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?

Rod Thornton’s article

It’s hard to know what to write here – there are so many issues of academic freedom, how universities should support their scholars and what constitutes restricted materials it’s hard to know where to start. For those unfamiliar with the situation, here’s a summary by one of the people involved and here are a couple of articles by Rod Thornton on a blog he contributes to. Among other things, he he offers some insight into what the Al Qaeda Training Manual is and is not. I also note that the text the student used was available from the university’s own library, which just adds another layer of weirdness to the wtf cake.

Anyway, here’s a link to the document in question – the one the university is trying to suppress and has suspended Dr Rod Thornton for writing. The first is a summary of his article, while the second is the full article in its 112 page glory.

Exciting conference adventure

Okay, so I wasn’t expecting a tornado.

I’m currently in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the US for Exploring the Boundaries and Applications of Corpus Linguistics. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the large quad outside the building is full of people clad in red being very excited about an American football game.

Yesterday, however, the sky was black, the light was green and it was pouring with rain. Most of my fellow conference attendees were in the hotel lobby watching the news updates on the storm system when the tornado sirens sounded. I ended up sitting in the laundry room with some distinguished linguists, in the dark because the power had gone, and checking twitter updates because, mysteriously, the wireless internet was still functioning.

There don’t seem to have been any serious injuries and the place seem relatively unscathed, but I think this has to be one of the more unexpected things to have happened to me at a conference!

Anyone got any strange, unusual or bizarre conference stories?

Jen’s blog

My awesome and fearsomely clever little sister has just started blogging. She researches Active Galactic Nuclei and knows lots of stuff about space, black holes, blazars and ska-punk. She’s also a member of the Jodcast team and has done exciting stuff like interviewing Professor Brian Cox. So yes, read her blog!

http://jengupta.blogspot.com

Activist linguistics

Activist linguistics, as I see it, does not mean that the researcher skew her or his findings to support one group or one ideology or another. Nor does it mean that a famous linguist use her or his fame to support causes. Rather, an activist linguistics calls for researchers to remain connected to the communities in which they research, returning to those settings to apply the knowledge they have generated for the good of the community and to deepen the research through expansion or focus.

O’Connor, P. E. (2003). “Activist Sociolinguistics in a Critical Discourse Analysis Perspective”. In G. Weiss and R. Wodak (Eds) Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Basingstoke: Paulsgrave Macmillan

Me, at dawn, holding a placard reading "Save Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences" in International Phonetic AlphabetThis is something I’ve been thinking about.

In some ways, my PhD research area is a deeply personal thing. It might be about a social movement and people and events a hundred years ago, but it encompasses areas that I care deeply about: gender equality, the theory and practice of protest, marginalised and disenfranchised groups, the interaction between ideology and practical legislative change. The photo is one of the more visible acts of protest I’ve done recently – it was taken on a cold winter’s morning before I went to London to protest about cuts to arts, humanities and social sciences. That experience led me to write this post.

I worried quite a lot about whether my personal politics would affect my research for the worse. Would it make me too sympathetic, unable to see the flaws in direct action? Would I end up hopelessly over-identifying with the subjects of my research? Would my thesis become a paean to the suffrage movement? Would I, too, end up setting fire to a boathouse? Worrying thoughts indeed.

But now I’ve started wondering about neutrality. Is actual neutrality even possible? I’m not convinced it is; to me it seems that you can simply not know enough about an issue to have an opinion, or that your apparent neutrality is itself a stance. I’m reminded of debates within feminism where those allegedly objective about it are actually hostile – there are some things it’s hard not to have an opinion about, and if you’ve chosen to distance yourself from an issue you’ve still made a choice about how you’re going to engage with it.

As I said in my post on direct action, being a protester has given me an insight into the kind of things the suffrage movement encountered. When I wrote that post it was police violence; as I write now, it’s the tensions between different groups and factions who are (roughly) campaigning for the same things.

As O’Connor suggests, things like this are going to inform one’s research whatever I do and my issue is one of how to allow it to do so, how to acknowledge it and be honest about its influence. There are different ways to engage with one’s activism and individual politics, and it’s clear which she thinks is best. As well as making for better research, I think the researcher also owes something to the community in which they’re embedded. As an undergraduate I was staggered by Jennifer Coates’ admission that she covertly recorded her friends for material. At the time it was an acceptable methodology to make such recordings; now it is most definitely not. I’m not studying NSAFC (if I was I’d tell them!) but that earlier post was still an attempt to apply my research to my community, to give back something – kind of connecting my experience as a researcher with my experience as a protester, and trying to synthesise them in to sort of whole I think O’Connor is talking about.

As a tangent, I stumbled upon Emily Davison Blues by Grace Petrie a couple of months ago. There’s a research paper in contemporary reimaginings of the suffrage movement, I know it.

Okay, I was going to go to bed at least an hour ago. Tomorrow brings more narrative theory and newsworthiness, yay?

Thoughts on direct action

In my research, it’s impossible not to come across issues of direct action. Earlier this year I was looking at words derived from Mutual Information for suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes. A category for direct action terms emerged from this data, and I started to look at disturbance*, outrage*, violence, crime*, disorder and incident? in more detail.

To quote from a draft of this chapter:

The terms examined in this chapter can be paired – two relatively high frequency, non-specific terms disturbance* and outrage*, two low frequency, specific terms violence and crime* and two terms, disorder and incident?, which are both used to describe suffrage campaigners’ interactions with non-suffrage supporters, but differ in which groups they are used in conjunction with. Reports shy away from using violence and crime* to describe suffrage campaigning and instead use more ambiguous terms such as disturbance and outrage; the actions encompassed by disturbance and outrage include the disruption of meetings and heckling as well as more destructive acts such as ‘fire outrages’ and bombs.

The damage and destruction was largely confined to property. If there was physical aggression, it was nearly always faced by the suffrage campaigners than posed by them. The Times describes “large hostile crowds”, “active hostility to suffragists”, several “scenes of great disorder” and meetings broken up by “young roughs”. The texts I am working with at the moment describe “disorderly scene[s]” at suffragist meetings, but on closer examination the meetings themselves seem to have been highly organised and the disruption was due to members of the public, who formed a “hooting and jostling mob”, hassled the speakers and attempted to hustle them out of the park.

And then the Browne Review was announced. As a young researcher in arts, humanities and social sciences (I might declare which area I’m in if someone decides to fund me), I am worried about what this might mean for these areas. I’m worried about the Education Maintenance Allowance, AimHigher and Lifelong Learning UK being scrapped with no clear information on what will replace them. I’m worried about the privatisation of Higher Education. These cuts to education take place against a background of cuts to public services, and it’s difficult not to interpret them as ideological.

I was not the only one to feel like this, and direct action began to seem rather closer to home. Students marched on the 10th November, 24th November and 9th December. The argument that “the broken pane of glass is the most valuable argument in modern politics” began to be heard again and yet again, damage to property was positioned as worse than damage done to people’s lives.

With other students at my university, I engaged in peaceful direct action. I made my placard, marched, chanted, and was duly kettled for around six hours. I’m pretty sure that this video is from where I was kettled. Protesters were injured – a woman beaten and racially abused by police, a man nearly died after being beaten and Green and Black Cross has an appeal for witnesses. People found being inside a kettle a “shocking experience”. There are photos of the day (link 1, link 2) but I’m not sure how well they capture most protesters’ experience – the vast majority were not hurling paintbombs and setting benches on fire.

Parliament still voted to allow an increase in tuition fees.

There are criticisms of the focus of reporting, criticism of kettling tactics and outrage over the state (and state-sanctioned) response to these protests. I am confident that more criticisms will emerge.

There are things I will take from this on a personal and political level, but at the moment I’m trying to work out what I can take from this as a researcher in direct action.

One of these things is the sheer courage it takes to engage in direct action. I can understand why people may be ambivalent towards militant direct action in the suffrage movement – at times it can come across as misdirected or petty. But it takes bravery to demonstrate when you know this could lead to police violence against you.

A second point is about disenfranchisement. Many of those on the demonstrations were young and without a political voice. Demonstrating – being physically present at the gates of Parliament – was one of the few ways open to them to get their demands heard. While these people are excluded on the basis of youth – a temporary condition, rather than the more fixed one of sex – it still shows how easily those not able to vote can be ignored by government.

A third is about the nature of direct action. There is a fair amount of discussion going on about what direct action should encompass. There are calls for peaceful demonstrations, candle-lit vigils, writing to MPs…but these have been going on for years with no demonstrable effect. There’s a sense of frustration amongst protesters. I was marching against top-up fees in 2003 and I think these protests have partly come about because people have tried to be nice and polite only to be ignored. Suffragists, too, tried a peaceful approach – they had demonstrations and rallies, they lobbied MPs, they sent deputations to members of the Cabinet, they organised petitions. If I can feel frustrated after a mere seven years of campaigning, it makes me more sympathetic to women who’d been campaigning for over 30 years with no real progress.

A fourth is a about the fractures in a movement that can result from direct action, and the willingness for some parts of the movement to disown those who do take part in property damage. You can almost hear the ‘respectable’ protesters scrambling to distance themselves from the balaclava-clad youths clutching spraypaint and lighter fuel. No one seems to be asking why they’re engaging in such actions, yet these “bainlieue-style youth from Croydon, Peckam, the council estates of Islington” are well aware of what university will cost them and are one of the most vulnerable groups: “We’re from the slums of London, how do they expect us to pay £9,000 a year uni fees? EMA is the only thing keeping us in college, what’s stopping us from doing drug deals in the street now? Nothing.”

While direct action within the suffrage movement was organised by a different demographic, there still seem to be the same split between those urging peaceful direct action – such as the NUS’s Right to Recall campaign – and those engaging in different forms of protest.

What I’d take to these protests from my research is an understanding that there’s room in a movement for lots of different forms of protest. It’s not an either/or decision between things like the Right to Recall campaign and more confrontational things like occupations, and it’s important not to fracture along these lines.

I didn’t really expect to be a participant-observer of direct action when I started my PhD, but I hope it makes me a better researcher – a less judgemental one, and one better able to understand the pressures that lead to direct action