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 relation 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 and 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, 2019

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.

The Conflict Research Society Conference

Last week saw me dozing on flights, stumbling through airports, and taking the tube to a train to a bus to another bus to another train, to arrive in Oxford in time for the Conflict Research Society Annual Conference.

This was my first time attending the CRS conference, and it didn’t take me long to decide that this was one of the best conferences in which I have participated. The easy-on-the-eye setting at Pembroke College certainly didn’t hurt; it wasn’t only jetlag that, between sessions, had me scuttling out to bask in the sunny quads. And I couldn’t resist the utterly unnecessary Hogwarts analogies, when presented with the formidable array of desserts in the college dining hall

More to the point, however, the thematic, rather than disciplinary, focus to the conference, coupled with its modest overall size (only two days – quite the relief after some of the more monstrous conferences), meant that it was easy to meet, and to get to chatting, with other academics interested in similar topics. Perhaps most importantly, this was also a conference in which (post)graduate students, doctoral candidates, and junior and senior faculty intermingled readily. There was little of the sense of hierarchy that at other conferences can see attendees sorted or sorting themselves according to the letters after their names.

There’s also something refreshing about crossing the pond (the actual sleep-depriving, jet-lagging crossing notwithstanding), and getting a taste of how academia is done in other places. While we might study the same topics and read the same scholars, some of the frames of reference shift, some of the assumptions and fixations diminish. An important reminder that, as massive as it is, American academia is not the full extent of academia.

The paper that I was presenting includes a fairly detailed case study of the Zetas criminal organization in Mexico. From what I can see, mine was the only paper on Mexico at the conference. Despite ten years of raging violence, Mexico doesn’t quite have an agreed upon ‘conflict’ status yet. At the opening plenary, Prof. Anke Hoeffler drew a distinction between collective and interpersonal violence, with the implication being that the former refers to conflict or war, and the latter to crime. The levels of violence in Mexico, however, are almost inconceivable as interpersonal crime. Rather, part of the problem appears to be proliferation of highly armed collectives, willing to target each other and civilians.

Still, it is a testament to the sense of the community that the CRS has knit together, that some interloper, who doesn’t even study a proper conflict, was welcomed to the conference. And that the other attendees found plenty to ask about, and plenty to share.