I’m at the point where I’m conferenced out. It’s been a pretty busy few days.
By habit I’m a person who needs time to myself. I usually spend a couple of hours, most days, writing. And as often as I can, I find time for apparently mindless activity that allows mind wandering, the kind of generative daydreaming that de Certeau describes so brilliantly. When I don’t have these spacetimes, I reach a point where I can’t do any more.
Right now I need some time and space to think about the idea of Undisciplining and what it represents.
UNdisciplining seems to mean challenging familiar sociological concepts. Engaging with other disciplines interested in similar topics and ideas. Trying out new methods. Experimenting with different platforms and media for communicating the work. Blurring the boundaries between social action and research. And being more inclusive of researchers at all stages of their careers.
There’s a desire, a kind of conference affect, a yearn to be experimental, innovative, activist.
But I’m wondering how far this goes, how far it can go. As someone yesterday pointed out there are serious institutional pressures to do and be disciplinary – teaching, jobs, audits and so on.
Undisciplining feels this morning rather like a melting ice cream. There is still a pretty solid and hard core of academic sociology at its heart, with a lot of fluidity at the edges.
Is that OK? Enough already? I don’t know. And who am I to say anyway? And can I say this any more clearly at this point? Probably not.
I’m at the ‘We Need to Talk about Ethnography’ session. Lisa Dikomitis is talking about the fact that generally speaking, people don’t reflect on what they do. They may not know why they act in a particular way, and asking them about it can turn into an exercise in post hoc justification of actions that never really had a conscious rationale.
And I find this interesting because the experience of trying to blog about an academic conference is a bit different to my previous experience of being at one. Most of what I do and think and experience at conferences isn’t particularly reflexive. It also often isn’t particularly academic. Yes, of course I do listen to the speakers, and learn new things and ideas – but at the same time I’m also sometimes thinking “Ooh, ten minutes to the break. I wonder if they’ve got the nice biscuits again?” “Hm, missed call from my boyfriend. What’s happened? Can I surreptitiously check my text messages without being noticed?” There’s also a lot of habit and norms – queue up and give your name, get your lanyard, ask people where they’re from and what they research. Even at a conference that is consciously trying to be different, there is a lot of stuff that you autopilot through. (I guess there’s a sort of genre of what a conference is, which you can subvert a bit, but which also tends to retain core concepts in order to be a recognisable subversion of a conference? Or something. You know what I’m getting at: imagine I’ve put in fancy links to an appropriate theorist.)
Blogging turns the experience into a more auto-ethnographic experience, and I think that is something of a shift. My engagement becomes a more analytic one, of thinking about why I’m doing what I’m doing. It also requires me to order and assign meaning and ‘discipline’ my experiences of the conference in order to present a coherent post to an imagined audience. The social media aspect also makes that imagined audience more of an interactive process – someone tweeted last night that they laughed at one of my blog posts, so do I keep trying to be funny? Or should I try to write something more academically sophisticated? Will what I’m writing offend the speakers if I’ve misunderstood something important? Annoy Mark and Pat, who might have been hoping for something different from the blog exercise?
I think part of the issue is that the blog is quite a flexible medium. It can cover anything from someone drunkenly posting pictures of funny dogs in hats at three in the morning to a formally curated online magazine with an editorial policy. I guess most of us know by now what the kinds of ‘rules’ are for Twitter or four our own personal blogs: what’s risky to say and what isn’t, and the strategies for managing that – whether to put your own name on, whether to put a disclaimer in your bio. We also to some extent know our audience on Twitter or on personal blogs – who follows us, how they’re likely to respond. But since blogging an academic conference is new, I’m not quite sure about the rules. Should I treat it like Twitter – quick and ephemeral? Or should I craft it more like an academic piece? If I’m writing something fairly quickly, about a nuanced academic concept that may be relatively new to me (which is likely to happen at a conference focused on the edges of sociology), what level of sophistication is expected? What happens if I pitch it wrong?
I guess the wider questions here are: how far does undisciplining rely on knowing what the discipline is? Is there a distinction between subverting disciplinary expectations of conferences and social media, and going beyond those? And how does analysing experiences in a particular medium discipline them?
Does anybody else feel the hot prickly pain of adrenaline-fuelled anxiety as they formulate a question in their brain and gear up to launching it?
No matter how many presentations I have given or how many questions I have asked as a member of the audience, I still always feel a rising heart-thumping emotion as I psyche myself up to posing a question.
It starts with a quickening heartbeat at the very moment I realise that I want to ask something. Then I stop listening for a while as I try to hear and articulate the question in my head and as I picture myself actually asking it. As I increasingly persuade myself of its relevance for my own research or interests, I convince myself that I must ask it, even though it feels as though the deafening thundering of my heartbeat will smother the sound of any words I do manage to (m)utter.
And then, before I am even aware of it, the question pops out as I somehow disembody myself to be able to ask it. It then feels like I am consciously listening to myself as somebody else, as somebody who is asking a question, in order to keep calm and get to the end.
Why does this happen every time?
It occured to me that the reasons for this anxiety might include:
the fear of not being pithy
the fear of not being relevant
the fear of not being clear
the fear of not doing justice to myself
the fear of not being respectful to the presenters’ intentions
the fear of being selfish, i.e. of asking a question that is only important to me
the fear of not extending the conversation but of bringing it to a dead end
the fear of having misunderstood the spirit of the presentation
Does anybody else feel uncomfortable with asking questions? How do you deal with it?
We’re now more than half-way through to conference, and I’m reflecting on the guidance by Michaela Benson yesterday morning on the ‘cliques’ that make some conferences isolating and formidable social spaces. I’m big on the importance of conscious relationships in public life – I’m researching community organisers and they have had a huge influence on me (as they should). So a conference that explicitly encourages us to move beyond our familiar pre-existing collegial relationships is an exciting place to be. Particularly since, as one of only two people working at an Australian University here, I don’t have a ‘clique’ to belong to!
So how can a conference create the conditions for better public relationship building? Programming participatory workshops that encourage cross-talk and conversation, or sociological walks that get us out of chairs and moving through space with others are great initiatives in theory. But what is the end-goal of these conversations? What is the purpose of the new relationships we’re forming?
I’ve made friends at this conference and that’s a glorious thing in-and-of-itself and it’s made my time here fun. I’d hope, though, that given the themes bubbling up through this conference about resistance, that there are also political and properly public relationships being formed here. We’re discussing provocative and exciting ideas. There is a little bit of (hopefully productive) tension at some of the talks and workshops I’ve been to. So will the chats over tea and biscuits (and wine and beer) lead to action and collaboration?
At the last workshop I attended, an participant asked about strategies to harness the energy and possibilities that emerged from the strikes here for future work. And I’d love to think more about harnessing the energy and possibilities we’re creating in this space for future work beyond the conference.
I decided I wanted to reflect on my experience of the Feminist Walk of the City. I think this concept of including walks in a conference is a brilliant idea. Instead of just hearing about the experiences of women and feminist issues, I felt I was living these experiences by going on a walk. There is a rich history of women and women’s issues in Newcastle but until today, I was not aware of these. By hearing about their experiences and actually visiting the places where these were lived, I felt a greater connection with these women. For want of a better description, it was like walking in their footsteps.
These invisible women whose history was and still is, interwoven with Newcastle’s buildings, were brought to life for me. These women have been made visible. It also got me thinking about how many other hidden histories are waiting to be discovered in other feminist walks like this.
This is a question asked by a medical sociologist on Twitter in relation to some of the themes discussed at our conference. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it posed and it tends to be perceived as polemic but there’s a crucial challenge which remains too little discussed:
This kind of thing is all very well. But we then need to ask: why should anyone get paid to do sociology? https://t.co/nvDsIkCVft
It’s a close relation to this question: why should anyone listen to sociologists? The relative comfort of the university, in spite of its accelerating deterioration, insulates us from a practical challenge we would encounter with much greater frequency outside the university.
Her session on thinking knowledge production without the university clearly relates to our work in the cluster but is taking place outside of higher education. This is a conference organised by a charitable foundation, held in an art gallery and cultural space, seeking to break with traditional forms of academic organisation. Its origin reflects the ambivalence found in seeking an outside to the university, while framing the ambition in a way so idiosyncratically marked by being on the inside. It is outside yet concerned with the inside, dependent upon it yet struggling to move beyond it.
This tension is something we have to negotiate if we are going to find practical ways to facilitate knowledge production outside of the university, beyond the existing epistemic infrastructure of commercial, governmental and third sector activity. If we don’t confront it our attempts to find spaces outside of the university risk being failed escape attempts rather than projects to construct viable spaces that constitute a real alternative to the contemporary institutionalisation of the social sciences.
Although this conference is packed with outstanding scholars presenting on a wide variety of important and fascinating topics, I have to confess that I was inordinately excited about the prospect of hearing Bev Skeggs speak in person. As a new PhD student, I’ve read all her work and watched reruns of her LSE seminars on YouTube, and have long hoped to have the opportunity to hear her speak in person so I was naturally delighted to see her name on the TSR program. So yesterday morning I was filled with a giddy anticipation prior to the start of the conference.
In reflecting on what I felt was a rather schoolgirl’ish reaction to the prospect of hearing my academic idol speak, I was reminded of conversations I’d had with my 10yr old daughter about her adulation of Beyoncé at the time. I recall haughtily lecturing her about the ‘cult of celebrity’, and that just because someone was a celebrity doesn’t mean they are a good person, or particularly intelligent, or kind. She didn’t really care what I had to say about Beyoncé or any other music or TV celebrity that she worshipped, and responded with “but I have all her albums, and I’ve watched all her videos on YouTube, and I really really want to go to a Beyoncé concert!”.
Of course, one can’t help but notice the similarities in our reactions to a person that each of us respects and admires. In reflecting on my own reaction to the opportunity to see Bev speak, I’ve decided that I will no longer belittle or judge my daughter for her excitement about seeing her music heroes in concert…i realize now that it is very much a human response to the opportunity to fulfill a goal or a dream. She’s now a 19yr old university student, and has moved on from her fascination with Beyoncé. I am hopeful that she will find an academic ‘hero’ to inspire her…maybe I will send her one of Bev’s articles 🙂.
I was speaking with one of my colleagues over dinner last night. We both work in education, a field where there are a number of cognate disciplines. Sociology is just one of them.
We both see ourselves as “doing” sociology in education. We are in fact in a conversation about whether we are sociologists, or people who think sociologically, revisiting the opening session on Wednesday.
Both of us have experienced the conference as being with “family”. Here, conversations about class, race and gender are the norm. The terms colonialism and imperialism are said without being defined – we all “know” what they mean. Here we don’t hesitate before making a comment, we don’t consider our lexicon or how to phrase a view to avoid a counter-productive response.
Our dinner time chat suggests that maybe we need to come to sociological conferences in order to have our disciplinary sense of “being” affirmed. There’s a sense of comfort in this conference, we are fish in water so to speak, being here. Even if we don’t know a lot of people, in disciplinary terms, we know everyone.