has transformed in recent years, we might also imagine new futures for it that have thus far not been conceived.

In his article, Williams outlines a series of helpful possibilities for developing courses which could foreground the literary, cultural, and social history of the university. He also offers valuable lists of potential readings in philosophy, history, fiction and policy for those who think they might like to take up his invitation.

Teach the conference

As a research educator, I do not have the luxury of a lengthy course where I might undertake a historical survey of the development of universities, nor can I arrange my teaching around issues like ‘student life’, ‘academic labour’, or the ‘legal status of universities’. My engagements with students are much shorter in duration and more distributed in nature. In my day-to-day life as a teacher I am more likely to run a workshop here, and an online session there. Much of the teaching I do is one-off, and focused around topics central to the process of becoming a researcher (e.g  research planning, project management and academic writing). Other work I do may be ongoing, but is not driven by formal ‘curriculum’, such as my ongoing participation in our ‘Shut Up and Write’ group (SUAW), for example.

However, I have been thinking about Williams’ invitation to ‘teach the university’ for some time. In recent workshops that I developed, I applied Williams’ logic in an effort to ‘teach the conference’. I have done this because a) I believe that the conference is also a topic worth spending time teaching, and b) I imagine myself ‘teaching the university’ via my teaching about conferences.

It is my view that research educators (like me) might teach conferences as historical and cultural phenomena that are tangled up with university policies, practices and politics. We might invite learners to reflect on the relationship between conferences and academic community, noting the ways that conferences have the potential to reproduce (and interrupt) the normative political relations of academia (see Emily Henderson’s work on this).

“Thinking about conferences”

Venue .jpg
This picture of the venue is one of only two that I took during the retreat. The other picture is of a field of llamas.

My first experience where I ‘taught the conference’ was at a one hour session at the ASSC retreat for La Trobe postgraduate students in the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce in August 2018. In this session I set out to offer a broad introduction to conferences, what people expect of/at them, practical suggestions for negotiating common challenges conference-goers experience, and offered some different ways of thinking about them more generally.

As a research educator working with postgraduate students, I think it is important to begin a session on conferences with a grounding in what they are and what people tend to do at them. I mark this as important because I don’t take for granted that all students will arrive to postgraduate study with the same understanding of academic events and their associated rituals. Indeed, for some students who are unfamiliar with the rules and logic of the conference ‘game’, it is important to make invisible expectations transparent and offer access to what are sometimes difficult to grasp concepts and vocabulary.

In my class we talked about the:

  • Broad outlines of conferences (how long they are, what people tend to do at them, parallel vs. plenary sessions, the social side, the stated and unstated purposes of conferences from various stakeholders)
  • The way that the whole conference is a learning activity (the prep, the application, the travel, the presentation, being in the audience, the social sessions).
  • Benefits of attending conferences (sharing work, feedback, career development, professional learning, academic employment, pleasures of travel)
  • The barriers to attending conferences many people face (e.g. geopolitics, time, funding, accessibility, care responsibilities, other inequalities)
  • Trying on possibilities of what to do (before, during and after the conference)

While all of these issues are important, the main take away from my workshop is this:

The question of “What should I do at a conference” might be answered with a question, “What kind of researcher do I want to be”?

In my workshop I pose the question of what to do as an ethical one. I argue that it invites reflection on who the researcher is and who they wish to become.

For example, does the researcher wish to be a supportive, caring, collegial, competitive or tough kind of scholar/colleague? Or some mixture of these (and other) values? As a research educator I hope to engage students in a discussion about how to make these kinds of judgments. Once students understand the kinds of values they hold as researchers, they can think think with greater clarity about how to enact themselves as researchers at conferences. Some people may wish to be the kind of researcher that many ‘how to conference’ guides aim to produce: a business-card carrying, room scouting super-networker who is there to seal the deal. If that is in line with the researcher-self that they want to be, then all power to them. But in my class I try to open up a wider field of possibilities. Students might equally wish to see themselves as the kind of researcher who acts as a bridge to link people who haven’t met, the researcher who sits with a new or overwhelmed colleague, the researcher who holds a baby while a parent goes on a walk, the researcher who is an engaged audience member, or the researcher who knows their limits and takes time out to rest and recover.

Ultimately, I guess my teaching is guided by an assumption that it is productive to ‘think more’ about conferences, and that by offering students the chance to think and play with who they might be at them, we all might get a little closer to creating the university we wish to inhabit.

This post is also in dialogue with some other Conference Inference posts which have explored these issues in different ways, such as our post on Raewyn Connell’s blog series on Surviving and Thriving at Academic Conferences, Lilia Mantai’s post on Conferencing for Early Career Academics, Kate Carruthers Thomas’ tongue-in-cheek graphic essay ‘Conference with Confidence’, Emily Henderson’s post on critically engaged conference practice, and Jennifer Rowland’s post on strategizing conference participation as a research team.

If you are also a teacher of conferences (by workshop, in supervision, informally or otherwise) I’d love to talk more about this – do please get in touch!

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James Burford is co-editor of Conference Inference and tweets as @jiaburford.





Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at La Trobe University. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

4 thoughts on ““Teach the university”. Teach the conference?!”

  1. Now this got me thinking. We wear ‘different hats’ (so to speak) at conferences, and this probably does reflect our values as individuals to some extent. But I think we should also be cognisant of how these hats can be a reflection, and even a product, of the conference environment. How we as researchers are at a conference is a product of the people and the environment. For example, it does not take much for even the most super confident of researchers to feel in awe when encountering a superstar Professor at a conference.

    But (and with no apologies for repeating myself); I think the most important determinant of someone’s being at a conference (with a deliberate nod to Heidegger here), is what the purpose of the conference is. If it has training events, the person might have an open and receptive stance; whereas if it is the conveyor belt of presentations, then people might see it and use it as an opportunity for debate. But what might begin as a sincere challenge can always inevitably become self-aggrandising questions in the Q&A. (This might be expected because debate brings conflict, as an attempt to promote change). Perhaps we also need to teach skills in making the most out of Q&A, as the audience participant, and person expected to reply?


    1. Yes absolutely – researchers exist in particular environments, which both enable and constrain their actions. But I don’t agree that someone’s being at the conference is primarily determined by the purpose of conferences per se or a particular conference. The more I’ve researched conferences the more wild I think they are. I think that people bring a lot of their own meanings, goals, fantasies, desires, fears etc in. I’m also less into teaching “skills”, prob because I don’t think I necessarily think I have the answers about how to “make the most”. It comes back to the researchers own intentions and judgement for me.


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