Filed under: Academe
I have an ambivalent relationship with academic conferences. I like the idea of them: the forming of an intellectual hub; the opportunity to share and exchange ideas with peers. There’s something comforting about a full programme of speakers and talks and pre-arranged lunchtimes.
Though once there at the conference – once one has paid the hefty admission fee including competing for a privileged spot of presenting a paper – I often feel deflated. Conferences can be a tiring process, but its another sort of fatigue I feel, more a dispiriting sense of pointlessness.
I spend a lot of time and energy preparing conference presentations. I tend to write a new paper for each conference I attend. I am incapable of just ‘winging it’ and need to carefully write and practice before each conference. Following my recent presentation at the British Sociological Association annual conference, I wondered over the usefulness of this routine. I felt that the time and energy I spent preparing the paper wasn’t balanced by the end result of 15 minutes presentation, a series of PowerPoint slides (that look lacklustre whatever I try and do to them) and (hopefully) a couple (somewhat relevant) questions from the (hopefully) at least ten people or more in the audience.
As an ‘early career’ sociologist, my attendance was, in part, strategic. I am compelled to disseminate my PhD research. This is a professional necessity but I do have a genuine desire to share my ideas with others and hope that people will be interested. Though conference attendance is not something I can currently easily afford. The struggle to afford the entrance fee exacerbates my discomfort and highlights the feeling of disconnection, of not belonging, of not quite being part of the club.
It seems that the BSA have been making changes to address the needs of early career academics, and more broadly have begun to recognise the need to stay relevant to contemporary debates and engage the ‘public’. How far the BSA and other such organisations still have to go was captured for me in a comment made by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams in her plenary, where on being asked what can sociologists do to fight against the rise of the politics of brexit, Trump and so on, she replied that academics would do better to start by looking at the inequalities that exist within their own profession. No doubt that comment sat uneasily for some, for me it resonated all too well. I think for many sociologists, professionalisation of the discipline, or more accurately marketisation of the discipline, is something to be resisted and to fight against. And yet surely there must be a way to develop fair and equal working practices without creative work being destroyed. But still it seems we haven’t quite figured it out.
I suppose that’s another discomfort of the conference, it fosters short-sightedness. Where social problems become things to discuss in musty, bland rooms accompanied by slides and a too often curtailed chance of discussion. Issues are dwelt upon for a time-limited period and then mentally the conference structure forces you to mentally move on. Everything becomes ‘interesting’ and space for contemplation can feel scarce.
In 2013 I attended the BSA conference and similarly felt this sense of short-sightedness. I felt frustrated at what felt like at the time the reduction of ideas through the conference presentation format. Perhaps then at the beginning of my PhD I was somewhat naïve, but what I wrote four years ago I feel can still be applied to the present day:
I might be old-fashioned in that I came into Sociology wanting to change things and not keep them the same because I saw problems that were being ignored and overlooked. This applies to the inner workings of the discipline too. Conferences that take place in opulent buildings filled with overwhelming numbers of white middle class male faces leave a bad taste in my mouth. John Holmwood in his plenary spoke of readjustment rather than constructing ideals of the future. Indeed a fixed ideal of the future is limiting, but perhaps a fixed desire to maintain the status quo is even more so. There is a paradox as Sociology continues to concern itself with engaging the public and ‘every day life’ we are getting further and further away from the object we are so hurriedly scrabbling toward.
I think then what I felt was that the ideas, the critique, the participation in sociological concerns were not big enough. This feels even more marked today. Zoe William’s suggestion that we start laughing at people when they spout illogical or prejudice comments may not be the whole solution but I think there is something to be said about academics taking themselves too seriously. In our careful methodology to prevent harm and remain objective its almost as though sociologists have become too scared to say anything at all.
Some humour might help, but I am certainly not suggesting intellectual rigour be abandoned. I have had the misfortune of listening to one too many presentations given by professors who seem to feel their unsubstantiated opinion is adequate scholarship. But if we are concerned only with promoting our new book or having petty squabbles amongst ourselves I’m struggling to see how conferences will ultimately contribute anything new.