On Conferences as Political Spaces

Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo | April 13, 2018

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When I began my academic career, as a student on a Masters degree by research, conferences seemed both exciting and daunting. They were exciting because, as an unexperienced researcher, the prospect of being in a space with people who had been doing research for years, exchanging ideas, and being treated seriously as a researcher, was extremely appealing. They were daunting because of the competitive aspect that they represented— an opportunity to share research and thoughts, and an opportunity for those with more knowledge and experience to point out the flaws therein. They would involve inherently awkward situations where you would be forced to make small talk with someone whom, in all likelihood, you shared nothing in common with, else you would stand in the corner of a crowded room, staring at your phone screen. Nevertheless, they were something to be endured because they were a necessity on the curriculum vitae of any aspiring academic, and a space to make contact with people who might be valuable to your professional network.

However, after attending a few conferences, my perspective has drastically changed. I now see them primarily as political spaces wherein the problems facing academia are dramatised, and individual researchers have the capacity to engage with, improve, and strengthen their community. My perspective has been affected by primarily positive experiences. At the BAAS Postgraduate conference at the University of Essex in November 2017 organised by Maria-Irina Popescu and Jessica Houlihan, I was fortunate enough to attend a roundtable on activism in academia and another on networks. In this instance Dr. Rachel Williams emphasised the issues of accessibility implicit in networking. Marie-Alix Thouaille and Dr Rachel Williams ran an open discussion regarding the obstacles facing PGRs and ECRs, particularly the precarity, casualisation, and isolation that we face in increasingly neoliberal institutions. As someone with care responsibilities and no funding, I cannot put into words how valuable I found it to be able to discuss these problems with others suffering from similar circumstances across the country.

At the more recent EBAAS conference, I attended events dedicated specifically to women and postgraduates in my field. These events were spaces in which solidarity was prioritised and delegates spoke enthusiastically of mentoring and collaboration. As political spaces, they also brought up some of the uglier sides of academia. At a women’s networking lunch, a senior academic commented that her first experience of sexual harassment was at a conference, another pointed out that academia still has a long way to go in light of the #MeToo movement, and another pointed out that the lunch itself was desperately lacking in diversity, as it was composed almost exclusively of white, middle class women. Indeed, conferences need to be political spaces because there is still so much work to be done to make academia accessible.

During a panel at the same conference, a senior delegate commented that they were heartened to see that the neoliberalisation of universities, despite all of its faults, had led to the rise in standards of PG research. Conversely, I was heartened to see that, in spite of the neoliberalism of universities and the casualisation and precocity of ECRs, the PGRs and ECRs were not turned against each other in competitiveness. Instead, I have been witness and party to incredible solidarity, support, collaboration, and friendship. Nevertheless, the comment bothered me. It is troubling to witness the perpetuation of the misconception that financial strain filters out worse students. In fact, what it does is perpetuate the power hierarchies that have always existed. White, straight, middle class, cis, and able-bodied men without duties of care and whose research replicates the already pale, male, stale curriculum are more able to withstand the pressures of neoliberalism than the rest of us.

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This is made apparent at conferences. How then, can we make conferences more accessible and egalitarian? We have to consider that the ability to attend these events is dictated by access to money and the ability to travel, which in turn are dictated by care responsibilities, funding status, and the accessibility of not just the venue of the conference but transportation there. Finally, it is dictated by the space and value given to marginalised voices. While it is increasingly common to see all male panels, or “manels” banned, similar work has yet to be done for other marginalised groups. There are still, for example, all white panels on race. This is not to say that race shouldn’t figure in white people’s research, but what are the power dynamics of having white people positioned as the central authoritative producers of knowledge on issues of race in spaces that have been made hostile and inaccessible to people of colour? Furthermore, men still cut women off and their misogynistic remarks often go unchallenged. This dynamic is also present in other unbalanced power relationships. Conferences are the spaces in which we shape the experience of academia for our colleagues. We should consider conferences, and our roles in them as speakers, chairs, delegates, and organisers, in political terms.


About Maria

Maria is a PhD student in English Literature, focussing on contemporary American life writing through a postmodern feminist lens. She previously studied at the University of Seville and Cornell University. Her research interests include gender, identity politics, the intersection of narrative and identity construction, and genre theory.

Article edited by Tomas Vergara and Madison Pollack.

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