Academic cosmopolitanism on the conference circuit: Reaching beyond the comfort zone (Sarah Anne Ganter)

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Strong networks are an important component of building a successful academic career.

When at international conferences I frequently observe that many networks revolve around a strong core of scholars working on the same continent and often in the same country. Cultural, linguistic, racial, and economic differences shape academic networks and fragment disciplines. While one crucial point of conferencing should be to breach this gap, the contrary is often the case.

A joke told every year at a big international conference that I attend, is that it is a networking event for scholars based in the US, while others have the honor to stand by and watch the magic happen. This observation seems paradoxical, and shows the conflicting ways in which ‘international’ can be interpreted and experienced by conference-goers. Many international conferences involve thousands of participants, and even though people might meet in smaller working groups and sections, meeting and greeting are not synonyms for establishing a dialogue and creating a network that will be productive over time.

In the spirit of a more democratic and open approach to scholarly exchange, I suggest ‘academic cosmopolitanism’ is a helpful way of thinking to create more inclusive conference networks, which eventually will open academia up.

Academic cosmopolitanism derives from a realm of scholarship discussing different types of cosmopolitanism and its applications in scholarly work. Scholars advocating for cosmopolitanism aim for diverse intellectual exchange and have pointed towards ‘methodological’ (Ulrich Beck) and ‘theoretical’ (Silvio Waisbord) cosmopolitanism as strategies to open scholarship up. Despite growing awareness and repeated critique, academia continues to fail to be inclusive on all scholarly, educational, and institutional levels. Academic cosmopolitanism combines intellectual and structural critique towards academia and aspires to create common spaces with room for differentiation.

At the individual and educational level, academic cosmopolitanism encourages an open-minded and impartial attitude towards scholars and their work and seeks dialogue (see for example my work on the use of intercultural dialogue in fieldwork situations here).

Intellectually, academic cosmopolitanism aims in the long term for ‘epistemic transformation’ through inclusion of wider theoretical perspectives from outside Western contexts. Epistemic transformation, however, needs to be enabled by all, scholarly, educational, and structural transformations (see Diagram below). Academic cosmopolitanism can be very resource intensive, as it requires time and flexibility. However, there are small acts that can be integrated in everyday scholarly practices, such as for example, reading and reaching out to scholars who work outside Europe and North America (See this collection in HERD for more).

Academic cosmopolitanism

For individuals, exercising academic cosmopolitanism, in a nutshell, refers to the capacity to be curious beyond the established comfort zone. This curiosity leads to a willingness to transcend different networks. A decision to take that step beyond our comfort zone will enable us to give our research agendas a cosmopolitan perspective which will enhance epistemic transformation and will help us to work towards more openness in academia. Academic cosmopolitanism as an attitude cannot immediately transform structural problems impeding more accessibility in academia, but it can help to create space for ‘invisible scholarship’ (See an analysis of this invisibility by myself and Félix Ortega here). Ways of decision-making are more likely to change if scholarship becomes more inclusive overall, starting at the level of tacit actions, to which all of us can commit and conferences are a great place to start.

We should ask ourselves more questions like: How many new people working outside our country context did we establish stable and functional connections within the past years? How many of those colleagues speak a different first language, or represent a different type of academic than we usually interact with?

Of course, time is scarce and it seems more comfortable to intensify existing networks from conference to conference than to open them up for new people from different backgrounds. However, while closing in on our existing networks is understandable, it is not favorable for a discipline in the long run. A discipline, the knowledge it creates, the communities which circulate, de- and re-constructed this knowledge are motivated by the curiosity to create new connections. Bridging different networks means to bridge scholarship to create new and fairer spaces for disciplinary innovation.

Entrance into academic networks is particularly important and many times formative for young scholars. Supervisors and senior colleagues may introduce junior colleagues early on into their networks (see Jennifer Rowland’s post on this). These existing networks may become their academic home and shape many of their professional decisions. (Where should I publish? With whom should I publish? What should I work on in the future? Which conferences should I go to? With whom will I chat and with whom will I go for lunch, coffee or dinner at a conference or workshop? – and with whom not).

Instead of just including students and junior colleagues to networks, it is critical to encourage them to find their networks as part of finding their intellectual independence. Being exposed early on in a career to different scholarly realities, arguments and struggles, circumvents the mere reproduction of existing networks and consequently of collaborations, thoughts, ideas, and publications. This practice would support an understanding of internationalization beyond the expansion of own reputation and work towards intellectual expansion and diversification of scholarly work.

Understandably, reaching out might mean to experience a form of short-term conference anxiety and requires more effort. However, the consequences for a discipline functioning along the lines of segmentation and long-term invisibility of ethnic – gender- language- economics- specific scholarly demographics are depressing. Practices of segmentation cause far-reaching imbalances of representation for example with regards to editorial boards, paper presentations and publications in major academic platforms or to the work academics read, recommend, use in the classroom and quote (see an analysis of these imbalances by myself and Félix Ortega here).

The feeling of conference isolation, and frustration is one mentioned, for example, by colleagues, who struggle because they cannot express themselves in English in the same eloquent ways as they would in their first language (see also posts by Michael Guest and Francisco Javier Fernandez Polo). For colleagues experiencing isolation, going to a conference alone is already a step outside their comfort zone. The truth is, we are doing it wrong if we spend a whole conference with colleagues from our own Universities, their friends and the couple of co-authors we have amounted over time. It takes extra work and courage to change that habit, and senior academics will find it less challenging to reach out to new people than emerging colleagues.

For a change of perspectives, we could for example attend conferences where we do know nobody (see post by Shauna Pomerantz). What is required in any space is that extra effort to try to understand, be prepared to be open-minded, impartial, and to explain and to listen more than what we would within our established circles. In short – ‘be kind’ – as a senior colleague put it on a panel discussing reasons for and consequences of ‘invisible scholarship.’ Being kind is an excellent response towards people who took a chance and stepped out of their comfort zone. Being kind is where academic cosmopolitanism should start to prepare the scenario for more profound transformations to open up a discipline.

Sarah ganter

Bio: Dr. Sarah Anne Ganter is tenure-track Assistant Professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She holds University degrees from Germany, Argentina, the UK and Austria. Her research interests include communication and cultural policy, media governance, journalism studies, qualitative methods and comparative research. Her work is based on the idea of academic cosmopolitanism and aims at integrating scholarly perspectives from different cultural, linguistic and geographical academic settings. Sarah tweets at @sarahsoutlook.

Sarah’s work on academic cosmopolitanism is available online (and free to access) here:

Ganter, S. A (2017). Perception and Articulation of own Cultural Otherness in Elite Interview Situations: Challenge or Repertoire? The Qualitative Report, Volume 22 (4), 942-956. Online available from: http://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol22/iss4/1/.

Ganter, S.A. & Ortega, F. (2019). The Invisibility of Latin American Scholarship in European Media and Communication Studies: Challenges and Opportunities of De-Westernization and Academic Cosmopolitanism.” International Journal of Communication, 13(2019), 68-91. Online available from: https://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/8449.

 

Author: CI_Jamie

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

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