From the neoliberal university to cruising conferences in the Baltic

Tiina Vaittinen

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It is year 2027. Exactly twelve years has passed since an anonymous DOT blog post about stealing conferences provoked an important and timely debate about the cost of conferencing for postgraduate (PGR) and early career researchers (ECR) – and about viable methods of resistance. Authors of the feministacademiccollective participated in the debate, correcting misunderstandings and misrepresentations in the original post, as well as providing constructive advice on how to support PGRs and ECRs without having to steal anything from anyone.

Importantly, the debate continued in Facebook, as debates do. As we all know, what happens in Facebook rarely stays in Facebook, and history starts to take unexpected turns. This is also why several hundred IR scholars from the UK, and dozens of us clearly just wanting to hang out with British IR scholars, are now standing in a poorly organised line at the Katajanokka harbour in Helsinki. We are all thrilled to bits, about to board The Conference Boat any minute now! It is time for the 10th BISA Cruising Conference at the Baltic Sea.

This year’s conference is sponsored by the national broadcasting companies BBC and YLE as well as one of the Finnish/Swedish/Estonian[i] cruise lines sailing the Baltic. The broadcasting companies’ camera(wo)men are filming material at the waiting lounge of the terminal as discreetly as possible. They focus particularly on the twenty lucky PGRs and ECRs (for once not all male!) plus the nonpaid conference secretary, who have gotten all their conference costs covered on the condition that the camera(wo)men can follow them throughout the Cruising Conference.

As often as possible however, the cameras also zoom in to the table of The Establishment, consisting mostly of professors, having a pint with the lads. The same table each year. New members come and go, even the topics of the discussions may change, but the table of The Establishment has turned into a tradition over the years.

Thanks to Juha Sipilä’s government policies during the end of the previous decade, the inflation is still skyrocketing in Finland, so the prices of beer at the terminal pub are high. Therefore those not part of The Establishment, or simply without a salary, are waiting with dry mouths to get on board, so they get to buy the tax-free vodka on the boat.

Because of the camera crews, the IR scholarship in the terminal looks a bit strange: Everyone is wearing a Stetson, shades, a scarf, a hoodie, whatnot, aiming at the looks of Clint Eastwood, Jackie Kennedy, nobody or anybody – in short at looks very different from one’s usual appearance. The Stetsons come in handy in all conferences of course – regardless of the panel really – when throwing in arguments from the top of one’s hat. Yet this time there is also another purpose for the camouflage. Namely, the material filmed on The boat is not for the purposes of marketing the conference at the BISA home site, nor is it for making Youtube clips for students to learn about The Discipline.

No no.

While the ISA might have paid USD 15K for filming the Sapphire Series in New Orleans in 2015, at around the same time BISA came up with a way of making its conferences both ‘cheap’ to attend and profitable for the academic community.

This is not just a conference. This is not simply a cruise.

This is academic Reality.

All the material, filmed by fifteen teams during the four day conference, will be cut afterwards into dramatic narratives, and then screened on the British and Finnish national TVs the following winter, as a reality show titled The Academic Cruise (on BBC), or Kruisaillen Akatemiaan (on YLE). This is something us IR scholars just love to watch in 2027, when relaxing after a long day at the office – while of course enjoying the season requires (a) not having participated the previous summer’s conference, (b) having avoided cameras, (c) shitloads of self-irony, (d) preferably all the mentioned.

Why???  You may ask now, in July 2015.

Well, why not?

I mean, as much as I found the “stealing conferences” idea funny at first, after Nicki, Laura, and Kathryn’s posts in this blog, I realise that the political economy of academic conferences is much more complicated than that. In fact, the further debate in FB taught me a whole lot more about it – while eventually getting slightly carried away with wild ideas about the future of conferencing.

But seriously, did you know that – while conference hotels only see dollars, euros and sterling at the word “conference” – these days it might actually be more expensive to organise a conference at university premises? I didn’t know that.

And I cannot believe it. For real, the neoliberal university might aim at making more profit at academic activities than commercial hotel chains?! Shame on you, university, I’m so disappointed at you.

Rumours tell that one might be able to organise smaller colloquiums or seminars at one’s university for free, by booking rooms without saying the word “conference” [pronounced apparently as PROFIT in the newspeak of the neoliberal uni]. Yet, this is really not an option for bigger organisations like BISA (which by the way, I’m not even a member of, I’m just easily provoked for a bit of rant, and sarcasm is my method of solidarity, especially with and for the Brits).

So really, individual academics “stealing” conferences makes no difference at an era where entire academic communities are asked to buy space for the academia within the university, from the university. It is simply absurd, that organising an academic gathering at the university premises would require the organisers to steal space from the university for the academic community – by booking rooms and not telling that the rooms are booked for a (hush-hush) c-o-n-f-e-r-e-n-c-e.

When I earlier today heard about this nonsense apparently taking place in the British universities, I sighed – being thankful that the Finnish university, while rapidly neoliberalising its policies is not quite there yet.

And then I sighed again – sadly, almost tearfully. Give it a few years and a few more tears, and we’ll be there, no questions asked. (In fact, we’ll be way beyond: on the cruise ships and on reality TV…)

Because that is actually what we are doing in our welfare periphery at the very moment. We’re “going international” or “internationalising the university”, which reads:

– Do everything as the neoliberal universities do in the UK or Northern America!! Become them. This is absolutely vital for the Finnish universities to survive.

[Why? Some odd voices ask, silently, because it’s not only a stupid question, but also precarious labour should not ask questions.]

– Because of the global competition!! Our universities need to perform as well as the Anglo-Americans, using the same [neoliberal] methods [be they good or not] – because our universities will otherwise perish!!!!

[Ah, ok. Nevermind the university’s role of critical thinking, education etc. values that once justified the establishment of universities in various peripheries, too…?]

– Values? Oh, those… Perished long ago, my child, don’t be such an idealist, think about the economy. We have no options, all these policies come from above. From the economic necessity

So, really. Why not really just hop properly on board the neoliberal madness of organising conferences? Why not actually start making the conferences profitable while simultaously popularising the academic reality?

We could, for starters, take the conferences on cruise ships!! (This actually might  be a good idea, the brainstorming reported in this post just got a bit carried away…) Here’s how some of us thought it might look like, IR sailing the Baltic Sea, sometime in the future… Many of the ideas are not mine (I stole them from the FB thread), the narration and dramatisation might be.

It is the second day of the 10th BISA Cruising Conference at the Baltic Sea, in 2027. It has all begun well. The booze is tax free, and yet it is not too long a way to stumble from the cabins to the conference rooms in the mornings. There is a night club on the 6th Deck, and a small casino. A lot of GREAT networking is taking place (also outside the night club), but some of this activity has unfortunately slipped the TV cameras’ attention. We all know that if something should be documented for proof in conferences, it is the great networking we do. Seriously, tweeting selfies taken with scholars whose work we have adored for years is nothing – when you can get all those relaxed and intelligently funny discussions you had with them documented on a reality show on the national TV!

No one has been overly frustrated about the disciplinary boundaries as of yet, so as to jump to the sea. Besides, the risk is lower for those kinds of incidents now, after a discreetly operating feminist support group EDGE was established three years ago to take care of younger scholars after their presentations. The need for the EDGE was urgent: after hearing comments to their work from the cutting edge scholars operating as discussants, many young conference cruisers have been literally ‘on the edge’ over the past years. Cameras recording of course, microphones tied to their backs, and why not: Someone jumping to the sea would have been a profitable scene to show on the national TV, and hence a source of profit for the academic community, too.

These days the ten camera crews take turns to follow the EDGE volunteers throughout the conference. This has proved to provide delicate (profitable) material where people speak openly about the academic reality – and no, this material you would not get at the tables of The Establishment.

When the Cruising Conference was brainstormed in 2015–2016, first as a joke really, ideas were thrown around about the misfits, anarchists and those theorising the International all wrong to be pushed to the sea. The first season’s reality show producers were keen on having this included in the General Program of the Conference. They would have broadcast parts of the conference live so as to get direct audience input to the show, with votes coming in each day on who’s in and who’s out. Those voted out would be thrown to the sea– so like an academic version of the Survivor, really. (The women getting the conference grant would have been asked to wear a bikini throughout the conference.) Luckily – or unfortunately, depending on your perspective – some feminist killjoys specialised in human rights called the plan off. So if someone’s kicked to the sea during a conference now – it’s not official.

Not all of the Cruising Conferences have taken place in the Baltic actually. Five years ago, the conference was taken to the Trans-Siberian Railway, following the lead of Unconventional Conventions. Also “the world’s most luxurious train”, i.e. Rovos Rail’s Edwardian Pride of Africa, or “a train journey through the tunnel of time” was considered. However, it was feared that The Establishment would not stop eating duck in the dining cars, that discontents would be thrown to the lions, and that some would do nothing else than soak themselves in the Victorian bathtubs of the Royal Suite (or that the non-British conference participants would cook themselves alive in the tub, forever incapable of using those Victorian taps).

So the Trans-Siberian Railway it was then and it went relatively well. The only reason for returning the conference to the Baltic Sea the following year was that, towards the end of the Trans-Siberian BISA, it started to be difficult to pull through the conference program. Too many participants had hopped off at unknown stations after a few drinks, getting lost in Siberia. Getting drunk and/or lost might not be all that different from the more “static” conference experiences, but losing the entire British IR community across a continent in Russia seemed too big a risk to take for BISA. (Yes, they do get lost each year in a continent across the Atlantic, when trying to get back from the ISA after several re-routings of their several flights, but there is a difference in where we’d want them to get lost.)

In any case, the Finnish universities were happy to get the BISA back to the Baltic, since its annual departure from Helsinki is a clear sign of the global competitiveness of the Finnish academia.

Anyway, the 10th BISA Cruising Conference at the Baltic Sea is going well. Some blokes in their scuba diving gear were detected at the buffet table at lunch time earlier today, munching away until taken away by colleagues from the critical security studies working group. Stealing conferences has become more difficult now that we’re sailing.

On Deck 10, a crowd of conference participants is queuing to rent binoculars from a graduate student, who’s funding her research through Conference Binocular Renting™. She’s gotten the job via Any Odd Jobs for Academics Ltd. This is a transnationally operating staffing company, which was originally established to provide temporary teaching staff for universities, but now provides also other services to the academic community – and of course work for the younger academics, who can really do with any odd job to fund their academic work. The Conference Binocular Renting™ is a profitable business in the annual BISA at the Baltic, since it is often possible to see U-boats during sunset. Of course packing up own binoculars at home to accompany all those Stetsons and shades would be such a hassle. If you have the money, you rent – and thereby support the career of the grad student. Win, win, win.

Tonight, the evening is calm, and the sunset on the still Baltic is magnificent to watch, with or without the U-boats, with or without the binoculars. But then, a conference participant with binoculars sees something in the sea.

“What the hell is that…?” He peaks through his binoculars, and then again with bare eyes. From the Eastern horizon, a figure is approaching the Conference Boat at a spectacular speed. The last sun beams of the day shine on the figure as it approaches – as he approaches. It is a topless, muscular male figure, wearing army boots and army pants, no shirt, bare muscle.

Bare life?

No, hold on…

He’s paddling through the still Baltic Sea towards the Boat, now close enough that we can see the vehicle: a SUP (Stand Up Paddle) board!

A topless man is SUPping towards the conference boat at a spectacular speed?

Solitarily, like an embodied sovereign power par excellence, the muscular figure paddles towards us, the knowers of the International.

It is Vladimir!

Putin himself has joined the 10th BISA Cruising Conference at the Baltic Sea. He’s come for a pint.

Possibly with the lads.

[The post is a parody, expressing no official views on anything. The author takes no responsibility on any historical developments, debates or future conference formats that may follow – while of course welcoming the BISA to Finland if need be, to the Baltic or otherwise.]

[i] …which ever happens to have the most favourable taxation and other benefits available for shipping companies in 2027.

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