The feminist conference panel as a site of revision, collaboration, and connection (Erica Delsandro, Jennifer Mitchell, Laurel Harris, & Lauren Rosenblum)

In this post Erica, Jennifer, Laurel and Lauren describe their experience transforming the academic conference panel in their field into a radically feminist venue.

Cartoon drawn by Jen Mitchell during the 2018 panel

Editor’s note: March 8th is International Women’s Day. Throughout March, Conference Inference will host a special series of three posts which focus on gender, feminism and conferencing (see Post 1 and Post 3). For more information on International Women’s Day follow #IWD2021 on social media or take a look at the International Women’s Day website. For examples of conferences research which focus on gender and feminism see here.

“Can I be your friend?”

Not a question that a panel of speakers at an academic conference expects. But it was the happiest question that was posed that day in Columbus, Ohio at the 2018 Modernist Studies Association conference. And, although it caught us off guard, it also solidified our sense of achievement. We organized this–our first collaborative panel–to spark a genuinely collective inquiry, and this opening question proved to us that we had succeeded.

As we all focused at least to some degree on literary modernism in graduate school, the Modernist Studies Association has served more or less as the “big conference” in a field the organization has aimed to reinvent since it was established in the 1990s. Attending the annual MSA conference together for years, we often discussed the ways in which traditional approaches to panels–despite the interdisciplinary claims of the organization–sowed isolation and division rather than allowing us to shape new questions and form feminist connections.

Disillusioned with looking for progressive models that never appeared, we decided to be our own teachers: we proposed a panel for the 2018 conference that was explicitly feminist, inclusive, and inviting in form as well as content. The panel, entitled “Where Do You Get Off?: Modernist Women’s Writing and Graphic Ambivalence,” developed as a conversation between the four of us, and we designed it to open our conversation to all, particularly privileging the voices of graduate students, emerging scholars, and adjunct faculty in the question and answer period. We would also perform how our ideas developed in conversation rather than hiding that generative reciprocity in individualized work. Two of us (Lauren and Laurel) even wrote and presented a paper together to this end. To our delight (and surprise), the panel was accepted.

To our even greater delight, as the panel got underway on that gray, late fall day in Columbus, Ohio, it quickly became clear that the room would be overflowing with feminist scholars, graduate students, emerging scholars, and senior scholars eager for the same kind of conference upheaval we were seeking. It was the last panel of the day but the audience wanted to engage both with the ideas in our papers and with the idea of the conference panel as grounds for feminist collaboration.

In conceiving the panel, we had the following priorities:

            1) Challenge hierarchies

2) Be inclusive

            3) Center intersectionality

            4) Have fun

We read out a meta-introduction to our panel that year, an attempt to foreground not just what the audience was about to experience but the idea (and ideal) underlying it; that introduction concluded with the following:

We’re used to conference presentations being trials, and incentives, for the larger individual works for which our profession rewards us. We feel the need, more than ever, though, for support, for a collective project that brings in multiple voices. If (queer and?) feminist pedagogies have argued for an inclusive decentering of the classroom, then we would argue the same for our scholarship. So we are thinking of this panel as an admittedly modest rethinking of the form of the conference panel itself. If we can’t change the conference form from outside the system, we can emphasize provisional collaboration as a means of changing it from within. We are lucky to be here together again, so let’s see what we can do together.

We wanted to be what we wanted to see at conferences: academics whose work invites and inspires, whose relationships with each other are intimate as well as professional, and whose privileges are transparently addressed and taken into account. And, of course, we wanted to demonstrate that academic success — however you measure it — does not require foregoing enjoyment, pleasure, friendship, or even joy. We brought our joy to the panel: the joy we each take in our work, the joy we take in each other’s work, and the joy we create as a collaborative team. We were confident that this emphasis on joy and connection would make our work stronger–and we were right.

This joy emerges from sadness: sadness that as graduate students seeking to develop our own unique critical lines of inquiry we struggled with competition and isolation; sadness at previous “professional” relationships that fizzled when being seen and being known became more important than being; sadness that the scarcity of jobs bred distrust, jealousy, and secrecy; sadness that the friendly-ish relations between more senior academics appeared to be built on a model of professional due diligence, with shared passion and commitment being secondary. We admire and respect our feminist forbearers. But we weren’t invited into a club that we soon realized wouldn’t bring us much joy anyway.

Joy is at the core of our collaborative endeavors. We’ve known each other in some capacity for many years–early days in some shared graduate programs, for instance; or particularly meaningful conference interactions as junior scholars–but our friendship and our academic work is foundationally intertwined.

We sit for hours in conference hotel rooms or bars, planning our next steps: a new panel, a workshop, an article cluster, world domination. Those moments of imagination are filled with laughter and snark, certainly, but also with an ambitious energy to transform the performative hub of academia’s most pervasive hierarchies: the conference panel. We embrace the joy within the sadness.

Right after the panel in 2018, we planned the 2019 panel that resulted in our joint publication in the October 2020 issue of Feminist Modernist Studies arguing for the conference panel as a site of ongoing, collaborative inquiries that centered feminist questions in modernist studies. This panel, which we presented at the 2019 Modernist Studies Association conference in Toronto to a standing room only audience, was entitled “New Feminist Modernist Manifestos.” Emboldened by our success in 2018, we further emphasized the conference panel itself as the site of messy, provocative, and conversational ideas. Playing off of the trend in modernist studies to slap an adjective in front of the still forceful appellation “modernism,” each of us adopted an adjective–“angry,” “dark,” “sketchy,” “suffering”–to explore what feminist modernist approaches might look like if we reimagined the conference panel as a more experimental and collective site. We published versions of these papers together in a Feminist Modernist Studiescluster arguing for this transformed conception of the conference panel.

Our efforts at disrupting the norms of our academic conference pale in comparison to the latest global disruption, potentially an existential threat to the conference form itself: COVID-19. And while COVID-19 has been the source of tragedy, insecurity, and frustration for us, we have been able to leverage the Zoomosphere to our advantage, meeting more regularly than we did in non-pandemic times. These meetings–each of our faces in tidy squares across the two-dimensional screen–have been about support, commiseration, and friendship; they have also afforded us a chance to reimagine our collaborations and our revolutions. With no conferences to attend, we are seeking pandemic affordances (with a shout out to Victorian scholar Caroline Levine’s idea of “affordances” as “the particular constraints and possibilities that different forms afford” (6)). Instinctively, we have always known that conferences both allow and limit–for every opportunity they proffer, there is an obstacle or barrier to overcome, work around, or decry. But now we are face-to-face with what our modestly radical collaborations look like without the conference structure.

As literary scholars, we are in a particularly precarious profession. Since we began going to conferences as graduate students, we have been struck by the structural dislocation between the innovative work that scholars in our field publish and present and the failures everywhere to make a sustainable living doing so.

The protective professionalism we sometimes saw on display at conferences made little sense in this context. What of the profession was left to protect? Further, even as conferences in our field often reinforced hierarchies, they also offered an opportunity for connection and exploration that we were unable to find within the ever increasing grinds of our jobs. When we decided not only to collaborate but also to emphasize our joy in doing so, we aimed to reject an outmoded professionalism and embrace the conference form’s more utopian possibilities however limited such a utopia may be by the structures that enable it.   

And the truth is, we want to be your friend, too. We also hope you already have your own friends, your own tables at the restaurants, your own Zoom calls. We want to make joy, friendship and collaboration the rule, not the exception. There is not enough to go around in academia: not enough jobs, not enough funding, not enough journals publishing our work. But perhaps there are enough of us to make real change: to build committed relationships; to have joy in one another’s success while also normalizing failures and disappointments; to create radical panels and roundtables; to infiltrate boards of conference directors; to nurse our babies on hotel benches; and to love each other so completely and thoroughly that joy is inevitable. It may be a claim ridiculous in its boldness, but we’ll make it anyway: in our failing profession, perhaps, the conference, however modestly, could begin building the other world that is possible.


Erica Delsandro, Jennifer Mitchell, Laurel Harris, and Lauren Rosenblum have collectively presented together on two Modernist Studies Association (MSA) panels that aim in part to evaluate the purposes and the possibilities of the conference panel. They recently published the most recent collaboration in a cluster devoted to rethinking the conference form titled “Making Manifestos: Reconfiguring New Feminist Modernisms” in the October 2020 issue of Feminist Modernist Studies. Here’s where they can be found on Twitter: Erica at @EricaGene5, Jen at @charnamarna, Laurel at @subsubheading, and Lauren at @lmrheights.

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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