On stealing conferences

Nicki Smith

This started off as a comment on the Disorder of Things but I’m scared of getting trolled, so I am sneaking around on here instead. There’s a post over there that troubles me.  It’s here.

I made a brief comment, which I now regret because it implies that I believe that it’s ok to ‘steal a conference’. I do not believe that it’s ok to steal a conference. The people who organise conferences do so for absolutely no reward. It is exhausting, debilitating, and takes over your life. The only thing you get back is that you’ve tried to make a big project – something collective – happen. I’m not involved in BISA but my guess is that any and all ‘revenue’ goes straight back into the conference. It most certainly doesn’t go back to the people organising them.  There is this ‘us’ and ‘them’ thing going on in the post and it offends me that my colleagues are being positioned as the ‘them’. They are tired, overworked and overstressed academics trying to make something happen. And any opportunities to be collective – including, yes, conferences – are so crucially important, especially right now, when we’re already under such pressure to divide and individualise.

We urgently need to do more to support emerging scholars, and to recognise much more openly that there is complete inequality of opportunity between those of us who got jobs pre ‘crisis’ and post it.  But if we turn on each other, and nip and bite over the scraps, we will eat ourselves up.

6 thoughts on “On stealing conferences

  1. The original post is the kind of blokeish leftism that I had hoped had died out. Only shows that I don’t get out much, probably. However, behind all the swagger is a bloody odd message. The only problem with conferences, it seems to be saying, is the cost of entry. It doesn’t matter how you get into the ivory tower, because it can still work for you even if you are in the position of the parasite. (And I mean that in the original Ancient Greek sense of those members of the local peasantry who ‘sat beside’ wealthy diners. It was the origin of what would become the household fool, which in this case seems highly appropriate.)

    Anyway, I really don’t buy the ‘must go to conference to get a job’ line. I went to a few, in various disciplines, and all were the same – an opportunity for a largely white male gerontocracy to Lord it over the minions and soak up the faux adulation. They always made me gag. They still do. Basically if you’re not already one of the inner circle – and as we know women generally are not, sorry – then no conference will make the slightest bit of difference to your career prospects. Technically I should have benefitted from them, but suffering from ‘gobby bugger who can’t do hierarchy syndrome’ seems to have got in the way of the runaway success I expected in return for my business cards.

    So, rather than stealing the gerontocracy’s snacks (which I suspect may not bring it to its knees, ‘comrogues’ (bleugh!)), just don’t go, and do something more useful. Write something, set up your own cheap conference at which the old boys are not present, stare at the wall, go on holiday,……pretty much anything except the rank hypocrisy of attending the bloody things. Because attending them in any form reinforces the power that they wield. But maybe that’s the real message here: whoever wrote that drivel on DoT seems to want only to replace the bad gerontocracy with their own. Plus ça change…….

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  2. Angus, as always, I couldn’t agree with you more – although I escape to the feminist panels and they are always awesome. But yes, nicking the snacks is not the way forward (that did make me giggle).

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  3. Nicki, Angus, your posts are totally on the money. I agree with what you said. I’ll just add to your thoughts here.

    When I read the original post, I felt very uncomfortable. Yes, in part because of that ‘blokish leftism’, but also because it is cheating and lying. Call me humourless if you want. I prefer my jokes to be a bit cleverer than that, if that’s ok. But I also think that the authors know that there is something morally wrong about ‘stealing a conference’, otherwise they wouldn’t have felt compelled to hide their names.

    Before I go on, I cannot overstate my belief that we all need to do as much as we can to support PGRs and ECRs. We especially need to support those who, for whatever reason, do not have access to funding. Some PGRs do have funding for conferences – almost as much as stable academics who have research expenses from their universities – so the picture is, as ever, a little more complicated. But yes, I am passionate about the need to make sure that academia does not exclude the precarious researchers.

    I have two points that I want to make. First, relating to the financing of conferences, second, relating to BISA support of PG and ECR researchers.

    The financing of conferences. BISA is a charity, so I think that makes all its finances transparent. Go and ask for them if you want. But let me say this, hotels, universities and other venues cannot see anything other than those cartoon dollar signs the moment they hear the word “conference”. I have heard quotes that would make anyone weep. The hire of AV? “Sure, that’s £20,000!” It’s worse than saying “wedding”. Just say “conference” and watch the price for anything quadruple. “Stealing a conference” isn’t really targeting these people walking around with cartoon dollar signs. It’s attacking BISA, and they are the wrong “them” in this case.

    BISA support of PGRs and ECRs. I can talk a little more here, as (laying my cards on the table here) I’m the convenor of the Gendering International Relations Working Group (GIRWG), which is supported by BISA. BISA is a charity. So, actually, cannot make a profit. Revenue has to go back into the charity! And the intended target of these charitable activities? Yep. PGRs and ECRs. And I can assure you, it has been made very clear to me, as the convenor of a WG, to do things that are accessible to PGRs and ECRs. A great example of this is the 2011 International Feminist Journal of Politics (IFJP) conference in Sussex. BISA gave GIRWG £1800 to support the IFJP conference. Much of this money was used to pay for PGRs and unemployed scholars to attend this very conference – travel and hotel accommodation. Let’s get this clear. BISA gave money to GIRWG to support conference attendance of precarious researchers. That doesn’t sound like that BISA itself is “chewing up and spitting out the next generation of scholars-with-no-future“. It really doesn’t. I myself, as a PhD student (perhaps starting to be a while ago, but I still like to delude myself that it was not that long ago), attended a fantastic conference in 2006 for free, thanks to BISA money. That conference was a formative experience for me, and I can only hope that those who benefit from BISA money to attend workshops and conferences also feel the same.

    BISA also support the totally fantastic PG Network: http://bisapgn.com/. I cannot believe it, this is a totally amazing network who run conferences, first year PhD workshops and general networking stuff. I am in awe of the people who manage to find time from their PhD to run this network. Kudos.

    And what about ECRs? BISA already has a reduced membership rate for ECRs, but also there are plans in the making to make available research grants specifically for ECRs. But also the BISA conference itself has lots of helpful sessions for ECRs – such as the “meet the editors” sessions for RIS and the soon to be launched EJIS. Both of these journals are important for ECRs to publish in to open up career opportunities.

    I could go on. But I’ll finish on one note. BISA spends around £70,000 a year to fund research. That is a huge amount of money. Opportunities to access small and one-off pots of money in academia are getting smaller, and BISA are providing a really important role here in providing this. They aren’t the people that you need to “steal a conference from”. I play a very minor role in BISA, so I have no idea if BISA do actually generate any income from the conference. I suspect very little. I suspect that the conference breaks even, and necessarily so, so that membership fees are ploughed back into the association. BISA works very hard to provide opportunities for precarious researchers in the UK. Don’t steal from them. Don’t cheat and lie.

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    1. Laura, this is amazing post and I cannot agree more with every word. Can I repost as an actual post, by any chance? I’m worried your points will get lost if this is just a comment – and they are so important!!

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    2. I was also thinking about how conference organisation is *already* massively under-valued as, effectively, a form of wife work (the academic equivalent of making the sandwiches), and that it is so often performed by female and also junior academics. The DOT post utterly and very explicitly devalues such labour, to the point where it enters into the realm of sexism, in my view.

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  4. Sure Nicki, I’d be happy for you to repost as a post.

    Conference organisation as the academic equivalent of making the sandwiches – love it. Painfully true.

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