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?


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!)


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.


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.

A reminder to play

Two seemingly unconnected things: My six year old son has taken to referring to himself as his thirteen year old sister’s imaginary friend. (I find myself half believing him). And a couple of weeks ago I attended a gathering of Higher Education Scholars.

I have previously posted about these events (The spirit of research, Yarning circle, Thoughtful citations, Staying in place), a roughly tri-annual gathering of Sydney-based researchers in higher education. The most recent session was hosted by Vanessa Fredericks, Lilia Mantai and Elaine Huber at the University of Sydney. The theme was Mind the Gap: Contemplating power, privilege and pedagogy:

The purpose of this meeting is to reflect on the ways higher education (teaching and research and academia as a whole) might be restricted by oppressive pedagogies. We consider what value we might add to higher education if we dared to free our minds and bodies from colonial, neoliberal, Western and masculine ideas … We begin by positioning ourselves as being-in-the-academy. We reflect on our positions and acknowledge that the space which we occupy, speak and write from is a privileged space. We open the introspective space to think more broadly about research and the University – itself a product of colonialism, and a space which is influenced by neoliberal practices and policies. We invite you to slow down and be ‘lazy’ (Shahjahan, 2015), to engage in ‘tactics of resistance’ (Shahjahan, 2015, p. 489). We consider the ways in which slowing down and re-embodying our approach to research and pedagogy, can lead to a practice of being-in-the-academy that is ethical
and responds to the other.

The organisers provided a thoughtful reading list, including:

Throughout the day, we talked, we listened, we thought and we played. We introduced ourselves and found commonalities through a web of connections:


We had loosely structured, wide-ranging discussions about our bodies in relation to research, teaching and leadership. We breathed. We listened to music, drew, played with play-doh and lego:


Image Image

Why such frivolous, unscholarly behaviour?

Jane Gallop in Anecdotal Theory (2002), refers to playfulness in a research context as “an attempt to theorise from a different place” and to speculate around ideas that have a tendency to “disable thought”.

Here is the connection with my my son’s imaginary selfhood and our playfulness as scholars: both offer ways of reflecting on our subjectivities and positionalities.

Play occupies a liminal space that invites a suspension of disbelief and relishes possibility and transformation. When playing, we suspend disbelief; we create unreal or quasi-real spaces; we tend towards extravagance and exaggeration; we move away from seriousness to nonsense and foolishness; and we value emotional responses (Bulkeley 1999, p 62).

Slowing down as scholars, taking time to play, allows us to ask ‘what if?’ and to imagine what might be possible.  We can recreate the space of the university and our places in it.

In thinking about playfulness, I revisited the work of Johan Huizinga (1950):

A play-community … tends to become permanent even after the game is over… The feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.

I am already looking ahead to future gathering of these folks, and have been inspired by the work of Tamson Pietsch, Where I stand, on recrafting academic biographies and research narratives.