“I have a private plane. But I fly commercial when I go to environmental conferences” – Arnold Schwarzenegger
I am just back from a voluntary sector conference in Nottingham last Thursday. I really debated whether to go or not. I was running a workshop in Dublin on Friday so it meant flying in and out of Nottingham in one day and all that comes with that (organising a babysitter, making sure dinner is sorted, negotiating my departure with the kids, etc. etc.). I have had experiences with academic conferences which were really a bit… meh! Tiny workshops with just you and the other panelists, people in the room who are interested in very different things and really your paper does not mean anything to them, cliquey networks that make for lonely coffee breaks, expensive registrations which really don’t turn out to be worth it, etc.
But I proposed a paper months ago on my framework for measuring the democratic impact of CSOs and I really do want to test this framework with different audiences and see how it stacks up. This was the first conference I had signed up for which was focused on civil society, so I reluctantly bought a ticket for the Ryanair red eye to the tiny East Midlands airport.
Actually I was really pleasantly surprised. The new researchers panel was great. It was well attended (maybe 25-30 participants), well-chaired, had interesting (and relevant papers), good questions from the audience, and there was even decent coffee!
This was definitely my best experience of an academic conference so far and I think added real value for me. The main benefits of going were:
- Meetings 5-6 other PhD students who are studying related topics but who also come from a civil society background.
- Knowing that my framework does not sink like a led balloon with the civil society crowd (though apart from some generally enthusiastic comments it is hard to really know what they made of it).
- Talking about positionality and people’s status as an insider or quasi-insider researchers.
- Getting an insight into some of the other workshops/panels via twitter – one or two papers seem very relevant to my work and might be good leads.
I had also hoped to come across someone who might be an interesting external examiner for my thesis, however that didn’t happen. There did not seem to be very many ‘established’ academics or at least I did not come across them in my area, so that remains a challenge for the next few months.