Performing as academics

What’s your evidence base for this?

I had the too-rare pleasure to chat with an anthropologist last night.

We are both part of a big European-funded project that is having its final conference in Brussels this week, with a focus on connecting to policy-makers and other practitioners in the field of refugee protection.

It’s a big deal, for me as much as anyone: I’ve been leading on the conference planning for the past 18 months as we bring together speakers from at least three continents and juggle a very large number of moving parts.

The conclusion of the first day has shown that planning does pay off, from bringing some marker pens that got used within ten minutes of arriving to thinking about the structure of the sessions.

Let’s focus on the second of these elements here, important though ready access to marker pens might be.

From the start, I was clear with myself that I didn’t want this to be an academic conference.

By that I mean the format you know from pretty much every single big conference you go to: 90 minute sessions with 4 or 5 papers, hopefully not just read out in a monotone but quite possibly, with 5 minutes for someone to make more of a comment than a question.

The world has plenty of those kinds of things already and this project does not need to add to the pile.

Our work has a very clear and evident policy application: studying refugee protection in Europe and beyond was already a big thing three years ago when we started, even before the effects of covid or the war in Ukraine shook things up even more.

So I wanted to break out of the mold as much as possible.

My initial suggestion that we should just have an afternoon where we sat in an informal space and attendees came up to chat with us was not popular, so we rowed back to the format we have now: some keynotes, some roundtables with significant non-academic presence, and lots of time for chat/networking.

In broad terms, this seems to be working in breaking down barriers between academics and practitioners: our lead investigator did a great job of opening the event with a clear single message about what our work shows to practitioners, for example.

But it’s also hard.

At points, we drift back into the comfort of roles – and this is where the anthropologist and I found common cause – rather than challenging ourselves to push back and to make things work for us.

This isn’t even so much about trying not to talk in jargon or to argue on precise points of definition (although also that), as it is about falling into classroom modes, with lecturers and students, each doing what they are supposed to.

If we want to build more effective and significant links from academia into other communities then we have to be mindful of this; we have to try really hard to change the incentives for our colleagues to adapt appropriately.

That means more work on formats, more challenging of assumptions, more reflection about the specific needs of others.

I’m taking this conference as a win even before it ends, but I know I could do better and next time I will try harder.