After years of attending academic conferences as a delegate, organising on an unpaid basis for a number of subject associations, winning external funding to organise events and being employed as an academic events manager, I consider myself to hold a unique perspective into the operation of academic events. I believe a number of problems with academic conferences stem from: one, the neo-liberal education system and two, academics themselves.
For the majority of academics, their first experiences of academic conferences will begin during their doctoral degree. Doctoral candidates are told in no uncertain terms that presenting their work at academic conferences will put them ahead of the ‘competition’ offering the potential for advancement, job security and recognition. In reality it can quite often mean seeing your unpublished work a year later in a high ref academic journal whose author of the article is a well-known senior academic within your field who attended your talk.
This career building engagement doesn’t come cheap, both financially and emotionally, especially if you do not possess the: economic, cultural, social, and symbolic capital which give you the same shared habitus as those within your field that determines its hierarchical structure. The standardised conference model – in particular the super mega conference format – is the first problem. It is usually very expensive and very inaccessible. Teresa Crew’s (2020) research illustrates the problems academics from non-traditional backgrounds face when attempting to balance precarity and conference attendance. A major issue is that the academic conference system is upheld by academic institutions and the majority of subject associations. When for example you’re from a working-class background with no family financial support through your education and you’re expected to pay: £500 in registration fees, £300 in hotel expenses and another £300 in travel, and let’s not forget the need to feed yourself for three days usually via eating out with other conference delegates, attending academic conferences remains out of reach. The academic reimbursement system assumes that every academic has a thousand pounds to hand, to use upfront and then wait two months for a reimbursement. Throughout my time organising events I have often had to explain this to other academics and regularly taken it upon myself and sometime at my own expense – both in time and money – to pay the expenses of working-class academics in advance and claim the refunds. And/or to use my position to implement a system of a paid in advance accommodation and travel structure. The result was much more diverse and inclusive events. It’s a type of solidarity that I believe only those that have experienced financial hardship in real life will know the emotional turmoil it can produce.
Another main problem is that in the majority of university institutions, academics can only claim back for conference expenses if they’ve presented at the event. For postgraduate students, attending a conference becomes a tick-box exercise in which they must show that they’ve presented their work. They cannot simply attend a conference to listen, learn and reflect – unless of course they can pay for that themselves. For the postgraduate student and probably for the majority of academics, which conferences you attend in order to be able to draw upon your institutional funding must first be approved by your department. It doesn’t matter that a small two-day workshop with advanced course reading and discussion-based feedback on the specific social theorist that you’re using in your thesis will be of more use to your intellectual and thesis development. No, you’re expected to attend the large approved branded academic conferences within your field.
The academic conference funding system produces two kinds of opportunities with very little room in the middle: a large number of precarious postgraduate research students and early career researchers who have to pay all costs to present and a smaller number of prominent academics in secure high paying academic positions who get all their expenses covered. Frequently, year after year the same names appear as keynotes at the bulk of subject association conferences. What the organising committee don’t tell you is that in the majority of cases, the financial ability to hold an academic conference is provided in best part by attendance fees by those in the 15-minute presentation slots. Academic conferences are predominantly built upon exploitation. From the fee they charge, to the labour exploitation of those on: the organising committee giving their free time and resources, the over worked and under paid conference managers and administrators, and of course the free labour of postgraduate event assistants – we’ve all seen those emails offering a ‘great opportunity’ to those students who could never afford the registration fee willing to work for free for four days because they’ll get to watch a couple of keynotes.
The Super-Mega Conference Format
I don’t want people to get this wrong and think that academic conferences are making huge profits. In reality many just aim to break even. The cost of running a large conference is substantial. Many universities have branched out into the world of commercial event organisation. It’s virtually impossible to get a free room at a university. There is a lot of money to be made within the conferencing business. Don’t be fooled into thinking all the new large shiny buildings are for the benefit of students! No, no, no, they are so the university can marketise itself as a conference venue for hire. From room hire, to catering, to travel and accommodation of organisers, keynotes and plenary speakers, the costs add up and the only way to cover these – and for some to make a profit – the academic conference must follow a precise format:
- 9AM Start
- 11AM 20-Minute Refreshment/Toilet Break
- 1PM-2PM Lunch Break
- 3.30PM 20-Minute Refreshment/Toilet Break
- 6PM or even 7PM Finish
Within this format there could be up-to 12 streams running concurrently with the majority of delegates given a 15-minute slot for their presentation and 5-10 minutes for questions from the floor. With the keynotes given: 45 minutes for their presentation, 15 minutes to the respondent and 30 minutes for questions.
The allocation of slots will be dependent upon your hierarchical position within your field. Essentially the format becomes stratified by: status and career stages in which the unintended consequences mean it is also stratified across: class, gender, race and disability. The less important you’re deemed within the space of your field, the more unfortunate your slot placement will be. From being timetabled at 9am in the morning on the first day before everyone has arrived or on the very last session on the last day when the majority of people have taken the train home probably exhausted after a three-day conference. There is also the possibility that you may be timetabled to present at the same time in a different room to a superstar academic – the result all being the same: you’ve paid over a thousand pound to present your research to a room of five people. Of course, if programmed to present at the end of the session you’ll even be lucky if you get your full 15 minutes to present because the shit chair who doesn’t want to be there let the first two speakers overrun.
The super-mega conference format is not accessible. Whether it is held on a campus in the middle of nowhere or in a large city, the large number of concurrent streams running back-to-back will often mean streams will be placed within different university buildings and campuses – some which may be a 20-minute walk for a person. So, when do they expect you to get the time to get to the next campus – your refreshment or lunch break! Even with full mobility this is no mean feat. You’ll arrive there: sweating, probably a little late, without time to have gone to the toilet or have a refreshment. It’s a completely inaccessible space and a system that exclude those with disabilities. Even those precious one-hour lunches and 20-minute breaks are at risk when it comes to the career academic. After their attempt to extend the start or end time of the event so they can squeeze in another speaker (who they’ve just happened to meet at another event) when the programme has already been formalised and registration opened, and after they’ve are informed this would be highly unfair on those delegates who have already booked their trains, questions start to be asked about the ‘necessity’ of breaks and a one-hour lunch. No consideration at all is given to the ableist nature of this.
The Organising Committee and Career Opportunities
There comes a time (usually in secondary school) when the teacher assigns a ‘group’ work project and you realise very early on this means a very few doing all the work while others do nothing but you all get the same grade. The conference organising committee is no different. For some calculating few being on an academic conference organising committee offers an excellent chance to put in to action their desired career trajectory with minimum effort while of course benefiting from having all their travel, accommodation and dinner expenses covered.
It will hardly surprise many who have organised an event that predominantly the most labour intensive, time consuming and less prestigious organising tasks will fall upon women postgraduates and early career researchers. Unfortunately, it is very rare to see those very same people ever be given a chance to introduce a keynote or partake in a plenary session. Just as the conference format is stratified so too is the organising committee. Those doing the majority of the work will often have their ideas and suggestions overlooked, while those occupying the highest positions within their field will end up making all the main and final decisions which usually include giving a platform to: themselves, their friends and yes – you’ve got it – the head of department at their future university you find out that they are going to four months after the conference.
Through the never-ending pursuit of promotion and status, the decisions made by the academic only interested in their own career means that you end up with a conference programme highly stratified across: class, gender, race, accessibility, and career stages. It doesn’t matter that those devalued members of the committee may point out issues with having say an all-white panel for a discussion on inequality within academia, or that they’ve given excellent examples of black women academics who specialise in the plenary topic and are based not too far from the conference location, or that from funds that have been allocated to international speakers that perhaps it should be used to invite an academic from the third world? Professor big-wig will stamp their powerful little feet and get their white mate currently holding a secure faculty position at a prestigious university within a wealthy developed country the spot. Oh yea, these are those that preach the loudest about diversity and equality.
For the rest of you, you’ll just have to apply to present and cover all the expenses yourselves because you’re not best mates with the most powerful people on the organising committee and are in no position to offer them the all-elusive guest lecturer semester abroad at an ivory league university. When the organising committee finally realises that they may have fucked-up with their pale stale programme of invited speakers, it is too late to suggest any changes because they have already ‘informally’ invited their mates despite the requests that no invites should be sent out until the final budgeting has been done and speakers approved. For these academics who come from privileged backgrounds where money was never an issue, attempts to explain a conference budget is beyond their grasp. They’ve never had to think about the possibility of running out of money. While as a working-class academic who grew-up in poverty, going to bed hungry and taking it upon yourself to do the family food shop at 10 years old when your father is in prison and your mother is out of it with a schizophrenic episode, you learn to budget down to the last penny.
The Male Academic
Quite often the first hands up at the table when volunteering to be on the organising committee will be the male academic. When there is work to be done or a meeting to attend suddenly this male academic becomes ‘father-of-year’ and is not available to assist in any way apart from make demands on major organising decisions such as keynotes. Isn’t it interesting how male academic minds work when it comes to the division of labour within feminism, because after all you’re a childless woman so have all the time in the world? Emails will go unanswered, urgent requests ignored; any minor task assigned to them will be completed late holding the whole team up. But should you dare to suggest an additional speaker or edit to a panel you will receive a strongly worded email within minutes during out-of-office hours. In so many cases you’ll be lucky if this male academic even shows up to the event, because usually on the day you’ll receive an email or a call informing you of some type of emergency that will now prohibit him from attending. But be sure, they will be turning up if there is a career opportunity to be had! – although usually arriving late and going early, leaving you to clean up. While you’ve spent a year of your life organising every single detail of the conference, he has been secretly putting into place an edited publication output from the conference in which you’re not included. Somehow in-between his daddy duties – yep, I actually worked with a man that called it that – he has found time to meticulously examine every abstract coming through (despite not having the time to review them), to make contact with those he’s decided will be beneficial co-editors, chapter contributors and he already has in place a book contract with a publishing house. While you gave your time to provide a platform for others, to create an association of like-minded academics and a network of kindness, for this mediocre inadequate male academic being on the organising committee was a simple sum calculus of minimal effort with maximum career advancement.
A Post-Covid Academic Event
If one thing has shown us over the last few years since Covid, it is the environmental damage travel and in particular international travel can have. An important question we need to ask ourselves is: is it worth flying to another country for a 20-minute presentation for a three-day conference or indeed flying a keynote over internationally for a one-hour talk? The COVID-19 pandemic produced a great acceleration in the digitalisation of communication, showing academics the possibilities of new technologies and digital platforms to facilitate online networks and events. Online events certainly made attendance more accessible both financially and physically and I for one would like to see a future in which academic events embrace a hybrid model of both in-person and online attendance.
However, this whole piece has been about the calculating nature of careerist academics and for that very reason face-to-face events will remain the predominant model within academia. The academic conference is the ultimate networking opportunity where personal characteristics and the internalised habitus of the academics becomes strongly associated with those considered desirable or even eligible to succeed within academia. Watching the careerist academic work the floor during the wine reception, the deals made in the dark corners of the conference hall like the dirty handshake between a mobster and politician, is something no working-class academic has seen before. The only thing I think it comes close to was watching the older men at the dodgy clubs in my youth prowling the dance floors. But while they were looking for sex, these lurking academics are looking for their next career opportunity.
I recently read a piece entitled: Pedagogy of Complicity about the burn-out that can occur in part during conference season. The author questions how academics within Higher Education are partly responsible for maintaining the academic conference model that fosters exclusive spaces of knowledge exchange and suggest we think about how complicit we are?
So, here’s the thing, why don’t we all just stop attending expensive badly formatted conferences? Because no matter what academics say about the reasons behind attending, the real motive is to construct networks, to build their career, to put into place their carefully planned career trajectory. While conferences help to advance some they also serve as a mechanism for marginalising others. Should you be a non-conforming working-class academic who attempts to subvert the greasy climbing pole by surrounding yourself with others like yourself, then you’re just labelled a clique. Because what the conference attending career academic fears the most is that they may be unable to access a network that could be of benefit to them.
Ann, 2022. ‘Pedagogy of complicity’. June 11. Available at: https://allthingspedagogical.blogspot.com/2022/06/pedagogy-of-complicity.html
Bourdieu, P., 1994. The Polity Reader in Social Theory. Chapter 12: ‘Social Space and Symbolic Power’. Polity Press: Cambridge.
Crew, T., 2020. Higher education and working-class academics. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
This piece does not reflect any one single organisation or institution that I have worked with or have been associated with. It is a reflection on numerous years within event organising as well as comprising the inclusion of experiences of other academics (detailed from ethnographic conversations).
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