Postgraduate labour

Partly for my own reference, but also because it might be of interest to others.

postgraduateworker.wordpress.com

My first paid work was when I was 15/16. It was in a boarding kennels and cattery, and mainly involved picking up a lot of animal shit. I was paid approximately £2.50 an hour; however, I was in no position to bargain as there were kids from the village who would do it all for free because it was working with cute fluffy animals. Perhaps they thought it was the Blue Cross rather than a business. I was of the opinion that as it was a profit-making business, I was not going to allow my badly paid labour to contribute to their profits and I wasn’t going to pressured into working for even less – or no – pay.

I’m reminded of these early lessons in workplace economics when it comes to postgraduate labour. As early career researchers, we are preparing to enter a fiercely competitive struggle for a limited number of jobs. Having teaching experience is incredibly important; there’s the fear that others will have done more than you, have more teaching experience than you. There are usually more postgraduates hoping for teaching work than there are places for postgraduate tutors; if you turn it down because of poor pay or lack of support then no one will miss you – there are tens of others who won’t complain and, indeed, will work for even less. We often work in the same department as that will examine us. We may work on a module our supervisor convenes. We may benefit from a scholarship that has (unspecified amounts of) teaching attached to it. If we’re offered teaching work, there’s pressure to take it.

Working for low pay means that many postgraduates simply can’t afford to teach, thus affecting their long-term job prospects. We may be used, unwillingly or unwittingly, to avoid employing full-time staff. Postgraduate teaching work is situated within different, competing pressures and interests. It can be a really complex situation, and all too often there aren’t formal structures for support and representation. Students have the Students’ Union; non-postgraduate staff have their unions. We seem to be positioned awkwardly inbetween the two.

For the most part, I’ve found my experience as a postgraduate tutor rewarding and I hope it will stand me in good stead. However, I’m also aware of my sometimes precarious position, even though my department does a lot of things right. Other postgraduate tutors have it much worse; I’ve been horrified by some of the things my friends in other universities have reported.

It’s important that the complexities of our workplace conditions are scrutinised. I’m not sure if the Postgraduate Workers’ Association’s list of things postgraduate workers should be entitled to are achievable (holiday pay? sick pay? I don’t know whether to laugh or weep) but I hope this is a step towards doing that.

Queer-positive teaching

Me painting a placard

Photo by Laura Dunn

Last Thursday was IDAHO/IDAHoT/IDAHoBiT – International Day Against Homophobia. IDAHO started as a day to commemorate the World Health Organisation’s decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; it is now a campaign calling for the international decriminalisation of homosexuality and to combat homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (hence the different acronyms). I spent the day with Warwick Pride, first on the panel for a Trans* Q+A and then listening to speakers from Movement for Justice.

Meanwhile, Helen Finch was discussing how we, as academics and tutors, can “foster a queer-positive environment at work” and in research. I’m a tutor – but I’ve also been a Trans* Welfare Officer, am involved with LGBT activism, been involved with LGBT student groups and the NUS LGBT campaign and yes, almost ten years ago, was that rather anxious student feeling very invisible and very alone.

As Paul Baker observes, LGBTQA students face additional pressures at university and are at increased risk of dropping out. As someone who’s been involved in LGBT student welfare from within the student union and has responded to more than a few concerns about homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in teaching environments, I was determined to bring this awareness to my teaching. I’ve written about a few key points that I find helpful to remember.

– Assume nothing. Never assume that everyone in your seminar room, lecture hall or lab is straight, cisgendered, or, for want of a better term, sexual. It’s easy to assume you aren’t teaching any LGBTQA students just because they don’t conform to what you expect an LGBTQA student to look like, but I assure you, they are there. LGBTQA students have families and friends, and you might be teaching them too.

– Avoid heteronormativity. Heteronormativity aligns biological sex (itself a problematic concept), sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles into one rather messy whole. It’s a constant and pervasive thing – you probably encounter it every day in advertising, in magazines and newspapers, on the TV and even in things like dress codes and casual conversation with strangers. Heteronormativity isn’t just harmful to LGBTQA people; Meg Barker wrote about it in a blog post and outlines the damage it causes to people inside and outside it. If you can, challenge these norms – but at the very least, don’t support them.
Things you can do include not assuming that all your female students are interested in male partners and all your male students are interested in female partners. Things like jokey comments along the lines of “typical man”, “that’s something a woman would say” or heteronormative assumptions about women all liking shoes and men all liking sports seem harmless, but can be alienating for students who don’t conform to those ideas. If possible, (gently) challenge these if they come from your students. If your examples involve people and relationships, don’t base them all around heterosexuality. I was checking a book (Paul Baker and Sibonile Ellece’s Key Terms in Discourse Analysis) for a definition and saw that the example was “Carol kissed Mary”. The concept it was illustrating – that of semantic role – could just as easily been illustrated by “Dan kissed Mary”. But if “Dan kissed Mary” is acceptable, why shouldn’t “Carol kissed Mary” be acceptable? It’s a small thing, but seeing their identity and relationships reflected in teaching material can be really important for LGBTQA students.

– Avoid cisnormativity – the assumption that everyone’s gender identity corresponds to that which they were assigned at birth, or, indeed, which is on their university records. As one of my many jobs, I work as an IELTS invigilator. Exam candidates have to shade in a box for whether they are male or female, and one of the invigilators I work with used to comment, every time, that “this should be the easiest question of the day” for them. For some people, it’s not an easy question – they may not be out as trans, they may not be able to change their legal gender, or, in the case of non-binary gendered, genderqueer and agendered people, there may not be a legal gender for them to change to. While the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) have revised the way gender will be recorded in their new gender and sex categories for student records within Higher Education, it’s still important to remember that students may ask you to call them by a different name or use different pronouns than those in their student records. To me, it also means bringing an awareness of the fluidity and diversity of gender to my teaching and so acknowledging that these are complicated things.

– Acknowledge queer scholarship – probably one more relevant for arts, humanities and social sciences although I’d love to hear if/how scientists, mathematicians, engineers and others do this. Helen suggested “contextualis[ing] sexuality and gender as discursively formed and historically understood” in literature studies; there’s some interesting discussions in bioarchaeology about “gay” cavemen; there are debates in history about whether various historical figures were gay (and what we mean by “gay”), such as Christabel Pankhurst. One of the seminars I taught this term was on language and gender, and I tried to lead my students from thinking about “women’s language” to thinking about where men and women learn language, then to looking at short extracts from anonymised conversations and guessing what genders the speakers were, then to thinking about the way power was enacted and negotiated in these exchanges and how this affected what gender the speakers were read as. In my case, there’s a rich vein of queer linguistics that informed my teaching and judging from the conversations during the seminar, the students seemed to find it an exciting and challenging way to think about gender.

There’s lots of other issues involved in this; one of the things Helen touched on was whether to out yourself when teaching. In my case, my decision to go to a couple of student LGBT events – I’m still a research student after all – meant that if any of my students were there, they would have seen me. I made a deliberate decision not to go to any drinking student LGBT events, partly because I don’t have time for hangovers but also because I want my students to have fun, do some silly and/or inadvisable things if they so desire, and enjoy their first year at university without worrying about being seen by their tutor. I’d probably feel a bit conflicted if I saw one of them get kicked out of the NG1 toilets or something!

I’m still pretty new at teaching though, so if you’ve got any advice or comments I’d be really interested in hearing them.

The magic AAB

I was interested to read Peter Scott’s critique of the “government’s decision to allow universities to recruit as many AAB students as they like, while sharply constraining the overall number of students”

To quote his article:

There are two fundamental objections to this policy – one educational and the second ethical. The first is that universities have always chosen students according to their future potential, not past performance. Of course, A-level grades are important evidence of potential. But they should never be treated as decisive evidence, even in an age of mass higher education when computer-generated offers are almost inevitable.

To rely on A-level grades alone is, in effect, further to privilege the already privileged, to give disproportionate rewards to those whose way in life has been smooth. The correlation between school performance and social advantage is too plain to deny. For years universities have attempted, feebly perhaps, to level the playing field by making differential offers. Now, on the fiat of David Willetts, they are no longer so free to do so.

[…]

The ethical objection to the government’s AAB apartheid takes me back to Popper on the Viennese streets 80 years ago. The arguments for widening participation, and for (genuinely) fair access, are usually seen as rooted in ideology of the kind that Popper disapproved of (“social engineering” is the standard put-down). That is only partly true, although unlike Popper I would not disavow collective action to secure social justice. The argument is also about individuals. First, is it fair to offer students an enticement, in the shape of a generous bursary or an attractive fee waiver, in the expectation that they will get AABs, only to withdraw it if they slip a grade (and since when have A-level examiners been infallible?).

But it goes deeper still. The vice-chancellor who swept the “tail” into oblivion from that restaurant table, and the vice-chancellors now struggling to “manage” their AAB entrants, are behaving in the same way as the zealots of right and left who battled in the streets. They are putting an idea, an abstraction, a policy construct, before the lives of real people who are born, live, love and are bound to die.

As Scott observes, these aren’t abstract decisions, made as if we were all so many players of the Sims and presiding over our tiny virtual kingdoms. Instead, these are decision that affect people’s lives – decisions that can make a huge difference to someone’s life and future.

And, indeed, I was one of those people. I don’t have great A-levels, courtesy of the kind of sixth-form experience that screams “mitigating circumstances”. I ended up doing an extra year at a sixth-form college just so I had a set of A-levels that wouldn’t get me instantly rejected from anywhere I applied. On the basis of my A-levels alone, I would be one of those students on restricted intake. However, my sixth-form college were able to give me excellent references and the University of Liverpool, having met me, took a chance on me. Three years later I graduated with a First in English Language and Literature. Eighteen months after that I graduated with an MA in Corpus Linguistics. And now, ten years after doing my first set of A-levels, I find myself writing up my doctoral thesis, presenting at international conferences and teaching. I’d like to think that despite my poor performance at A-level, I’ve not done too badly in academia.

A-levels are just one way to predict someone’s future performance, but they don’t necessarily map onto academic ability. They’re a crude index at best – and at worst, fail to distinguish the students who will thrive in a university environment from those that won’t. Ultimately, it’s in universities’ interests to attract the students who will flourish in the academic setting they offer, and fetishising A-levels above other ways of evaluating potential students does not necessarily do that.

Idealism

A year and a month ago I was sleeping inside a university occupation. The temperatures were subzero, there was snow lying on the ground outside, and the heating and electricity in the hall we were occupying had mysteriously suffered faults. At the time, it was sometimes hard to gauge the support we had – we certainly had support from all kinds of people both within and outside the community. However, there were also people who regarded us with a certain detachedness, as if we were overreacting in ridiculous fashion.

And so I found this recent report on growing anger about higher education reforms interesting, particularly the following:

There have been three responses […] The third is to regard the government’s reforms as heralding the death of the university as a public and liberal institution. Key academic values are under attack, whether scholarship in the humanities or curiosity-driven science. So are key social values such as widening participation.

[…]

It is the third response that seems to be gathering force. No longer confined to the “usual suspects” such as the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, it is gradually becoming established as the dominant response among the academic rank-and-file and high-profile public intellectuals. Not so long ago, the much-despised “chattering classes” shared the politicians’ low opinion of universities; now they are rallying to their defence.

However, as well as defending our universities’ existence, there’s also an opportunity to ask what we want our universities to be. Jennifer Jones and Martin Eve discuss this as “angry young academics” who want universities to be more than just consumerism. Mark has recently been posting material about the neoliberal university and I’ve found it really thought provoking.

As a young academic in the arts and humanities, I am aware of what we lose because of this neoliberal model of the university, particularly when it comes to funding young researchers. The important and fascinating PhD theses not written because the applicant couldn’t get funding. The scientists who can’t work on non-commercial projects because there isn’t money to support that. The ways projects that don’t have an immediately obvious economic benefit are devalued. The scrabbling about for limited amounts of funding which means that interesting and valuable ideas never get explored. Collaboration across departments or institutions that doesn’t happen because it’s difficult to work out who should be funding it.

And more and more, I’m led to question whether I want to fight for this system. I want to work in a university that is visionary and creative, rigorous and challenging, nurturing and supportive. The university I want to work in values research regardless of its economic usefulness, and values curiosity and exploration. The university I want to work on is aware of power and privilege, is critical and reflexive. Perhaps it’s the stage I’m at in my PhD (the despair, wailing and general hideousness stage), but at the moment I’m doubtful this happens on a university level.

I’m probably hopelessly idealistic about this. I am glad, though, that there are the beginnings of a debate about whom universities should serve, and I hope it does led to a change.

Some blog love

I’ve been ridiculously busy lately (teaching! training! seeing Jen Gupta perform as part of Manchester Science Festival and London Bright Club! linguistics reading group! oh yeah, that thesis thing I’m writing! trying to get my boiler fixed!) so not really had time to think of interesting posts, so here’s a few links to blogs I read:

BAD REPBad Reputation is a collective of writers on a “feminist pop culture adventure”. In the interests of transparency I should declare that they have plied me with cake, but I’d like them anyway because they’re incisive, intelligent and pretty awesome. I particularly like their series of Revolting Women because it contains not one, not two, but THREE posts about the suffrage movement: the Ju-Jutsuffragettes, Dora Thewlis, Teenage Working Class Suffragette and Joan of Arc, Rosie the Riveter, and the Feminist Protest Icon. They also write about films, comics, music and computer games in an interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining way. I actually LOLed at Markgraf’s illustrated review of The Three Musketeers and don’t feel the cinematic experience can begin to compare their final analogy involving pick-and-mix and “an enraged muskrat”.

Robert Lawson is a sociolinguist and brave soul who’s blogged about John Locke’s Duels and Duets in detail – part 1, part 2 and part 3. I’m reading this book for the reading group, mainly because I’m intrigued as to how a book on language and gender manages to cite Deborah Tannen but not Deborah Cameron. In the first chapter Locke cites John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, Deborah Tannen’s You just don’t understand, a baffling amount of primate research, and an anecdote from Larry Summers. I almost did the drinking game but I think I’d have to have my stomach pumped. Anyway, you can read Robert’s excellent, informative posts on this book and so avoid reading the primary source. Even if it does mean missing out on the primate research.

Lashings of Ginger BeerLashings of Ginger Beer are a queer feminist burlesque collective who combine “songs, dancing, stand-up and sketches, luxe Victoriana drag with thigh-high fetish-boots, upbeat musical theatre optimism with 21st-century political rage”. Have a couple of videos: Acceptable, skewering Gok Wan, television makeovers, unrealistic gendered beauty ideals and the expense and effort of maintaining this beauty; Dead Girlfriend which comments on TV portrayals of queer relationships and the way the characters involved are punished. The Lashings of Ginger Beer blog posts about events and does link roundups, but also features posts by members of the collective. I was particularly struck by this post examining the different effects of performing with different dancers – it’s a really thoughtful analysis and highlights the experience of the performers.

I was lucky to meet Jennifer Jones when we were both facilitators at Research Practices 2.0. Her reflections on that event are interesting, and have also shaped how she’ll facilitate social media workshops in the future; there are loads of ideas there about questioning the usual classroom hierarchy and enabling a flexible, responsive, collaborative way of learning. Jennifer’s research focuses on the Olympics and offers a much needed critical view on the ideology of the Olympics, which she explored in a recent talk at Tent City Uni. She’s also a very cool lady and it’s a joy to talk to her, whether that be over crappy university coffee, mugs of tea in an occupation or, indeed, over a pint.

Research Practices 2.0

I, along with some fellow PhD researchers and social media nerds, will be running workshops at this event. We’re currently in the process of designing the introductory workshops and, because we practise what we preach, we’re collaborating though a shared google doc. Places are filling up fast, so if you would like to attend, please book your place as soon as possible.

Research Practices 2.0

Social and Participatory Media in Academic Life

Saturday 29th October 2011 9.30am-4.00pm

Business School South, Jubilee Campus, University of Nottingham

This one-day event will be an opportunity for you to come and experience a variety of discussions on the use of social media in research.

Social media (such as blogs, social networks and Twitter) provide new opportunities for researchers to source information, network, collaborate and disseminate their research. The effective use of social and participatory media (web 2.0) is increasingly seen as a key requirement in 21st Century academic practice. This free one-day event will provide an informal and interactive environment to learn about social media. It is an opportunity to share experiences and good practices, and develop informed and critical approaches to adopting and using social media in your studies/research.

This event has been organised for researchers by researchers. We welcome all PhD students and research staff, including those from outside the University of Nottingham.

Places are strictly limited and will be offered on a first come, first served basis, so please book early to avoid disappointment.

For more information please contact: Ms Emily Buchnea, ahxeb@nottingham.ac.uk

Corpus Linguistics 2011

I admit that I was feeling rather grumpy before CL2011. Extracting my data had proved tricky, I worried that the stuff I was working on wasn’t ready to present and I was feeling somewhat anti-social.

However, I ended up having a rather good conference. Part of it is just that corpus linguists tend to be nice people – as one first-time attendee noted to me, people were constructive and helpful when commenting on people’s presentations. This is not always the case – these things can turn into an academic pissing contest – and she was pleasantly surprised. As Costas noted, it can feel a bit like a family reunion (the good kind, I hope). It was nice to catch up with friends, meet new people and extract others from the hilariously awkward situations they managed to create for themselves. I have a story about a red devil tattoo now.

The organisation was impeccable. This was the first conference I’ve been to that was in a dedicated conference centre rather than in a university. I’ve got to say, the food was much better than I’m used to at these things. I won’t name names, but some of us were rather enamoured with the little moussey-cakey things at lunch. The only problem seemed to be with workshop venues – there weren’t computing facilities so attendees were asked to bring their own laptops, but the room assigned to one workshop wasn’t suitable for an active, hands-on workshop.
The conference scheduling was thoughtfully done and I presented in the same session as others working on newspaper discourse including Anna Marchi. It was interesting both for us and for the audience – we could make links between each others’ papers and also had the chance to talk afterwards.

I do wonder why corpus linguists haven’t really embraced twitter though. There was a presentation on it (which I livetweeted) but we weren’t told about hashtags, organised a tweetup or similar. Having seen something of how my astrophysicist sister uses twitter at her conferences I think we’re missing out – it looks like a good way of engaging with presentations and finding other conference attendees. Next time eh?

Live at Jodrell Bank

Been a bit quiet here, mainly because I’ve been writing and rewriting parts of chapters 3 and 5 and fuelled for the most part by caffeine, discounted creme eggs and irregular sleeping patterns. It’s not been pretty.

However, I did manage to get to Live from Jodrell Bank, tickets purchased for my birthday by my favourite little sister. As the name suggests, it took place at Jodrell Bank and the stage was in the shadow of the Lovell Telescope itself. The Lovell telescope is an impressive structure and seeing it surrounded by people and bathed in glorious sunshine was definitely a change!

Stage beside, and dwarfed by, the Lovell telescopeDetail of the supporting structure of the dish

There were also interesting people wandering around. The chap in the photo below-right was dressed in black, wearing a large crow’s head and clutching two large white balloons. We saw him around all day but didn’t manage to work out what he was doing (apart from looking dramatic).
Man wearing a crow's head over his head holding two large white balloons
The new visitor centre was open and my friend Liz and I had fun playing with something that resembled an old charity money-spinner. It looked like a large black funnel, and you started rolling a ball at the top. The ball would spiral down the funnel until it dropped out of the hole at the bottom. You could then retrieve your ball and do it all over again – multiple times if you’re a small child fascinated by such things or, indeed, two twenty-somethings. It was also fun sending one ball clockwise and the other counter-clockwise and either trying to get them to crash into each other or avoid each other but I’m almost positive this was not the point of the exercise! The point was that this simple model helps we, the general public, understand how black holes work in a fun and hands-on way. People of all ages could engage with it, although the baby we saw there was more interested in chucking the balls straight down the hole!

The map showing different telescopes around the world was striking and really illustrated how the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics (JBCA) is part of a global community of researchers. It also offered information on the different types of telescopes and showed how the facilities used by the JBCA, such as the e-Merlin network, fit into a wider context.

The line-up was Alice Gold, The Waves Machines, OK GO, British Sea Power and The Flaming Lips. I was especially looking forward to British Sea Power – there’s an endearingly wide-eyed wonder about the natural world in their music; they’ve written a song about a collapsing coastal Antarctic shelf and light pollution. One of the songs they played was the rather appropriate Observe The Skies which I think they dedicated to the Lovell Telescope. British Sea Power are known for decorating the stage with foliage and the appearance of a large bear. This time there was a bear fighting a robot/microwave.

The Flaming Lips put on an entertaining show, incorporating giant hamster balls, lasers, balloons filled with confetti and close-ups of Wayne Coyne’s nostrils. They wanted to mess around with intros and the audience wanted to sing along so there was a lot of “wait for it, wait for it…wait for it…” going on. I’m far too sleepy to attempt to interpret their lyrics, but Race for the Prize might be about two scientists and Do You Realize?? informs us that we are floating in space.

I was standing just in front of Jen so was treated to the physicists arguing over how they did the lasers and what constellations and planets we could see. Astronomers are interesting people to know when you’re standing in a field at night!

Brightly coloured balloons floating in front of a brightly lit stageBalloons floating in front of a brightly lit stage and lit so they seem to glow

As well as being an interesting and unusual music event, it was also an effective outreach event. PhD and postdoc researchers were on hand with science tricks, there were short talks throughout the afternoon by astronomers and Dr Tim O’Brien took to the stage to talk about the kind of research that takes place at Jodrell Bank. He played recordings of pulsars and people were cheering and clapping in time with them. It’s probably the first time I’ve heard people chanting SCIENCE SCIENCE SCIENCE at a gig. There was something joyfully and unapologetically geeky about it: there was an atmosphere of “we’re at a gig under a radio telescope, isn’t this amazing?” As Jen said in her talk, science is about having that sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe and trying to understand it better. There’s nothing uncool about that.

Of course it made me think about what linguistics could do. While communication is a fascinating thing, we collect our data from people, not the vastness of space. Unfortunately the hard drive where my corpora are stored or a digital recorder aren’t as dramatic as a telescope, especially one as iconic as the Lovell. Instead, I reckon we should reverse it: instead of trying to find a suitably research-intensive location for the gig, I reckon we should make the gig research-intensive and record band-crowd interactions or something.

Space and stars also inspire people to write songs about them. While Massive Attack deserve a mention for “love, love is a verb; love is a doing word” in Teardrop and The Indelicates for “You know exactly how clever sounds, the soft consonants and rounded vowels” in Jerusalem, I’m kind of drawing a blank on linguistic songs. I did, however, find a paper on a corpus analysis of rock harmony so that’s something, right?

Any suggestions for linguistics songs? Are there any for your area? What would your dream outreach event be?

Photos by K. Gupta and E. Kedge

New College of Humanities

Been a bit of a busy few weeks. I’ve been attempting to write more of my methodology (it’s been in progress since Jan 2009 and I’m at the stage of loathing and despair) but I also went undercover (my cover name: Jo King) to a dating seminar aimed at heterosexual women (it would have been full of lulz but for the fact that women were taken in by this gender essentialist, heteronormative, frankly insulting crap and were spending some £500 to go on a weekend filled with more of the same).

However, the post-apocalyptic maelstrom of higher education has just got a bit more turbulent with the announcement of the New College of the Humanities. Dan Rebellato summarises it as:

A C Grayling has announced the formation of a new private college of Higher Education. The New College of the Humanities will charge fees of £18,000 and students will be taught be such renowned media dons as Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Dworkin, David Cannadine, Niall Ferguson, Steve Jones, and Peter Singer. There will be core courses in scientific literacy, applied ethics, and critical thinking, and then students will specialise in law, philosophy, economics, history, English literature, or some combination of those.

Other people have written about this:
Tery Eagleton: AC Grayling’s private university is odious
Research Blogs: Is the New College of the Humanities a good thing?
Crooked Timber: If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re trying to sell an undergraduate arts degree that costs more than an MBA?
Student Theory: New College for the Humanities: Emperor’s New Clothes
Dan Rebellato: New College of the Humanities

I spent some of yesterday talking to friends about this, one of whom went on to write Thirteen ways of looking at the New College of the Humanities.

My initial reaction is wariness, on both an ideological and academic level. Is the solution to chronic underfunding of the humanities one of making them the preserve of a rich elite? It’s already happening at undergraduate level and pretty widespread at doctoral level. This is neither fair nor good for research.
Academically, I can’t really see those top academics taking first-year tutorials – and, indeed, at least two academics will only be lecturing for one hour in the first year and the minimum for most professorial staff is five hours in the first year. Despite being a typical Arts undergrad, I had most contact hours than that a week! Admittedly six, but still… So who is going to be teaching? And, if you’re going to be taught by academics who aren’t media stars, i.e. the kind of academics you’ll find in universities up and down the country, what are you paying for?

The things I do find interesting are the focus on critical thinking and scientific literacy, and the way these degrees are aimed at those who don’t want to go into academia. Critical thinking and scientific literacy are important (although teaching critical thinking to people who are paying twice the going rate for a UoL degree could be…interesting). While I did not enjoy my Biology and Chemistry A-levels At All, they’ve come in useful when discussing variables, p-values, research design and, er, cisgenderism.
I’m also intrigued by the focus of a degree that is aimed at passionate, engaged students but isn’t an elaborate pyramid scheme and doesn’t just flail about going “um, transferable skills! yes! those are useful!”. I didn’t apply to study English because I wanted to develop excellent communication and time management skills – I did it because I loved words and language and wanted to know how they worked. This, to me, is one of the interesting things about arts and humanities degrees. While some degrees have more obvious applications – economics, for example – how do you make a passionate love for seventeenth century literature applicable in a job market? Never fear though, Grayling’s on the case.

Three conferences

In the past month or so, I’ve been to three very different kinds of conference: one academic conference in my field, one NUS LGBT conference, and one postgraduate symposium in my department. They’re all quite different, both in aims and the experience they provide.

collection of name tags
The academic conference in my field was perhaps the most straightforward. There were concurrent sessions organised by panel, each paper lasted around 20 minutes + 10 minutes for questions. It was focused on corpus linguistics, my primary field, but as corpus linguistics encompasses a huge range of things, I still found new, unfamiliar and exciting things. As a PhD researcher, it’s rewarding to go to specialised conferences in your area and find yourself getting more and more familiar with the field; I remember my first conference in 2007 and just being dazzled by it all, whereas now I think I’m more confident.

The NUS LGBT conference was about making policy, sharing knowledge and experience in workshops, and returning us to our university LGBTs as fired-up, knowledgeable, passionate activists. There’s lots of slightly unfamiliar terminology and processes – that of zones, motions, amendments, parts, speeches for and against, “I see that delegate there” and so on. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s haunted by the words “seal the doors!” and “we’ve had a request for parts…” The needs of participants were key, and of the three conferences this one was perhaps most explicitly concerned with accessibility. I found it was also the most personal of the three conferences in that it really makes you re-examine and reflect on your beliefs.

The third, held in my department, was actually the first postgraduate symposium I’ve attended. It was organised into panels, apparently by supervisor – this effectively grouped similar areas together. It was the first really cross-disciplinary conference I’ve attended; I’ve tended to go to conferences organised by field rather than experience. While we were encouraged to consider our audience and not make our presentations too specialised, some people seemed to forget this. I did see some really interesting presentations and got to see research in areas I’m totally unfamiliar with – I particularly liked the Norse and Old English presentations – but some presenters completely lost me. However, it did meet its stated aim of showcasing the variety of research happening in the School of English Studies.

So three very different gatherings with somewhat different aims. Nonetheless, I think there are some common factors in having a rewarding conference experience…

  1. Practical things first: if you are anything other than enthusiastically omnivorous (and I really do mean “enthusiastically” and “omnivorous” – have you seen those canapes?), be prepared to compromise when getting food. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, make sure you’re at the front of the queue so curious omnivores don’t go “oooh, those spinach and pine nut tartlets look good, I’ll have one” and wolf them down before you even see a crumb. Fact is, you’re not going enjoy a conference if you’re hungry and cranky, and you’re not going to get much out of it if you’re thinking about where you can get food rather than the implications of diachronic multi-modal corpora.
  2. Drinking can be fun if you’re into that sort of thing, but I can almost guarantee that the thing you really want to go to will be at some ungodly hour the next morning. Presumably you’re old enough to make the choice between hangover, sleeping in and missing the thing you wanted to go to, and limiting your alcohol intake. Choose wisely.
  3. You don’t have to go to everything! Conferences can be quite intense, so it’s fine to miss a presentation or two to give yourself some time to yourself. If there’s nothing on that really interests you, take yourself off for a coffee or have a walk around the venue. At my first conference I felt I had to go to everything and was exhausted by the end of it – now I realise that it’s okay if I don’t.
  4. On the other hand, conferences are also great for discovering new things. They bring together people with expertise in different areas, different views, different areas of interest. It’s an opportunity to find out about things you’d never considered or make new and unexpected connections to your own areas of interest. Go to a few things that sound interesting that you feel you don’t know enough about.
  5. Talk to people! You are, with any luck, surrounded by people who do interesting things. Conferences offer you opening gambits – you can ask people what they thought of that last presentation, ask them something about their own paper, or, if you’re British, complain about the coffee/food/accommodation/weather (I jest). There’s probably something coldly tactical to say about networking and getting your name out there, but at least part of it for me is pure, nerdy joy at talking to people who care about the stuff I care about.

I did have a mental list of other suggestions, like “if you’re going to nap, do so in the back row because it’s not very nice for the speaker to see you dribbling at the front” but that’s probably not very helpful. Anyone else got any conference tips/suggestions/advice?