Gathering online

My blogging has been sluggish during a time of relentlessly bad news about job losses across the Australian higher education workforce (my customary solace of reading has been hard too). I wanted to look back on what has been collegial and nourishing during the last few months at work. As I started making a list, I realised that there was a common thread: online gatherings. With face-to-face meetings restricted, academics generously opened up events for free registrations. I have participated in several: Missing Conferences, Higher Education Scholars, Whisperfest, Council of Australasian Leaders of Learning and Teaching (CAULLT) Conference, and the History of University Life seminar series. (For those who are wondering how I found invitations, most were advertised via Twitter. Also note these were held in Australian Eastern Standard Time. I missed a lot of fantastic sounding international events).

This post is dedicated to the meta-conference Missing Conferences: Academic gatherings in a time of limited mobility which has shaped a lot of thinking about online conferences this year.

James Burford, co-founder of the wonderful Conference Inference blog (blogging the world of academic conferences), organised this Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) sponsored gathering back in September. I neglected to post about it at the time. Looking back at my Passion Planner diary (not a paid endorsement, just a tool I have found helpful for lightly journaling through a tumultuous year), my retreat from blogging makes sense: in September, I co-facilitated an intensive teaching development program, evaluated institutional teaching awards, had two creative writing assessment tasks due, celebrated four birthdays in our extended family, and took time off for school holidays.

The focus of Missing Conferences was asking questions about academic conferences in 2020:

The first question that we consider is whether conferences have gone missing at all? Is it possible that the routine work of face-to-face conferences has been distributed across new platforms for gathering academics and disseminating knowledge? What affordances do these new forms of gathering promise? What are their limits?

The second question we consider is this: conferences may be missing, but are we missing conferences? How do we feel as we erase plans from the calendar, cancel tickets and ask for refunds? When conferences go missing do we miss our geographically distant friends and colleagues? And when face-to-face conferences are missing what else are scholars missing out on?

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International presenters included (with links to relevant blog posts on Conference Inference):

  • Judith Mair – Conferences: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone
  • Agnes Bosanquet and Catherine Manathunga – Missing Conference Embodiment
  • Tai Peseta and Catherine Manathunga – Missing Conference Keynotes
  • Omolabake Fakunle – The Impacts of Doctoral Students Missing Conferences
  • Emily Henderson – Care and Missing Conferences

The hashtag #MissingConferences captured some of the stimulating discussion:

Catherine Manathunga and I presented work in progress as part of a cultural history of the Academic Identities Conference.

Our research draws upon visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Fitzgerald & May, 2016; Jütte, 2005; Grosvenor, 2012; Classen, 2012; Reinarz, 2014; Smith, 2004 and 2007; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017). These methodologies allow us to explore the sights, sounds, smells and feeling of attending the Academic Identities Conference series that has been running for 10 years. Using these techniques of cultural history (Burke, 2008; Marwick, 2006; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Rubin, 2002), this research project gathered oral histories from conference convenors, keynote speakers, delegates and PhD students and a range of visual and tangible artefacts such as conference programs and abstracts, photographs, twitter feeds and other memorabilia in an attempt to capture an intimate history of the embodied experience of travelling to conferences in England, Scotland, Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and Japan. We have explored the themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience as they played out in the data we collected on each of the International Academic Identities Conferences from 2008 to 2018.

You can see our slides here:

Missing Conferences affirmed the value of scholarly gatherings, but also showcased the affordances of attending virtually (and how much we all enjoy sharing our working lives with pets).

Next post will recap the recent Higher Education Scholars gathering on Doing things with theory.

Virtual scholarship

A couple of weeks ago—is time slippery for you now too?—I participated in a virtual Higher Education Scholars meet-up.

Regular readers will know that this is a frequent gathering of (until now) predominantly Sydney-based academics, doctoral candidates and professional staff interested in research in higher education. I have posted about our previous meetings, A reminder to play, Staying in place, Yarning circle, The spirit of research and Imagining research futures. You can read more about the mob here.

This session was themed Keeping our researcher identities alive and our research community connected. The description of the day read:

Remember to choose yourself: your researcher self, your researcher identity, your flailing research project, the bit of writing you have left to the side for too long, and to bring that part of you to a conversation … [This] is a chance to resuscitate it: pick it up, dust it off, remember its merits, to present it, to get feedback, and to take the next step with it.

It was our first online meeting, ably hosted in a team effort, which brought with it the benefit of participants from La Trobe University in Melbourne, and one stalwart from the National University of Ireland, Galway (well done on staying awake, Jan!)

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We read:

  • Ashwin, P. (2012). How often are theories developed through empirical research into higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 941-955.
  • Swedberg, R. (2016). Before theory comes theorizing or how to make social science more interesting. The British Journal of Sociology, 67(1), 5-22.

I joined a discussion on the Ashwin piece, which poses a challenge to higher education scholars to produce theoretical work. His analysis of higher education journal articles published in 2008 showed that in the majority of articles, theory was implicit rather than explicit.

He prescribes a way of “making the development of theory through empirical research more common in higher education journal articles.” In a nutshell: be explicit about theory, conceptualise your research and analyse your data using different theoretical lenses, and do more mixed methods research.

We had interesting discussions—both positive and negative—about these ideas.

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In the works in progress session, I relished the opportunity to present my work with Catherine Manuthunga on Conferences in the flesh: a multi-sensory cultural history. 

Debate about whether physical conference attendance is necessary or desirable predates COVID-19. Noting the importance of equitable access, conferences serve a multitude of purposes. Conferences may offer retreat from ordinary workdays and domestic routines. Collectively gathering in a specific geographical location, and experiencing diverse cultures, climates and cuisines, opens up opportunities for place-based learning and enriches academic relationships.

Only recently have conferences been recognised in higher education research (Henderson, 2015). This paper gathers literature dispersed across fields including geography (Derudder and Lui, 2016), psychology (Carpay, 2001), sociology (Dubrow et al., 2018) and education (e.g. Hart, 1984; Skelton, 1997; Walford, 2011). It also explores visual, aesthetic and sensory approaches to cultural research, and historical research in particular (Jütte, 2005; Smith, 2007; Grosvenor, 2012; Damousi and Hamilton, 2017).

We analyse empirical data from a cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference (2008-2018), including interviews with thirty-two conference organisers, keynote speakers and participants attuned to sensory details: the sights, tastes, sounds, touch and smell of the conference experience. Following cultural history techniques (Burke, 2008; Popkewitz et al., 2001; Marwick, 2006; Rubin, 2002), transcripts were analysed for themes of place, sociality, embodiment, and sensory experience.

The focus of our discussion is place, a layered location that is temporal, spatial, political and personal (Lippard, 1997). Multisensory, embodied, place-based conferences enable academic relationality to flourish, and innovative and transcultural knowledge to be produced. Our rich data set offers a specific and intimate history of a particular conference community through the lived experience of academic identities scholars. This provides insights into the institutional and sectoral contexts in which participants work, and universities as places that are both physical and imagined sites for the expression of values, highlighting what Phipps (2007) calls the sensory work of the university as a body of scholars.

For those who are interested, here are my two slides: HEScholars

The discussion focussed on these questions: This research began before COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings. Is there value in work on embodied, place-based, sensory academic conferences right now? How can we ensure this is a thoughtful and constructive piece of work, while remaining true to data collected in a different time? It was affirming to receive feedback from scholars who recognised place-based, sensory, affective, embodied research as more important than ever.

Profanity in the title

I have a new article in Gender and Education co-authored with colleagues James Burford (La Trobe University) and Jan Smith (National University of Ireland). It was a lot of fun to write, not only for the profanity in the title. It’s called: ‘Homeliness meant having the fucking vacuum cleaner out’: the gendered labour of maintaining conference communities.

(If you are unable to access the article via an institutional subscription, contact me for a pre-print copy via Researchgate, Twitter or email agnesbosanquet [at] theslowacademic.com).

The article explores the gendered nature of care and service in academia, with a focus on the labour of maintaining conference communities. The data is from A Decade of Dialogue: A cultural history of the International Academic Identities Conference 2008-2018 with co-researchers Tai Peseta, Machi Sato, Catherine Manathunga, Jeanette Fyffe, and Fiona Salisbury. I have previously blogged about academic housekeeping, the Academic Identities Conference held last year in Japan, and the conference cultural history project.

In our interviews with 32 delegates, keynotes and convenor, the Academic Identities conference is repeatedly described as caring, welcoming, warm and home-like. But if a conference feels like home, who does the housework?

Here is an excerpt from the interview with a convenor that gave the paper its name:

On the very first day of that conference, I turned up and the main room we were going to be having our refreshments was really unclean…Luckily I had my vacuum cleaner. I’d had this terrible feeling. So on the first morning of the conference I was in here at sparrow’s [fart, that is early] with a vacuum cleaner, trying to clean the rooms and feeling very shaky about it because there was so much to do…It was quite homely…I remember the homeliness of [the previous conference]… One of the things I wanted to do with the conference here was to also have it in a workplace…in an academic space… but also have a kind of homeliness in the sense of the relationships… On the other hand, the homeliness meant, for me at least, having the fucking vacuum cleaner out.

We examine conference housekeeping through Jackson’s (2017) study on the emotional labour undertaken by academic women, which draws on positions such as Hochschild’s (1983) ‘sexy girlfriend’ and ‘supportive mother’ occupied by women flight attendants. We add the position of the conference convenor as ‘good housekeeper’ who, in addition to intellectual and scholarly leadership, undertakes housekeeping, time-keeping, hostessing, care-giving, crisis management and technical support. This can come at the expense of the conveners’ well-being. Convenors in our study use the word ‘blur’ to describe their memory of the conference, and others describe feeling miserable, numb, unstable and alone, and recall the exhaustion they feel afterwards. Clearly, the outward performance of warmth and homeliness comes at a cost.

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Our article is part of a special issue on Thoughtful gatherings: Gendering conferences as spaces of learning, knowledge production and community. So far, the articles online ahead of publication include:

  • Carefree conferences? Academics with caring responsibilities performing mobile academic subjectivities (Henderson & Moreau)
  • Hidden social exclusion in Indian academia: gender, caste and conference participation (Sabharwal, Henderson & Joseph)
  • He moana pukepuke: navigating gender and ethnic inequality in early career academics’ conference attendance (Timperley, Sutherland, Wilson & Hall)
  • Engendering belonging: thoughtful gatherings with/in online and virtual spaces (Black, Crimmins, Dwyer & Lister)
  • Extending feminist pedagogy in conferences: inspiration from Theatre of the Oppressed (Belliappa)
  • ‘I’m looking for people who want to do disruption work’: Trans* academics and power discourses in academic conferences (Nicolazzo & Jourian)

I am looking forward to sinking my (reading) teeth into these!