Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Watching academics: power dynamics at conferences

I went to an academic conference the other week. It was in the USA (at Brown), which was in itself strange and disturbing (it’s 12 years since I was last that side of the Atlantic. Now, in exchange for letting me in, the US government has a close-up photo of me and prints of all my fingers and thumbs). I blogged the Palestinian Studies aspects of the two days here. What follows are a few more observations on a kind of ‘anthropology of academic gatherings’, on how hierarchy and gender express themselves in the unspoken/written rules of the conference space.

Firstly, I’d love to see a mapping of who sits where in conferences. This is the first I’ve been to in years where I’ve had a reasonably good idea of who many of the attendees were, and could therefore spot individuals (especially high-status ones). In a small auditorium which held perhaps 50-60, with three wedges of seats tapering down towards the lectern and presenters’ desk, it seemed like the Big Names sat mainly in the middle and back rows of the central wedge. There they could be seen by everyone and – as it turned out – be noticed first when it came to raising hands for questions and comments.

The Big Names, unsurprisingly, were mainly male, although not exclusively so. It was noticeable that these individuals were least likely to be wearing the name badges we’d all been presented with on registering. Presumably there is an assumption that they’ll be recognised without them (which is partly true, but also betrays a certain parochialism).

When it came to the Q&As these were also the individuals least likely to give their names, as requested. Whilst some did give their name the first time they asked a question, they usually dropped the practice, even though this was a) a two-day conference with some difference of attendance and b) the proceedings were being videoed and might therefore be edited. It was a semi-Big-Name – a respected scholar but perhaps one more widely known for the kind of tenure controversies that hit many Palestinians in America – who got openly exasperated about the ‘start-your-question-with-your-name’ rule. Hopefully, he’ll go on to learn that ‘manners maketh the man’.

The interesting exception to most of the generalisations about senior scholars skipping these niceties was Rashid Khalidi – perhaps, in terms of the discipline, the Biggest of the Big Names present. (Elias Khoury was also there, which in my book is about as big a name as there is, but he’s not so strictly a Palestinian Studies scholar and was, I suspect, along for the ride. Though he did ask some very pertinent questions). Khalidi, despite his status in the field, was scrupulous about giving his name and following the usual exhortations to keep questions questioning and to the point. He also showed a lot of generosity and attentiveness in constructing useful and illuminating questions for those junior academics whose work he knew, drawing out the important aspects of their work and allowing them to shine. Seeing Khalidi in person made me realise what a class act he is, and why he has the reputation he has; some of the younger professors following him need to learn how to command attention in such an understated way, rather than by simply being loud and long-winded.

One final comment; I found myself having several conversations on the second day about how the strongest, most exciting panels from across the conference both comprised only women. Coincidence? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is women who recognise that delivering papers well is not something that just happens for most people; it is a skill that can be worked on and refined. Certainly Sreemati Mitter, Sherene Seikaly and Susynne McElrone have a lot to teach their peers about how to make academic work engaging and interesting, whilst retaining rigour and serious content.

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