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.