Relearning how to learn: potential ideas for scholarly debate


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We’ve just finished our four-day Before Shakespeare conference, and this blog post is an attempt to report back to the profession more generally about the things that worked or didn’t work in the way we ran the event. That will easily feel presumptuous to lots of people, but I guess I’ve realised our profession harbours lots of unspoken and often contradictory assumptions about what a conference is and what it’s for: in particular, whether it’s a space for the display of expertise or a forum to learn and discover together.

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A number of delegates told us that the event felt new and newly enabling in a number of ways, and this is an attempt to think about how and why that happened (you can read some of those delegates’ thoughts herehere and here). This post is aimed at anyone running a scholarly conference or interested more generally in new modes of debate, access and diversity, but I should say that it isn’t intended as a list of how-to-do-things. It’s simply a report on what seemed to work (or not work) for us. We’d be interested to hear about things we didn’t think about, or if anything here seems counterproductive.

  • Coffee: yes, I really am going to start with this. Coffee, people. Lots of coffee. And when I say coffee, I don’t mean that hot liquid brewed from berry seeds you’re probably all thinking about. Instead I mean ‘coffee’ in its time-honoured sense of ‘time to talk’, time-out from the main activity of the day, time to actually confer. Lots of conferences pack themselves full of papers at the expense of this time. For me, at least, that stops a conference conferring.
  • Welcoming people: we tried to make sure there were a good number of people at the registration desk to show delegates around, point out the coffee (very important) and introduce delegates to one another. Lots of people will find this overly parental, but I’m often surprised by how unwelcoming groups of scholars are to new faces or to people on their own, and I’m also aware of my own tendency, now I’ve been in the profession a few years, to excitedly greet colleagues I know but haven’t seen for a while, at the expense of making new contacts or welcoming people entirely new to the community. So we tried some active minglation and introduction-making, and tried to make clear from the outset that this was a conference where it was ok to strike up conversation with a stranger. There are obvious potential pitfalls here, but it seemed an experiment worth trying and it seemed to work. If we want conferences to be about people conferring, it might be worth being more aware of the habits we fall into at conferences: as a community, we often form the same old clusters of people, often at the expense of newcomers. (And while we’re on the subject, people seem to get very fixated on the idea of networking. Networking: that’s for fishermen, right? What we do is, surely, simply talking?) And hey, thanks to Nandini Das, we even had kindness and sympathy emerge as a theme of academic debate.Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 16.34.15.png
  • Blank name badges: this way people can add their name as they prefer (titles? Formal version or nickname? Institution?) and, if they wish, provide their preferred pronouns. And speaking as someone who always loses their name badge at multi-day conferences, this means the badge can always be replaced. (I should probably confess that I’m not really a fan of name badges at all, except as a last-resort mnemonic. There’s something disconcerting about the way academics sidle up to each other’s chests and say conspiratorially to one another’s nipples, ‘And you are…?’ It’s as if the name badge gives us permission to act weird. Have normal modes of introduction been decommissioned at conferences?)
  • Formal introductions: relatedly, we generally avoided giving people honorary titles or job positions when introducing them as speakers. In our work, we often claim to be interrogating historical forms of hierarchy, but my goodness we like to define each other via hierarchy and promotional status. It isn’t necessary, and it speaks volumes about the disconnect between the political positions we often claim in our research and the ones we inhabit in our careers (for an example of how this works in practice, see here).
  • ECR finances: thanks to the AHRC and the Society for Renaissance Studies, we were able to offer major discounts to early-career researchers. We did discover some downsides to our approach though, which I list here in case it’s of help to others: 1) a number of ECRs did not know they were eligible for the discount, 2) relatedly, the definition of an ECR is amorphous and unclear, and 3) the ECR-discount misses out people who are not ECRs but also not in a full-time position. (I’m aware that for many people, ‘ECR’ is an unhelpful term, but I haven’t yet found an agreed better one, so forgive me for using it here.)
  • ECR voices: we had an ECR-panel and an ECR-keynote, and this worked wonderfully. As far as I’m concerned, every conference should have an ECR keynote. According to the AHRC’s definitions, at least, I’m still an ECR myself (I have a year to go before I hit my mid-career crisis), making the core Before Shakespeare team two-thirds ECR, and we’re proud to have ECR members on our advisory board. But despite the out-and-proud ECRness of our work, we also took the decision not to label our conference ECR events as ECR. Other conferences and institutions have done important work to trumpet new researchers’ work – in early modern studies, for example, see the NextGenPlen at the Shakespeare Association of America or These Are the Youths That Thunder at Globe Education. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about some of the names given to such events, but I understand the importance of advertising the decision to include new researchers as a decision. For us, though, it was important to include new voices without marking them out as different. We had ECR speakers because it’s important to have ECR speakers, but the ECRs we had were there because they were brilliant, not because they are ECR.
  • ECR payoff: ok, so this isn’t something we did, but something wonderful our delegates did: new researchers came in large numbers. I’m not a mathematician, but I’d estimate the conference was about 79.3% ECR. It was brilliant, and as far as I’m concerned much of the collegiate, open, dynamic aspects of the conference that people have commented on were down to the career stage of much of our delegates. We also had more auditors at our conference than speakers, though that’s a binary I guess I hope we also challenged: our many coffee breaks, protected time for questions, open workshops and half-day of round table and feedback sessions meant that no one was simply an auditor.
  • Demographic diversity: I guess many of us hope this doesn’t need saying, but sadly it does: all-male, all-white keynotes and panels are a fast way to continue traditional exclusions from the conversation. We were very proud to have a predominantly female set of keynotes, and we also had precisely 0 all-male panels. This is an issue I’ve tried to raise previously in relation to attribution studies, and I guess I see that blog post and the seemingly endless controversies it prompted as a kind of case study for the importance of thinking about a disciplinary field’s demographics and openness to new voices and debates. I continue to be struck by the way the most forthright responses made clear that the initial blog post had not been read or understood (hence it inadvertently became a case study for not thinking about the issues raised), and that such responses boiled down to a bewildering combination of 1) there is no problem, or 2) there is a problem but it isn’t a problem that it’s a problem (at one point, women’s brains rather than the field’s demographics were advanced as the real problem: it turns out that attribution studies doesn’t have a problem with misogyny, it’s just that women aren’t up to the job, which is obviously convincing and reassuring) or 3) there is a problem but since it’s a problem elsewhere too there is no problem here. Such problems are indeed evident everywhere, of course, but that for me is a reason, not a disincentive, to deal with them in cases where they are particularly egregious, uninterrogated and have an unrealised effect on the field’s scholarly reach and potential usefulness. Theatre history, too, has had a tendency to break down into men angrily arguing over whose playhouse has the biggest, longest, deepest thrust stage (are we still talking about theatre history, boys?), and I’m pleased to report that stage-wagging was at a minimum at our conference. We proceeded on the basis that new voices with new ideas are a good thing, and that disagreement can and should always be mutually useful (the major theme, I’d hoped, of my post on attribution, and a plea made in almost every bullet point). It’s amazing and disturbing to see how scary some of our colleagues find such propositions.Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 16.35.59.png
  • Disciplinary diversity: we tried to embed intellectual diversity in a scholarly field that sometimes gets fixated on the same set of questions, evidence and methods. I’m trying to avoid getting bogged down in specifics in this post, in the hope of making it as widely useful as possible, but I’ll give some details here to show what I mean. Our choices of keynotes aimed to transform, rather than simply represent, the field of theatre history. We did so by inviting as keynotes 1) theatre historians who challenge conventional questions, methodologies and forms of evidence, 2) literary historians able to provide new contexts for theatre history, 3) a scholar who is also a performance practitioner, able to put the theatre back into theatre history, and 4) the archaeologist leading the dig at the Curtain. We also had four performance workshops (from Dolphin’s Back, the RSC, Edward’s Boys and Emma Frankland, and were bookended by two performances at the Globe, which meant that delegates saw material from this early and often unstaged period performed by major publicly and commercially funded theatres and by fringe and innovative newer companies. I often tell postgraduate researchers to nurture their peripheries, which sounds filthy but is intellectually rewarding: keep an eye out for the bigger questions surrounding not only your work but your scholarly field(s), but which rarely get asked. The Before Shakespeare project is itself a result of such peripheral nurturing, and it asks the questions I wanted to know the answer to as I worked on a PhD on John Lyly (by the time I finish the new project, I’ll finally be ready to begin the old one. Time, huh). In the case of our conference, our choice of keynotes were often not theatre historians as usually defined, but their expertise instead enabled us to worry away at the enabling but often overlooked contexts of theatre history. Our performers, meanwhile, prevented any of us from feeling like the (only) experts in the room, constantly reimagining well-known and lesser-known texts.
  • Speaking beyond our disciplines and our profession: we made our project and our conference as open as possible, and consequently multiple theatre organisations wanted to come along. Three of our four performance workshops were given by companies who asked to come, and other theatre companies sent representatives to our conference. Some of those representatives only booked for one day, and then begged to be allowed to come along for the rest of the event. This is something we could all achieve, in our respective fields, by being more relaxed about openly sharing our work and being ready to be surprised by the use people might make of it. Our profession often speaks of impact, but that’s far too active, purposeful and one-directional a word. Make things open and be open to new contacts, and who knows who and what will join you in the act of discovery. Sometimes, it’s us who get impacted.
  • Non-diversity: we didn’t get everything right, and I’d be keen for our profession to think much harder about accessibility, particularly in relation to disability. For an example of a conference trying to be more open about such conversations, see the upcoming Gender, Identity, Iconography call for papers.
  • Formats: we tried to avoid falling into the panel after panel, paper after paper format that most conferences slip into. We did this by inviting delegates to design their own presentation format (they could choose the length, mode and collaborative nature of their presentation), and adding four performance workshops into the programme. The latter decision won’t work for all disciplines, of course, but the general aim for diversity of content worked very well. Hey, even some of our handouts were pretty handoutlandish: our delegates got to touch the 1580s.Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 16.42.52.png
  • Seating arrangements: yes, really. One of the most transformative aspects of the conference was the need to rearrange seating for performance workshops, and it’s something I shall repeat at future events, whether or not performers are involved. In his response to the conference, Stephen Purcell notes that all four workshops employed thrust or in-the-round staging, and asks why. I’d offer one possible response: because it provided an immediate change from the block-seating arrangement of this and most conferences. One of the reasons our conference felt unusually open to dialogue, I would suggest, is because our delegates spent a lot of time facing one another in the round. We so often talk about the importance of performance and embodiment to the historical people we study, but we’re not so good at considering the same issues in our own work. Rather than being turned away from each other and staring up at the expert at the end of the room, we literally embodied a community facing one another, and that  immediately opened the conference up to new conversations.Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 16.41.02.pngScreen Shot 2017-09-08 at 16.42.06.png
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  • Interventions, provocations, newness: above all, our keynote choices, range of conference formats and repeated repositioning of the conference room attempted to embed new opportunities for scholarly debate and discovery.
  • Access and absence: we wanted to make this conference as open as possible to people who could not be there. Some especially brilliant and generous delegates agreed to write summaries of each of our panels, and a number of people have written responses to the conference as a whole: they can all be found here. Livetweeting from the conference is available on storify.
  • Opportunities to respond, challenge, object: again, we tried to embed these throughout the conference, and ended with a whole afternoon devoted to reporting back on the conversations we’d been having. Lots happened here, which I shan’t try to summarise, but for me, this was the most exciting part of the whole event. I myself, probably very rudely, reported back on things that hadn’t worked for me about the conference, some of which are subject-specific, so I won’t share them here.
  • Scholarly communication: one thing I am keen to get our profession thinking about, however, is our own presentational practice. This seems particularly obtuse in my own field, where we speak and think often about performance, rhetoric and communication. Our conference speakers were all brilliant, but I am surprised how little our profession values performance, rhetoric and communication when it comes to our own practice. Scholars seem almost afraid to consider the acoustical challenges of the room they’re in, the potential for audibility issues (the range of hearing abilities in the room, the possibility of noise pollution), the physical work of speaking audibly, the need to consider pacing, pausing, the pragmatics of how much one can say in the time allotted. As someone who worries about our profession’s roots in eighteenth and nineteenth-century gentlemanly antiquarianism, I’m concerned that these issues are connected to our more general anxieties that associate the desire to connect and communicate with vulgar self-promotion. I for one feel no shame in writing and speaking to be read and to be heard, and I do so because I care about my primary material, research methods and colleagues’ work. I don’t expect to be read or heard, but I do want my work to be as available and accessible as possible to anyone who might benefit from it. Why do we embed phobia about these things in our practice and our discourse? Why do scholars endlessly trot out the phrase ‘shameless self-promotion’? There is nothing shameful in the desire to communicate. Of course many of us find these things difficult or uninteresting or challenges for all kinds of mental or physical reasons, and on an individual level, that’s fine. But given that our profession probably spends more time using live speech as a medium of communication than most actors, it’s pretty shocking how little attention we give to the sheer mechanics of speaking and communicating in a room. Contrary to the assumptions our colleagues often model, this is a physical process involving labour. In summary, when I listen to my colleagues, I’d like to be able to hear them. And I’m bored of the phrase ‘shameless self-promotion’. I want to know what my colleagues are doing and I don’t want my own work to be some weird secret. Let’s stop this elitist, impoverished, gentrified, fragile nonsense and speak to each other in search of readers, listeners and responses. There is no such thing as the stigma of print; it’s ok to speak to be heard. For an example of how these problems with professional practice infect the quality of scholarship, see this piece, on how scholarship has failed to understand how stories work onstage.
  • Conferring: yes, I’ve been playing on this word a lot in this post, but this for me is the central point. Enabling access, enabling new modes of discussion are not noble altruistic acts, they are mutually rewarding activities. Our delegates hopefully benefitted from them, but I suspect that our project will be the greater beneficiary. By opening ourselves up to new ideas, new challenges and new voices, we’ve changed the direction and scope of our work. It’s that emphasis on mutual discovery rather than entrenched debate and a refusal to think differently that I’m most proud of, and most likely to benefit from.
  • Last but definitely not least, we tried to have fun. As one of our theatrical collaborators, Emma Frankland, put it in relation to her own work: ‘Just because we’re being serious about gender doesn’t mean we can’t have fun’. I’m a big believer in the idea that learning happens when we’re open to learning, which means that fun, enjoyment and reflective listening are a more important part of the learning experience for me than rigid seriousness and the need to defend one’s position in a way that pre-empts genuine debate. If this post helps in any small way to stop the latter things happening at conferences, I shall be thrilled.

Please accept my apologies if any of this seems obvious or self-evident. Much of it was obvious and self-evident to us, but it became clear from delegates’ response that these ideas felt new enough to enough people to make them seem worth sharing. Once again, we make no claims to have got things right and we welcome alternative ideas or push backs. It sometimes seems that people become academics for two reasons: because they love to learn, or because they love to seem learned. Rather than get stuck in our own expertise, let’s find ways to learn from our differences. We don’t need to concur, but let’s continue to confer.

And, as for the tweets below, be careful what you wish for, folks…

Andy Kesson

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4 thoughts on “Relearning how to learn: potential ideas for scholarly debate

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this Andy. It’s really important to consider how we can improve the conference experience for everybody, and think about reinventing ‘the conference’ in interesting ways at the same time! At a recent UKSG (UK Serials Group) conference, I was struck by the fact that the opening remarks included a request to delegates to talk to anyone they saw standing on their own during breaks, to make them feel welcome. It was such a simple thing to do – and of course some people may not want to be spoken to! – but it set the tone for the whole event. (Incidentally, that was a libraries/archives/publishing conference and my experience is that they are noticeably friendlier events for some reason – at least the ones I’ve been to.) At the last conference I organised (this June), we didn’t leave badges entirely up to the delegates, as you did, but wrote people’s first name(s) in a much larger font than their surnames (sadly I can’t remember where I borrowed the idea from, but it makes a huge difference). I also *never* include people’s titles on badges or in programmes unless there are strong objections from co-organisers. You don’t need to know that information in order to speak to someone. Your point about the layout of rooms really rings true as well. At a recent staff forum I attended, the room hadn’t been set up in the usual way, so we ended up ‘having’ to sit in a circle. It was the best discussion we’d ever had in that group. All of these things have happened in a rather ad hoc way, not with the conscious planning and effort that you and your colleagues have put in.

    People get told so often to go to events and network, and there is so much pressure on ECRs in particular to do this, but they can be met with cliques and hierarchy and exclusion – sometimes conscious, sometimes not. If you’re not a natural extrovert, the whole experience becomes even more difficult. I really hope that you do organise other events that build on the great work you’ve done so far.


  2. Fantastic post – thanks so much for writing this, Andy. Your point about being welcoming really chimed with me – I recently co-taught a week long teaching summer school – 20ish people who didn’t know each other in a room for 5 days – and the feedback we get every year is people asking us to push them to mix up the groups a bit more. These are all extremely capable professionals who work with a variety of people every day – and yet they needed, and wanted, to be pushed in order to get to know new people.

    Excellent point also on audibility – I am often surprised by how much more audible people think they are than they actually are. Related: folks, if there’s a mic, use it! This isn’t a judgement call – you might think you’re loud enough, but to the hard of hearing person in the audience you may not be.

    Will be distributing this to everyone I know who organises a conference! (Promotion, no shame required).


  3. Dear Andy,
    This post has made me so upset that I wasn’t able to attend the conference because of dissertation deadlines: so much about it speaks to the best kind of conference I can imagine.

    Three points in particular stood out to me: 1. Coffee. The need for that space for unhurried talk is so important – at a recent dissertation ‘conference’ for my masters course, I really benefited from the feedback and questions I had in the long coffee breaks. 2. ECRs. Everything that makes conferences more accessible is WONDERFUL. I’d apply to more things if this were the model! 3. Interdisciplinarity. As an interdisciplinary scholar myself, I’ve been scared off applying to many conferences because of fearing the disciplinary boundaries were too tight.

    Great post, filling me with hope!!



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