Friday, 2 August 2013

On the academic condition…

Today we have a guest blog by Prof David Atkinson (@DavideAtkinson) with some musings on the academic condition inspired by a recent conference trip to Chile.

I am recently returned from a conference trip to Santiago, Chile.  As often happens on these kind of solitary journeys to conferences, the long hours in the air and the slivers of time found in cafĂ©s, restaurants or airport-terminals en route often prompts me to reflect on the nature of our academic lives – on what we could label ‘the academic condition’.  I share some of the thinking I did here...  


I had a great time in Chile.  The conference was entitled Patrimonio y Territorio (heritage / memory and territory) and was convened by the National Monuments Council and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council of Chile.  It was coherent and impressive – with some excellent papers and workshops, and good attendance and questions.  I was especially intrigued by the practice of submitting questions to the panel chair on slips of paper – a method designed to stop endless, rhetorical questioning from the floor, but which results in anonymous, disembodied questions with only the handwriting betraying something of the questioner.  I think my paper and the workshop focussed on my work went well.  We had an excellent field-visit to cultural centres in Valparaiso on the Pacific coast.  I did some research visits to sites memorialising the victims of Pinochet’s regime, and I undertook some public relations visits and interviews for my hosts.  I came home pleased.    
I also liked the city, the country and the Chilenos I met.  Of course at the conference I encountered well educated academics and professionals from the cultural sector for much of the time; but I also took a tour of Santiago’s more left-field spaces with some student tour-leaders, and I chatted with other people in bars and restaurants.  Santiago is a rewarding city in many ways.  Its inflections of behaviour and style are distinctive (in contrast to Europe or North America), and this difference is enhanced because the globalising trends that have homogenised other cities haven’t washed over Santiago as much as most European cities.  There’s a clearly visible tradition of sociability that’s performed in the markets and public spaces, while Chile’s various cycles of wealth and economic struggle are written into the capital’s architecture.  The struggle to represent and remember Pinochet’s military regime is also very distinctive– in part because it is still so raw and emotive for many (the regime lasted until 1990).  All of this made Santiago a fascinating place.
This trip also reminded me of one of the better aspects of academic life.  I like international academic exchange.  I find the flow of ideas and research between different academic traditions particularly rewarding – and events like this conference remind me of this most forcefully.  In part this may be because I did my PhD and much of my subsequent research on Italian topics – in a foreign language geographical tradition.  And while I usually enjoy conferences in the Anglophone world, I sometimes find the academic approaches they offer are less differentiated, and the debates are much more familiar and predictable, than conferences elsewhere in the world.  Of course, I can’t appreciate the nuance of the routine and the familiar in Chile, and I won’t notice their competitiveness and parochialism in the way that I sometimes see it erupting at Anglophone conferences.  I’m also sure what I’m describing is rather superficial ‘academic tourism’ in some respects.  But I’m nevertheless fascinated by good conferences in foreign language traditions: you never quite know what’s coming – and good papers are additionally interesting due to their difference from our ‘normal’ Anglophone circuits of communication, debate and positioning.   
These days however, my pleasure at being away at conference, and especially at being immersed in a different, surprising flow of ideas and perspectives, is book-ended by the looming presence of ‘the job’ back home.  Increasingly I try to reduce my trips away and other excess responsibilities due to family reasons and workload matters – the perennial academic obsession with trying to balance work and life (and, incidentally, why don’t we talk about life-work balance?  Why does work always comes first in discussions of that little duet?).  Therefore, I find myself trying to cut down on conferences as part of a strategy to eliminate any unnecessary hassle.  
These trips are a hassle as they approach.  There are mundane jobs and duties that demand attention.  You (or at least I – for I’m sure others transact these tasks far better than me) have to clear your desk temporarily.  This means looking ahead to deadlines that fall in the period you’re gone and, increasingly, I find myself anticipating what might happen in the week away, and I set processes in place to accommodate any problems that may arise.  More prosaically, you have to pack, check the insurance and, for a trip like this, fill in University paperwork about contact details, risks and dangers.  You have to organise the money you’ll need, and tell the banks where and when you’ll be away.  I decide that this conference is probably an occasion for a suit and tie, so I have to dig those out.  I also negotiate creeping guilt about the environmental costs of the long-haul flights.  Most importantly, at home you have to square your absence from family and other responsibilities with the professional benefits of this performance.  And as departure nears, a parallel operation begins which entails organising extra childcare, school drop-offs and all the family duties I’ll be vacating for the week.  I’ll also miss my family, and my children and my partner all ask me why I have to go away for so long.  
And, of course, you have to write a paper: a good paper that engages the audience and leaves them with questions (to write on slips of paper).  The paper should also justify your host’s faith and investment in you.  When I reach Santiago I’m told that the monument commission undertook a two month search and reading exercise before inviting me as their keynote speaker – so I want to repay that faith.  To this end, the keynote paper should address the conference theme directly: it should point out the key debates and their shifting developments, and how, in this case, the Anglophone world thinks about heritage-memory-territory.  The paper should meld your research to the conference agenda and then, nudge this agenda forwards.  You need good images and a fluent visual presence for the big screens you’re bound to perform before.  Ideally, you should also come up with a question or issue to flourish at your audience at the end – something to make them think, and something that may echo through the next two days.  
These trips are also a hassle after the event.  Unless you deal with their insistent trickle while you’re away, you have to negotiate a flood of emails on your return.  These can encompass anything: urgent circulars requiring information, requests for references and reviews, postgraduate progress issues, undergraduate questions, research administration and, more plaintively, requests for help.  You also have to note and file those tasks that may be less immediate, but are still lumpen in their stolid, looming presence.  These days, you should also think about somewhere strategic to publish the conference paper – once it’s suitably dressed and finessed as ‘agenda-setting’.  You should also publicise your achievements to audiences at your institution and within your field.  And you have to sort out your expenses and tidy up the trip’s bureaucracy (two things I’m particularly bad at completing).  Finally, in this instance I’m faced by a hefty phone bill on my return and I start arguing with the phone company.
But for me, the bonus of such a conference trip, with its dedicated time and space, is a rare moment of focus on one academic task – and a task that we imagine is core to our professional lives: delivering a paper that draws on our research to make bigger claims about current debates.  It re-engages me with some of the research I’ve done in the past.  It reminds me of the interesting writing I’m supposed to be doing in the summer.  It also prompts bitter-sweet dreaming about possible future research that may, or may not, ever progress.  But in sum, it reminds me of many of the things I like most about the job.  And this is the big plus for me: despite the hassles of finding space, travelling for 25-26 hours each way and writing the paper, there’s the sudden, jolting reminder that working with these ideas is a key part of what academics should be about.   
So, I stand in suit and tie, before 220 Chilenos, in an large, austere, industrially-themed cultural centre in the Biblioteca de Santiago.  I’m presenting Anglophone theories of heritage, memory, space and territory and illustrating them with examples from my research in Rome, Trieste and, equally exotic for this audience, Hull and East Yorkshire.  I’m speaking through translators and there’s an overflow audience in the lobby outside, and, we’re told, some of the 400+ who couldn’t get tickets are watching this via a webcast, as are audiences in every province of Chile and at three Ecuadorian Universities.  At such moments, the incongruity of the event often hits me hard.  I’m part of this high-profile event locally, nationally and even in other parts of Latin America- but I’m all the way on the other side of the world from my normal circles.  And getting there has drained so much time, money and effort from all parties.  But then again, this is one of the prime currencies of the modern, academic world: the presentation, the visuals, the performance.  And, buried within this somewhere, is the exchange of ideas and perspectives – all sides are encountering different ways of conceptualising and negotiating the world.  And despite the hassle, this is what I like.  But there is a growing degree of hassle for those of us living in this academic condition. 

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