By Mark Carrigan
I began writing this the day before making my way up to Gateshead for the Undisciplining conference. The ECR day takes place on Monday before the main conference starts on Tuesday. But I’m coming early because there’s still much to do before the event*, including meeting with my collaborator Pat Thomson to finalise our plans for the live methods project this blog post is an initial contribution to. These outstanding tasks partly reflect the size of the conference but also our intention to move away from the traditional format to encompass workshops, discussions, art, film, music, photography and walks. It had never occurred to me previously quite how much standardisation reduces cognitive labour in event organisation. The intention to do things differently, including in my case working with Emma Jackson and Zoe Walshe to produce a digital strategy which recognises every single contribution to the event, precludes habitual ways of working through the brute fact of novelty. It all takes a bit more thought than usual because our usual thoughts won’t be sufficient for what we are planning.
If this is true of the event organisers, we might expect it will be true of event participants as well. Doing things differently makes it necessary for everyone to think a little more than usual about what it is they are doing and why. Undisciplining is close enough to a ‘traditional’ conference (a phrase I’m reluctant to use but will continue to until I find a better one) that this thought inevitably reflects the existing realities of academic life. But it nonetheless remains far enough away from it that this thought opens up a space in which we can imagine how academic life might be different. I hope this project Pat and I have initiated, inviting co-researchers to live blog their way through the conference, cracks this space even wider and facilitates a multifaceted and interactive discussion about what emerges. Our intention is for it to shed light on what conferences are but also what they could be, the realities of the contemporary academy but also the spaces of possibilities incipient within it. We hope it will encompass description, theorisation and imagination as something more than the sum of its parts.
A large part of my motivation for this project is my own curiosity about how other people experience conferences. I go to a lot of them but I often find them alienating, obviously serving a purpose but nonetheless leaving me uncomfortable with how they work. I’ve often found them cliquey and, when I don’t, inevitably find myself worrying that it’s because I’m part of the clique and am provoking that same feeling of being excluded in others. I tend to experience them in the same way I do parties, overwhelming and chaotic, but without residual fun bits that parties bring with them. Conferences are sites where pluralistic ignorance can rule, creating the impression that what isn’t talked about doesn’t exist. Yet I know from friends and social media that I’m far from the only person for whom conferences carry such ambivalent feelings. The conference backchannel that Twitter provides can help mitigate this but micro-blogging can only does so much given the constrained space for expression, particularly when it revolves around the rapid succession of the hashtag. Social media can help open up what is opaque, encouraging the expression of what would otherwise remain unexpressed. But doing this requires planning and foresight, as well as overcoming reliance upon any platform to do the work for us.
Our live methods project is intended as a cross-platform exploratory intervention into Undisciplining, generating spiralling dialogues which fold back into the fabric of the conference itself. The live blog is the focal point for this, with each of the participants being provided with an account for the conference website. Each of their blog posts will circulate back into the conference itself, through the social media presence of The Sociological Review and the #undisciplining hashtag attached to the event. We will publish every entry through @thesocreview and encourage participants to keep track of the entries through the live blog section on http://www.undisciplining.org as the conference progresses. Comments will be open for each blog post, with the hope that discussion will ooze outwards from one platform to the next, saturating Undisciplining with collective reflexivity about what is taking place and the experiences of those participating in the events.
We will provide suggestions for participants, in order to help them get started, but not guidelines. I’m finishing this post from the cat cafe over the river from the conference venue (pictures to follow in subsequent live blogs because I doubt this will be my only visit here in the next few days…) before meeting Pat later today to plan the suggestions and other content for our opening session on Tuesday morning. We’ve asked that everyone remain within the social media guidelines of the conference, but will stress that this document can be an object for reflection and critique in its own right. This inevitably opens up a certain amount of unpredictability which, if I’m honest, makes me slightly nervous in my capacity as digital co-ordinator for the conference. But I’m confident that myself and Pat can exercise discretion, knowing when a degree of moderation might be necessary in order to ensure that our project doesn’t disrupt the intended ethos of Undisciplining as expressed in these guidelines. We want to ensure no one feels attacked, unsafe or unwelcome at the conference. But beyond this we want it be an open project that extends to every aspect of the conference and beyond. We’ll have more detail in subsequent blog posts because the real time reflections of myself and Pat are as much as part of the project as those of the other bloggers. We’ll also be expanding on the inspiration for the project and its relationship to the live methods manifesto published in The Sociological Review by Les Back and Nirmal Puwar. But now, back to enjoying the cat cafe.
*Though I should add that my workload for this has been nothing like that of Jenny Thatcher, the incredible events manager for The Sociological Review Foundation, without whom this event could not have taken place.