It’s time to open up academic conferences to the wider world

Image: IKON

From once being viewed as something of a calm and tranquil professional backwater, higher education is now subject to a host of performance pressures. From students and regulators, funders and politicians, through to the broader public and the modern media, the academy is increasingly expected to account for the public funding it receives.

This means more weight is put on ‘engaged scholarship’ and the intellectual value of co-production or ‘deep impact’, whereby potential research-users become part of the research process.

Shaking off the dust, without going MAD

There are, as would be expected, pockets of resistance and justifiable concerns about ‘the tyranny of impact’. There is also a very real risk that universities and academics will go ‘MAD’ – ‘multiple accountabilities disorder’ – whereby very little time is actually left for thinking, teaching or writing. This fear of going MAD is not a flippant argument. One of the most pressing challenges within universities concerns the mental health and wellbeing of students and staff in an environment that is increasing expectations while shrinking resources. The uncertainty surrounding REF, TEF, reforms to the governance of the research councils, the impact of Brexit, and more do little to engender professional confidence or stability.

And yet we must refuse to be seduced by the politics of pessimism. It is far better to highlight the manner in which challenges and uncertainties – even crises – create opportunities for those individuals and organisations that are willing to adopt a more strategic and politically astute approach. ‘The politics of academic optimism’ draws on C Wright Mills’ work on ‘the promise’ and ‘the trap’, and Ernest Boyer’s arguments on reconsidering scholarship. Both emphasised the social value of scholarship and how valuing ‘the social’ can improve scholarly standards. Academia is merely one (albeit crucial) element in the intellectual ecosystem.

As Chair of the Political Studies Association my role has therefore involved re-thinking the role of a learned society. Where organisations such as ours were once dusty and internally-focused, we must now be dynamic and externally-focused. Learned societies should be knowledge translators, brokers, filters and builders of bridges between academia, other professions, and sections of the public that can utilise – and feed back in to – the scholarly process.

A new kind of academic conference

The annual academic conference provides a perfect case study. ‘The conference’ is a customary element of academic life; it is a ritual in which routine practices are undertaken and habitual cultures and relationships perpetuated (not all of them positive). The vast majority of conferences, in my experience, follow a fairly standard model that sees endless academic panels divided between ‘keynote’ plenary lectures, all in crescendo towards some kind of conference dinner.

Meals will be eaten, alcohol consumed, inequalities embedded. Attendance at panels will wane and people increasingly ‘fly-in-and-fly-out’ to give their papers because a subtle cost-benefit analysis has told them that their time can be more profitably deployed writing research grants, completing papers or trying to get on top of the mountain of administration on their desks.

But we shouldn’t call time on conferences. Far better to redesign the model so that the benefits of attendance far outweigh the perceived costs. The trick for convenors is to see the conference not as an internalised academic event, but as a gateway into a broader intellectual ecosystem that involves many non-academics. Conferences should sustain, inspire and nourish your discipline by bringing in new perspectives, forging new relationships, cultivating new skills, taking a few risks and recognising that academic knowledge is not the only form of legitimate knowledge in society.

This is not a question of ‘in’ or ‘out’; it is not a zero-sum game where traditional ways of working must be jettisoned for some new and funky way of ‘hot-desking-while-speed-dating-while-being-impactful’. It is, however, about setting traditional panels or keynotes in a context where innovation and new ideas and particularly new audiences can flourish.

I am not for one second arguing that the PSA’s annual conference is the acme of modern conference design. Nor am I arguing that what the PSA does is necessarily appropriate for all disciplines and fields of inquiry, or that a traditional ‘panels, papers and lectures’ format is of no value.

However, learned societies are more important than ever. We have a duty to promote and protect scholarly endeavours in an increasingly competitive, aggressive and short-sighted environment. Conferences can serve as a vital tool for cultivating academic energy and ambition, promoting engagement with all sorts of communities, and generally nourishing the broader intellectual ecosystem.

We hope that this year’s PSA conference at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow provides a case in point. Whilst structured around a fairly traditional framework of keynotes and panels, we have also thought hard about the ‘added value’ elements that might set it apart from others. We have opened sessions up to the public and are live streaming the most topical panels via social media. We’ve got a debate on nationalism in a pub which has drawn in the locals; a public screening of a political film; roundtables that trespass across professional and disciplinary boundaries; and timely talks from non-academics including Harriet Harman and Nicola Sturgeon. We will be having a formal conference dinner, but then we’ll push the tables aside and celebrate the city we’re in with a big Ceilidh.

We have also upped our commitment to equality and diversity, not because this is ‘good’ for women, members of BAME communities and other underrepresented groups, but because it is good for our whole profession. We have a subsidised crèche and families are welcome to attend the conference (I will be taking three of my children). We have procedures in place to avoid all-male panels wherever possible and will actively promote the use of early career academics as panel chairs or rapporteurs to provide new opportunities for engagement. And we’ll finish up with a one-day undergraduate conference that aims to support the future of political studies by inspiring young people from all backgrounds interested in postgraduate study.

Being an academic is a wonderful job. It is a privileged profession, but also a changing one. Navigating these changes demands that different disciplines work in new and fresh ways, and occasionally dare to work across traditional boundaries, and to take a few risks.

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