The Underconference

The flyer for the International Studies Association 2021 annual meeting features a crag of red stone set against a clear blue sky. It is a vision of expansive wilderness, and it stands in cruel contrast to the beige function rooms and windowless halls in which most conference activities take place. ISA 2021 was slated to take place in Las Vegas, so at least that red stone landscape might have been accessible to anyone willing to risk their good conference shoes on a side trip. The desert wilds of the flyer contrast even more starkly with the small home office space from which most of us will patch into the ISA virtual conference this week.

A pandemic pulled conferences out of cavernous hotel function rooms, and thrust them into virtual space. At least in theory, virtual conferences let more people from more places participate. They cut down on the direct and indirect expenses of travel. They reduce barriers to access for scholars with care responsibilities or limited mobility. The change away from the old way of doing conferences was long overdue, but I’m not sure we’ve yet figured out what the new way should be.

Virtual conferences promise an update on the stuffy old conference format, but all they give us is Zoom. Or in the case of ISA, some other conferencing platform that is even more limiting than Zoom. Technology that makes the conference more accessible to fee-paying members and less accessible to anyone else. At the stuffy old conferences, no one policed name tags to make sure that you had really paid your registration fees. Virtual conferences make this kind of policing possible. The name tags, reductive symbols of status, disappear from the virtual conference. But only because they were an inefficient means of policing fee payment.

In any case, markers of privilege are hardly banished just because the name tags on lanyards are gone. Conference formalities are there to remind us over and again of the rank and institution of participants. And then there’s the not-so-subtle signaling of a Zoom background, a home office setup.

In a virtual format, the entire conference becomes the program. The scheduled events, the panels and the presentations – there is no conference outside of these. Virtual spaces open up at the allotted time for the authorized people. When the scheduled event is over, the meeting ends, and we’re sitting alone at our screens. There is no dragging out of a post-panel conversation, no lingering in the doorway of the function room as the next panel of presenters shoulder their way in. The virtual event ends when admin or algorithm ends it.

The best thing about in-person conferences was hating on them. Catching the cheeky eyeroll of a colleague on the other side of the room when the first question turns out to be more of a CV recitation. Consoling a friend when their nemesis announces that actually this paper has just been accepted for publication. Learning which rockstar professors cannot be trusted to share data or drinks. Navigating with a complete stranger the endless corridors of beige rooms named after dead presidents.

These moments of companionship appear in the gaps of the official program. To borrow from Harney & Moten, this is the undercommons of the conference – the underconference. Those tightly scheduled panels leave brief opportunities to snatch back spontaneity and play hooky. Those cavernous hotels create spaces where no one can hear you bitch. Those throngs of handshakes and business cards around big name scholars leave quiet corners where no one is trying to network, but networks of like-minded scholars form anyway.

The quiet corners and whispered exchanges of the underconference were never exactly free space – not when conference participation costs so much – but they were shared space. And you knew exactly who you were and were not sharing with. In a virtual format, you can’t even be sure of that. Every aside, every interaction on the conference platform exists somewhere else as a transcript.

The stuffy old conference format has to end, although I doubt we’ve seen the last of all those identical conference hotels. The American Political Science Association is still touting a primarily in-person September conference. While policing members and membership might be easier in the Zoom grid (whatever platform we start off on, we always seem to end up back on Zoom), conference attendees do a good enough job of policing ourselves and abiding by disciplinary conventions. We dutifully pay our fees and wear our name tags. We dutifully tease the noob who is still wearing a name tag at the bar at the end of the day. We even list association memberships on CVs, as if these are accomplishments and not invoices.

The ISA underconference will take place in Whatsapp messages and Twitter DMs, and probably in not-quite-private asides in the chat function of the virtual conference platform. We will find ways to bond over hating on the conference. There will, however, be fewer of these wild, unrecorded spaces, where the official program does not reach and where real sharing and connecting can happen.

Writing through the pandemic with Ursula K. Le Guin

I spent the early reaches of the spring semester thinking a lot about academic writing. About pursuing an academic career out of a love of writing, and about how joyless academic writing can be. About academic writing reduced to a series of CV-enhancing products, and not as a valuable process in and of itself. Then a pandemic happened.

As cities locked down and universities transitioned effortlessly to virtual instruction/interaction, the online debates about productivity started. Isolation means productivity, Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined. Short-term productivity is a delusion, worry about securing your home. I sat at home, watching the debate unfurl. I stared at screens and Word docs about as I often as I normally would, but I got less writing done.

I can cope without a pandemic-induced productivity bump. I don’t expect to do my best work at the moment. I might not even advance my dissertation very much. But I would still like to write quite often. I like writing, and I find it grounding. Writing through a pandemic sounds to me less like something you do if you are coping well, and more like a way of coping well.

For writing guidance, I come back time and again to Ursula Le Guin. Perhaps this is because Le Guin can think like a social scientist, but she doesn’t write like one. I want inspiration from someone who takes a blank page and constructs an entire world out of it. Someone who approaches the blank page with a compulsion to create and imagine, instead of imposing the same one template on the page over and again.

In a 1988 interview, reprinted by Melville House, Le Guin sketched out her ideal writing schedule. In trying to write through this pandemic, I am taking cues from this schedule. It probably doesn’t hurt that Le Guin was a colossal introvert, so aside from Zoom meetings her ideal schedule looks quite workable during pandemic-induced isolation. Le Guin’s schedule is not my own ideal schedule, but has got me reflecting on how to build a writing habit that I might just be able to stick to. I have even annotated the original, with five reflections for writing through a pandemic…

One. Writing does not have to take up all your time. Le Guin scheduled as much time for preparing and eating food as for writing. More time for writing is not necessarily better time for writing.

Two. Five hours of writing is a long time. I am not sure that I can do anything very well for this long (I have been working on this section of this post for the past 1.25 hours, and I am flagging fast). I can, however, sometimes trick my brain by writing different things in different ways. Often that means switching from a screen to a pen and a page. Sometimes – not nearly often enough – it means switching from dissertation to reflection, or to fiction.

Three. Reading is not writing, but it helps. Reading widely is pretty essential for all good writers. It is also a great way for a self-doubting academic to pretend that they are writing, or preparing to write, without every committing words to a page. Good reading deserves time of its own, instead of being a prelude to something else. Set aside separate time for reading.

Four. Errands need time, and that time needs to be limited. Le Guin set aside two hours each days for correspondence and household stuff. Two whole hours, and only those two hours. If she’d had an email address in 1988, that probably would have meant two hours in which emails could be sent, and 22 whole hours in which they could not be.

Five. Know when you are stupid and enjoy it. I struggle with this part, and tend to tell myself that any hour of the day could be a good hour for writing. But not all hours are equal, as anyone who has seen me try to sit quietly but wakefully through a meeting or lecture right after lunch will probably know.

If you are one of the lucky ones that hasn’t seen your income decimated by the pandemic, don’t forget to support independent bookstores and publishers.

“Bird by Bird” is not about birds

This is my second year as a writing fellow at CUNY. Afforded a good deal of freedom in the role this year, I have been rooting around for helpful writing resources for students (and for myself). In the fall, several people recommended Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. One of these kind people bought me a copy of the book (get yourself a committee member who buys books for students).

When people recommend Bird by Bird, they often talk about the anecdote that gives the book its title. As a child, Lamott’s brother anguished over a school assignment in which he had to compile a book of birdlife. Lamott’s father (also a writer) provided the sage advice to proceed with the assignment bird by bird. Bird by Bird came recommended for precisely this takeaway message. Academic writing is less daunting when you break it down into small and steady tasks: paragraph by paragraph, bird by bird.

I started reading Bird by Bird during a day off, in the sunny window of a cafe in the Catskills. I started reading without a real sense of how far into it I would get, reminding myself that good academics don’t need to read every page or word.

Lamott has plenty of helpful advice about how to write bird by bird: how to break assignments down into smaller pieces; how to get words out before worrying about getting words right; how to sit down and write steadily at a desk, and how to keep writing when away from it. This is all, I suppose, what I went to the book for, and what I knew I would find there.

From early in the book, however, it struck me that Bird by Bird is not really about birds – not even metaphorical ones. Lamott’s most insistent piece of advice is that writing for the purpose of being published is never satisfying. To find some degree of contentment as a writer, you have to write for the sake of writing, and not for the sake of publishing.

The conversations that I have about academic writing are absolutely never about finding contentment. They are about efficiency, about how to write better for the purposes of finishing a thesis, or bagging a publication. They are about managing time, or managing notes and drafts. They are about the strict and unspoken conventions of academic genres: the course paper, the abstract, the journal article, the statement of interest. I suspect many of us get into academia because we like writing and reading – I certainly did. How long does that passion last, before we start to succumb to the publish or perish logic? Before the process of writing becomes something to get out of the way?

I started reading Bird by Bird out of an interest in being a more efficient writer. In getting more ideas down, and thus getting more publications up. Even my approach to reading the book shows how little we value writing (or reading) as more than a means to an end. I thought I would read what I could in a bit of free time. I figured I would extract some key messages and get onto more important reading. Cover to cover is not proper political science reading.

And yet, if we devalue the writing of our discipline – of our colleagues and mentors – to the point where the abstract, intro and (maybe) conclusion are all we have time for, then how could we ever come to value and esteem our own writing process? It is odd to realize just how little academia values one of the central practices of the vocation. We are trained and socialized into acting as though good writing is about getting published, and good reading is about not giving too much time to those publications. From this perspective, it is hardly surprising that I rarely hear political scientists express a love of writing (or at least a love of writing political science).

This semester, I am thinking a lot about how to bring passion and contentment back into academic writing. To start with, I am celebrating rough drafts as the freest stage of writing. I am also trying to do as much low stakes writing as possible. The kind of writing that might be good in itself, and not good for what it becomes. I am reading slowly, sometimes cover to cover. The passion hasn’t exactly come flooding back, but that is hardly surprising. The academic conventions that leech the joy out of reading and writing are deeply set. They will not be easy to shift.

“Why aren’t you in Mexico?”

Back in September, I attended the Conflict Research Society annual conference in Brighton. CRS is one of my favorite conferences, and I have previously attended in Oxford and Birmingham. The Brighton conference was great, with the same warm and collaborative spirit as the previous meetings. But one awkward, and perhaps important, moment stays with me, and I think warrants reflection.

I shared my dissertation research as part of a panel on narrative and ideology. The room was full, and there were a lot of questions from the audience. One response took the form of a long series of barbed more-of-a-comment-than-a-question points, aimed at the discussant, another panelist, and me. Those comments culminated in a challenge directed to me: “Why aren’t you in Mexico?”

Although this is the type of comment that most presenters dread, I was fortunate to have an easy answer. “Thank you for your feedback, I am in fact just back from my fourth trip and tenth month of research in Mexico. Apologies for not spelling that out. Now moving right along…”

That is the easy answer, and perhaps the best that can be done with a rather lengthy comment during a rather short panel. Behind the question, however, was an important point. The commenter may have missed the mark with their question, but their expectation that I wasn’t spending time in Mexico highlighted a problem with my presentation. I had gone too technical with my analysis. I had tables and counts, but I was not telling a story. I wasn’t animating the numbers by showing what they looked like on the ground. I had made my research look like something that could be done from a distance.

The comment also left me wondering just how often I should be in Mexico. Another answer to the question would be that I wasn’t in Mexico because I was in Brighton, presenting at a conference, hobnobbing with other scholars that for the most part conduct research in one place, and discuss that research in another.

In this sense, the question should be an uncomfortable challenge for our whole way of doing academic work. Why weren’t any of us in our respective field sites? Because regardless of how deeply we embed during our research, our work is more structured by academic conventions than by the people and places that we research. We write into academic genres, we present our work in standard formats, to rooms of similarly socialized and educated researchers.

There is another uncomfortable answer back there too. Why wasn’t I in Mexico? Because funding at my institution comes with a lot of strings attached. Even those of us with decent funding packages are obliged to be in New York every semester, to teach or assist or just to confirm that we are indeed working. I managed to wrangle a semester in Mexico, but doing so involved a long struggle against the overlapping bureaucracies of CUNY.

At conferences, we present our research as though everything is a matter of intention, of making the best choices for doing the best research. We don’t say very much about the way our research is structured and shaped by the limitations – bureaucratic, disciplinary, conventional – of academia itself. We might benefit from spending more time in the field, but we definitely need to present our work to the right people. We might engage fluently with the culture and customs of our field sites, but we absolutely need to be fluent in the bureaucracy of funding institutions. We make a successful career based more on what we do in academic spaces, than on what we do in research spaces.

Why aren’t you in Mexico? A harsh question for someone of higher status to toss at a panel of students, but a useful one to carry with me. I will spend more time in Mexico, but not as much time as I would like. Rather than worry about how much time I spend there, however, I should be focusing more on bringing Mexico back with me. On doing justice to the lives and stories that I encounter in my research. On finding ways to make the field (whatever that is) less subservient to the ivory tower.

From cuaz to cuate: Training camps for organized crime

For years now – more or less the entire duration of my doctoral studies – I have been intrigued by the fact that some organized crime groups in Mexico operate training camps. In one form or another, I worked this in to most of my course papers. Once I was done with coursework and working on turning these papers into a journal article, the camps became a recurrent feature of the various articulations of my argument.

My intuition was that the camps represent a very different paradigm of organized crime, and that they are vital to understanding otherwise baffling displays of violence, such as the mass killing of unarmed migrants. The camps were first associated with the Zetas, a group that started out as a group of elite military defectors, and became notorious for using horrific violence. The camps suggested that these founding members of the Zetas didn’t only bring their counterinsurgency training with them, but they passed it on to further recruits. The tactics of war and state terror were being repurposed for crime in Mexico.

In reading up for the latest version of this argument, I found an interesting link between counterinsurgency during the Guatemalan civil war, and crime on the US-Mexico border. Reports have long circulated that the Zetas recruited soldiers from the Guatemala’s Kaibiles counterinsurgency force – which perpetrated some of the worst violence of the civil war and genocide – to fight and train in Mexico. Here was an odd little piece of evidence.

In Dan Slater’s Wolf Boys, a young Zeta recruit describes a training camp. He recalls that the boys in the camp were paired up with a cuas, which he takes to be a version of cuate, common slang in Mexico for mate or bro. The pair of cuates were responsible and accountable to each other; if one messed up, both could be punished.

Then, in Jean Franco’s Cruel Modernity, I found a description of counterinsurgency training in Guatemala. Trainees for the Kaibiles were paired up with a cuaz, which is an indigenous Mayan term for brother. The pair of brothers was responsible and accountable to each other; if one messed up, both could be punished.

The words kaibil and cuaz are examples of the appropriation of indigenous language and culture by the forces that repressed and exterminated Mayan people in Guatemala. The young Zeta recruit was unaware that the training procedures of his camp – down to the very names and terms used – were part of a long legacy of violent training that extends back to the counterinsurgency campaigns of the late twentieth century.

This discovery became a brief illustration in a manuscript that is now, finally, scheduled for publication before the end of the year. The argument made in the article is simple: that the elite counterinsurgency training provided to Latin American militaries by the U.S. facilitated state terror, and has now been repurposed by criminal groups that again terrorize vulnerable groups. Violence has long legacies, and people shaped into killers by these training programs cannot unlearn this vocation.