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.

“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.

Relational conferencing?

The end of May saw me rolling up to Boston for the Latin American Studies Association annual conference. This was a monster conference, with hundreds of panels sprawling across four days and two hotels. It was also a very good conference. For all the daunting size of the event, it was easy to find and meet people (perhaps I was helped along in this by the contacts I had made at other confs this semester). Furthermore, the panel attendance was much better at LASA than at the political science conferences, where I’d generally consider it a success to have as many people in the audience as on the panel.

On the trip to and from LASA, I read Lee Ann Fujii’s Interviewing in Social Science: A Relational Approach. The book stayed with me throughout the conference, often on my mind. It is one of those uncommon books that crosses over, that changes how you see everything around you.

The book is full of examples and suggestions for how to interview ethically and incisively, but I don’t think this is really a book about interviewing. Or rather, I think the book uses interviewing as a sustained example of how to take a more relational approach to research. Fujii’s main points are, after all, by no means specific to interviews. She emphasizes research as a process, rather than just a series of products. She stresses the importance of a reflexive, iterative approach to research, in which surprises and difficulties become opportunities to think and revise the research agenda. Fujii also emphasizes the need to move away from an extractive approach to research, and towards joint production of knowledge.

Wandering the halls and malls that linked the LASA panels together, I kept thinking: what would a relational approach to conferencing look like? Perhaps this would involve less attention to conference presentations as a polished product, and more attention to the process of raising concerns and thinking through difficulties. It might even involve a conception of Q&A that isn’t all about one side of the room providing Qs, and the other side providing As.

After panels and at receptions, I often find myself wondering if I should be talking to that professor over there (usually the one surrounded by a throng of other professors and students). Relational conferencing might see networking as less about making instrumental connections, to arrive at that all important, high-profile, job-offering connection. Instead, it might involve valuing the rest of the people in the room, not as connections to extract, but as opportunities to think and to create together.

After LASA, as I finished Fujii’s book on the trip home, I thought about bringing a relational ethos beyond even the conference, and to other aspects of academic life. Could there be a relational approach to reading? Not extracting data and references, but valuing the process of reading. Not evaluating which excerpts might be worth the time, but assuming the text does its best work as a complete whole. A relational approach to academia, even when alone with a book.

I read the entire book: every page, every appendix. I read, for once, with little sense of what I needed from the book, but with a clear sense that the more I read, the more I stood to gain.

The Conflict Research Society Conference, Birmingham edition

After my experience last year at the Conflict Research Society’s annual conference in Oxford, I was eager to cross the pond again, and plug back into the vibrant CRS community this year. I sweated on my acceptance to the conference through the spring, worried that the conference conveners would decide that they were being entirely too lenient in admitting my rambling Mexico papers. The conveners certainly are too lenient, but they still haven’t realised.

This year’s conference was at the University of Birmingham, and having learned my lesson in Oxford, I booked a room as close to the university as possible. This closest option also happened to be a particularly lovely one, in a cosy home on a tree-lined road. The house even came with bonus colleagues; I was one of three conference attendees lodging there.

Like any good campus, that of the University of Birmingham is an absolute mash of styles. Bells gurgled in the red brick clock tower on the hour, while a brutalist beehive squatted silently nearby. This far norff, yellow leaves were already skittering across the lawns in the chill morning breeze.

Within the conference venue, the atmosphere was very much as I remembered. To the clink of coffee cups on saucers, attendees exchanged warm greetings and new introductions. There is very little self-sorting into the usual academic hierarchies at this conference; new students, doctoral candidates, postdocs, junior faculty and established professors mingle and share ideas openly. Maybe this is a trick of the name tags, which don’t list rank. Maybe – and to the eternal chagrin of the American academy – this is characteristic of academia in the UK. Used as I am to more rigid distinctions of rank, I found myself stumbling over introductions – and also that it didn’t really matter.

Beyond this welcoming vibe, there were a few conference highlights for me. Marsha Henry’s opening plenary included a fantastic overview of critical perspectives on peacekeeping. I am going to be picking over the reading suggestions in her slides for a long time to come. Henry was also a very generous invited speaker, who was present and available throughout the conference (even though, as she proudly declared, she is a relative local). Ana Arjona’s presentation of her (CRS award-winning) book Rebelocracy was also great, and thrust the book even higher up my reading list (what self-respecting Latin America scholar would even admit that the book is not on their already-read list?).

I was also impressed and humbled by the quality of the work of my fellow graduate students and doctoral candidates. Among the many examples of great research eloquently presented, was Robert Nagel’s talk on sexual violence and civil war. Having recently returned from field research, and with a very rough presentation on what I had found, I was challenged and inspired by my peers to lift my work way up to their level.

One final highlight was the conference dinner, at which scholars of all ranks shared tables and bottles of wine. Perhaps most memorable of all, however, was the near insurrection on the part of my fellow vegetarians, over the diminutive size of the meat-free main dishes. We are, apparently, a force to be reckoned with (especially after a full day of conferencing, and with empty bellies).

Lessons learned in Oxford

The Conflict Research Society Conference in Oxford was a generative, 2-day event, full of interesting panels and conversations. Yet my time in Oxford still left me with some difficult lessons to learn. In proper social scientist form, I have enumerated these lessons below.

By the end of my panel, in the middle of the first day of the conference, I was losing my voice. The croaks and sniffles had started on the flight from New York, and while I got all the words out for my presentation, I didn’t have all that many words left in me by the end of the day’s programing. After the last panel, instead of hanging around, to meet people and resume some of the threads of conversation from throughout the day, I decided to scuttle off back to my Airbnb place.

Lesson 1: Always loiter at the conference.

I had booked the Airbnb spot on something of a whim. It was a rather charming studio, unnecessarily spacious for the short amount of time that I would have in Oxford. It was also rather far from town centre – at least a 30 minute walk.

Lesson 2: Don’t fall for the charming, distant studio.

My voice was failing, but my legs were fine, and in fact needed a stretch. I figured that I could walk back to the studio, and still have enough down time to recuperate my cords. I took a different route from my morning walk into town; this way was only 3 minutes slower, according to Google Maps, and would let me see a little more of Oxford.

Lesson 3: Never rely entirely upon Google Maps.

Phone in hand, I wandered through town, and into a large park. There were no lights in the park, but the way was clear, the night was pleasant, and all I had to do was keep heading in the same direction, cross the river, and I’d be through.

I found the bridge. There was a gate across it. The gate was locked.

I briefly considered climbing over the (fairly low) gate, but decided that my conference experience would be better overall if I did as little trespassing as possible. Unperturbed, I turned back, checked in with the map again, and headed for the closest exit to the park. This gate was unlocked, and lead onto an alley, beyond which I could see the street.

The gate at the end of the alley was locked. Fearing that the park may have been locked up just after I entered, I decided to climb this (fairly high) gate.

Lesson 4: Expect there to be gates.

I picked my conference attire because it looked both professional and casual. There was nothing professional or casual about the way I heaved myself over the gate, but I did escape the park. I carried on my way, phone in hand.

As I passed down another alley, I decided to snap a (very average) photo, as a reminder of my detour through the park. I took the photo. My phone shut down.

Lesson 5: No photos on 25% battery.

I was on the wrong side of the park to easily find my way back to the town centre. I did remember, however, that one of the paths (by far the slowest) that Google had traced, from the studio to the centre, followed a ring road on a long, steady arc out of and back into town. So I walked until I found the ring road, and I followed that long, steady arc out of and back into town. It started to rain. But I found the studio.

Needless to say that by the early start the next morning, my voice was not much improved. The second day of the conference lay before me, however, and I packed my bag, locked up the studio, and stepped outside to call an Uber.

There were no cars available (and there may never be).

Lesson 6: lesson 3, but for all apps.