I love planning a holiday. There is as much pleasure in the anticipation as there is in the execution. Right now, we are looking forward to our family trip to Japan, prompted by my participation in the 6th International Academic Identities Conference in Hiroshima in September.
We have plane tickets, our itinerary is mapped and most accommodation is booked. As a family, we are listening to Japanese language CDs, reading the board book How to say I love you in 5 languages, watching Studio Ghibli films for family movie night, poring over our Lonely Planet, and completing the mundane (and yet exciting) tasks of getting passports, train and entry tickets.
I have been thinking about Tseen Khoo’s recent blog post on the Research Whisperer Staying Still , which questions the necessity of conference attendance. What if, for any number of reasons, you just don’t go to conferences?
I am not a jet-setting academic. In fact, my conference participation is decidedly slow. For the last twelve years, children, health and funding have conspired against any dreams to the contrary. I have attended two international conferences in that time: Enhancing Learning Experiences in Hong Kong in 2010 (with husband and daughter in tow, coinciding with a visit my brother then living in HK) and the Academic Identities Conference in Auckland, New Zealand in 2012 (I left on the day my then 6 year old daughter was discharged from hospital, and was unknowingly pregnant with my son).
During that time, I have presented at several Australian conferences, some a short flight or drive away, some in my own city or institution, always on the east coast of Australia (Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle, Melbourne, Brisbane). If I include one day events, and those in which I was a member of the audience or a workshop participant rather than a presenter, the number would be higher, but no further afield.
I am in agreement with Tseen that conference attendance is not a necessity for academic success, and that making it an expectation is detrimental to many.
I feel lukewarm about being forced to network (“What’s your h-index?” should never be a conversation starter) but I love small talk. I suspect Tseen, who has written about her introvert tendencies, is shuddering at the thought. Impromptu conversations are often the highlight of events for me. I wouldn’t describe myself as entirely extroverted—I put a lot of energy into interactions with people, and crave time alone to recharge—but I am no wallflower. One of my favourite things is a face-to-face conversation that continues, almost mid-sentence, from previous interactions. These are sometimes with people I have only encountered via email, social media or through their writing. Or it may be someone I haven’t seen in person for several years (cue momentary mutual shock about the disconcerting number of grey hairs and wrinkles we have acquired in the interim). One of my research projects, a collaboration with Jason Lodge and Kelly Matthews on early career academics, started in the queue for coffee at HERDSA in 2010.
- Cultivating ideas
I enjoy the opportunity that conference presentations provide to sit with ideas. An abstract and a conference presentation are lower stakes than a journal article or other publication. I like to present at a conference and wait. It may be a couple of years, or longer, before something is published, but in that time my thinking on the topic is more nuanced, my reading wider and, hopefully, my publication makes a better contribution to the discipline. I have a forthcoming book chapter that started life in conference papers during my PhD (before my almost 12 year old daughter was born), matured in a presentation on Leaky Writing in 2015, and is now coming to fruition.
At no other time, sadly, do I spend three days listening, thinking, reading and talking about higher education research. And, in an opinion that seems increasingly unpopular, I love a (good) keynote. My conference career highlight: at the 2012 Academic Identities Conference in Auckland, Eva Bendix-Peterson on Monsters astray in the flesh: A layered exploration of the im/possibilities of resistance-work in the neoliberalised university. Honourable mention: Ghassan Hage at Academia: A scholarly life in 2011. I still remember him shouting ‘I wake up in the morning and I love being an academic!’
A bonus of conference attendance is the loosening pleasure of escaping from everyday work and family responsibilities. I won’t experience this in Japan, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. We are all looking forward to it.