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.

Notes while reading

I sometimes keep a notebook of ‘notes while reading’. This was crucial during my PhD, but has become an occasional rather than disciplined practice. At any time, what I am reading shapes my thinking. Regular readers of this blog will know that in most posts I share excerpts from journal articles and academic books. I also frequently post on the books I am reading outside of work; for example: memoirs on mortality, dystopian fiction, a year in books and reading about time.

I find one of the joys of reading is the way in which the mind makes connections between disparate texts: a page-turning novel by Mira Grant about scientists searching for killer mermaids had me thinking about the ethics of research funding. Another example: Susan Carter’s (2020) Academic Identity and the Place of Stories: The personal in the professional starts with the wonderful analogy of a “fruitcake imaginary”:

To defuse how risky and ambitious [the] introduction of stories into an academic argument felt, I joked that this would be “one fruitcake of a book” …. The fruitcake imaginary is an extended metaphor that tries to span the intellectual richness of academia and kitchen-table homeliness of a family recipe, with a whiff of quirkiness from working across these zones. There’s the literature and framework of academic thinking, rich with accumulations of research, and flavoured by theory. Game theory is here, and, with it, a penchant towards play as a deliberate method. Stories from life persistently wind through academicity to textually enact the interconnections between extramural life and academic career. Life experience is valued. A fruitcake is an inclusive cake. It is solid by merit of all that goes into it.

There was a connection for me with the novel Gillian Polack’s The Year of the Fruitcake, in which a mind-wiped gender-switching alien anthropologist inhabits the body of a perimenopausal woman on Earth.

Here is a crop of readings that are currently stretching my thinking. The list spans academic articles in higher education, academic books, and fiction reads, and I am presenting this selection intertextually.

Reading about sharing food and ideas

I enjoyed Alison Phipps and Ronald Barnett’s (2007) article Academic Hospitality:

It takes material form in the hosting of academics giving papers. It takes epistemological form in the welcome of new ideas. It takes linguistic form in the translation of academic work into other languages, and it takes touristic form through the welcome and generosity with which academic visitors are received.

The article speculates on the giving and receiving of hospitality in academic life, who is welcomed or otherwise, rules and ceremonies and the roles of hosts and guests. It refer to a dependence on travel and crossing borders, but I read this at a time in which academic hospitality during COVID-19—changes to how we welcome and celebrate students and colleagues, limitations on travel and border closures, restrictions on shared meals and informal gatherings, and the opening up of virtual spaces.

I gobbled up two young adult books recently that focus on shared food and (sometimes dangerous) ideas: Elizabeth Acevedo With the Fire on High, about a black teen mother who is a magical cook (including sensory recipes), and Asphyxia’s Future Girl, which tells the story of a deaf teen artist in dystopian near-future Melbourne challenging food shortages (including artworks and info-graphics).

Reading about identity and emotion

The title ‘The emotional knots of academicity: a collective biography of academic subjectivities and spaces” put this article by five women (Jennifer Charteris, Susanne Gannon, Eve Mayes, Adele Nye and Lauren Stephenson) on my must-read list. What kept me reading (and thinking) were the interconnections of academic identity, higher education spaces and affect revealed in three narratives. These were written in a collective biography workshop, “where participants constructed accounts of the physical, social, material and imaginative dimensions of subjectivities in the ‘academic-city’ of higher education spaces.”

In the first story, a casual academic travels to unpaid meetings in the hope of a job, comparing “thirsty Australian landscape of meadows and scrawny looking sheep” to the “verdant pastoral belt of … home.” In the second, an academic is schooled in the hierarchy of office locations and parking spaces, and in the third story a PhD candidate finds a feminist community in a “fiery women’s cottage”.

Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss is on my list of favourite reads for this year. For a story about mental illness and the end of a marriage, narrated by a sometimes unlikeable character, this book is strangely hopeful: “Everything is broken and messed up and completely fine. That is what life is. It’s only the ratios that change, usually on their own.” Another of my favourites, which resonated for ideas about community and disconnection is Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half.

Reading about bodies and refusal

This autoethnography from two (Ab)original academic women, Lauren Tynan and Michelle Bishop, is an unconventional and powerful piece of writing. It offers a collaborative account of working for their communities within the systems and structures of whiteness:

Refusal is empowering – it’s about learning to say ‘no’. Not in an arrogant way, but learning to see exploitation, and learning to avoid it. Sometimes saying no feels like a mistake; a missed ‘opportunity’. But who ultimately benefits from my continual acquiescence? I check myself, learn
to trust my gut and listen to the messages from Country and our Old People.

There were many corollaries with my recent reading: on hierarchical systems and power, Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; on remembering and refusal, Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police; and on rising to the challenge of writing against white conventions, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book.

And happy NAIDOC week! Books are a great way to reflect on the theme “Always Was, Always Will Be”. We have enjoyed these kids books (via a school subscription to Storybox Library):

Tell me: what have been your favourite books this difficult year? And do you have any higher education articles to recommend that share the themes of community, connection, identity and power?

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.