Are doctoral students missing conferences? An interview with Brittany Botti-Amell

What impact has COVID-19’s interruption of conferences had on doctoral students? Conference Inference editor James Burford asked Carleton University doctoral candidate Brittany Botti-Amell to share her reflections.

Picture supplied by Brittany

In a recent Conference Inference post, Omolabake Fakunle introduced findings from a collaborative research project which explored doctoral students’ motivations for attending domestic and international conferences. Omolabake and colleagues undertook research with doctoral students studying in four universities in Scotland, England, Australia and the US and found that doctoral students primarily attend conferences to extend their academic development, in pursuit of networking opportunities and to enhance the visibility of their work.

After publishing Omolabake’s post (see publication here) we wondered: what impact has COVID-19 had on the conference plans of doctoral researchers?

In this interview we extend the work of Omolabake her and colleagues in order to think about what an ‘absence of conferences’ (at least as we usually know them) means for emerging researchers. I have invited Brittany Botti-Amell, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University in Canada, to share some reflections on whether she is missing conferences.

Jamie: Can you tell us a bit more about what you study? What stage you are up to in your doctoral experience? I know you are getting closer to the end!

Britt: I’m at the dissertation stage of my PhD, which for me means I’ve more or less stopped collecting data and am in the process of making sense of what I’ve collected, and then translating that into a comprehensible product. I’m broadly interested in how and what we understand scholarship and research to be—our interpretations of what constitutes academic or scholarly communications, I suppose—and what this might mean for “us,” broadly speaking, as a society. Since my M.A., I’ve been predominantly concerned with the ways in which our taken-for-granted assumptions about what constitutes academic writing reinforces and perpetuates different forms of oppression—and how this translates into a solipsism, or what Marie Battiste has referred to as cognitive imperialism and Kubota calls epistemological oppression. My doctoral research has focused on different aspects of doctoral writing, which has included digging into the tension that plays out between genre conventions and innovation at the level of the doctoral dissertation.

Jamie: Have you been to any academic conferences so far during your postgraduate journey? What were they like?

Britt: Oh yes, I’ve been to quite a few. Usually I attend two conferences a year. In Canada, we have a large consortium of academic associations that get together and hold their conferences during the same two or so weeks at the end of May and beginning of June. So, I’ll usually attend Congress—the official name is Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities. Congress is a Whole Thing. There are huge book markets (very dangerous, I once spent $200 CAN on books and then had to pay extra to ship them back home), tons of different para-academic vendors, and even beer and food tents. My favourite Congress experience was in Regina, Saskatchewan. Graduate students were able to apply for supplementary funding from the host (the University of Regina), which translated into accommodations, a gift certificate for food (I was even able to buy fancy beer!!), and a gift certificate for the university gift shop. To my knowledge this is a rare occurrence at Congress. I’ve been to three Congresses and this was the only time I was able to apply for funding.

My favourite part of going to conferences is the academic meet-cute—when you get to meet and connect with other academics—and getting to fan-girl over other people’s research. I love the sparky-ness of hallway conversations that lead to thinking about (my/our) research differently or seeing how someone in a different discipline approaches and frames a similar problem. I also love seeing all the ways academics use methodologies. But I will say there is a conspicuous absence at Congress (and most of the conferences I attend): I don’t see many pregnant people or parents with their kids, or arrangements for childcare (see further Conference Inference posts on this topic here). I don’t see many of my friends who haven’t received extra funding to travel and can’t afford the cost. And, as someone who is slowly preparing to become a first-time parent and full-time caregiver, I’m not sure how likely it is that I will be able to attend conferences after baby is born.

Jamie: I know COVID-19 has interrupted your conferencing plans – because we were both supposed to be in Denmark earlier this year! Do you want to tell people about which conferences you have pulled out of your diary…?

Britt: This year was going to be a big year for me in terms of conferencing, probably because I’m working towards finishing my degree. Presenting at conferences gives me a chance to prepare my thoughts and requires me to get my head around my projects, which is supremely beneficial to me as a writer. I often use my conference presentations as an opportunity to develop an early draft for whatever I’m working on, which is currently my dissertation.

I had five conferences cancelled: The International Conference for Qualitative Inquiry, the Canadian Association for Studies in Discourse and Writing, the Canadian Writing Centres Association, the Academic Identities conference, and the International Doctoral Education Research Network Meeting (which is not technically a conference but I’ll include it because it piggybacks on the Academic Identities conference).

Jamie: Are you missing conferences? What do conferences represent to you as an emerging researcher? What are you missing out on? Is there anything you aren’t missing?

Britt: At first, oddly enough, I felt relieved—five conferences in the span of two months is just way too much. But as we hit month three, five, and so on, it definitely changed, particularly as no real interim or alternative measures were put in place. While I don’t miss out on the cost associated with attending conferences (I think I spend a minimum of $500 and usually upward of $1000 CAN after travel and accommodations), I do miss out on the opportunities to be around other academic minds. I miss the human-to-human connection that reminds me what my “academia” is all about. And, especially given where I am in my degree, I miss the privilege of being able to talk about my research with others and hear their thoughts. It’s so easy to forget all the ways our work matters and why we’re doing it. Conferences usually gave me the opportunity to reconnect with other people, ideas, and my research.

Jamie Have you been to any online conferences or seminars recently? If so, what were they like?

Britt: I actually take courses pretty frequently on EdX (a platform for online learning), so I think the idea of transitioning to online conferences seemed like a reasonable progression to me. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. I really wish conference planning committees opted to initiate more open conversations with academics in a range of stages regarding their needs before deciding what to do. I understand that so many of us were grappling with new realities, as well as shifts in our work and care loads. However, I still feel that there was just not enough notice or contingency planning in place. I think this has highlighted, for me, a need to think more carefully about the role conferences play in graduate students’ and early career researchers’ lives, and the extent to which an association is willing to wrestle with questions about how well they are serving the different facets of their membership. I think it also has highlighted a need to think more intentionally about how academic associations and conference planning committees can respond in ways that might be a little more even across the membership.

Jamie I know that your own doctoral research is focused on doctoral writing, looking in particular at dissertations which push the edges in terms of their form. Given your knowledge about doctoral writing, I’d like to ask: what role do you think conferences play in supporting the production of doctoral writing and doctoral writers?

Yeah, the other thing that I’ve been thinking about is how doctoral students and early career researchers really low-key rely on conferences as a huge part of their professional and academic development—and how pulling conferences off of the “menu,” so to speak, has an impact on this. First, I think of the networking we do at conferences. Conferences are often places where we get to meet researchers from different universities and listen to their ideas. If we’re fortunate, we meet like-minded people that we can begin to imagine writing to—we develop and hone our idea of the audience we’re writing for. Second, conferences give us an opportunity to hear about the latest research happening around us, which can help us to keep our fingers on the pulse and give us some ideas about how our own research might (or might not) fit in. Depending on the conferences we go to and how broad or niche they are, we might also start to gain a sense of some of the tacit conventions that our research community subscribes to—for instance, perhaps we find that we no longer have to defend our choice of employing a certain feminist methodology anymore because it’s accepted by the community or maybe we get a sense of what (or who) the community considers to an integral component of their knowledge lineages because we pick up on citation patterns that occur across presentation and conventions.

Jamie: Are there any questions that are unresolved for you about conferencing as an ECR? What do you think we need to do some more thinking about?  

Britt: I think we need to listen to—and take seriously—ongoing calls from different membership groups to work up alternative solutions for those who are unable to attend conferences. Beyond contingency planning, I think we need to better consider the ways in which we can use our physical and digital spaces more creatively and generatively, perhaps by offering some workshops online (asynchronous or otherwise), or by using alternative platforms like Twitter or Padlet etc. to practice and gain experience with these new-to-us methods. I think the key is remembering the words practice and pilot—just because it’s new doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it, and just because we’re trying something doesn’t mean it’s going to go well or even stick around. Experiment! Play! 

Brittany Amell MA (Carleton), is a PhD candidate studying Applied Linguistics and Discourse Studies in the School of Linguistics and Language Studies at Carleton University. Her studies have focused on the ways in which structural inequities might be (re)produced and dismantled through the research, theory and pedagogy of academic writing. Her interests include writing poetry, painting, and going to bed at night so she can have coffee again in the morning.  Brittany tweets at @balloonleap

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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