Performing the good academic at a US conference: time to re-think what is deemed important in academia?

Here I am, at the International Studies Association (ISA) Convention in Baltimore. To be frank, I have never been a fan of those big conferences, and ISA is as big as it gets for the social sciences – almost 6000 people this year, we are told by the organisers. It is also the event one is expected to go to as a ‘political scientist’ year in year out – even if I myself, coming from an interdisciplinary department (or an interdisciplinary discipline, if that term makes any sense?) always find it rather tedious and often irritating when colleagues start a sentence with the phrase ‘as a political scientist/sociologist/geographer …’, as too often this then leads to boundaries that rarely advances knowledge or practice in a wider sense. And I admit, I have never been to ISA before, as I prefer more interdisciplinary – and more intimate – gatherings.

But here I am, brought here by a project located at the University of Manchester on Making Peacekeeping Data Work for the International Community, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK (grant number ES/L007479/1). Professionally, it all worked out fine. I was part of an interesting panel with the title Revisiting the Dimensions of Human Rights and Security: Insights from Foundational Principles and Cases and we had a brilliant discussant who had read and thought about all our contributions, academic practice at its best. I have met colleagues I did not see for a long time, and the panels I attended were all of high quality and provided much food for thought. I even had the pleasure to bump into a former PhD student at our department in Manchester, who not only presented his own new work but had organised a fascinating panel on post-development. This I have always regarded as the greatest privilege in my work as an academic and source of much enjoyment: to see past students blossom as researchers (or in whatever career they chose).

The city of Baltimore was showing itself from its nicest side, with brilliant sunshine and early spring warmth. But a feeling of unease has not left me throughout the conference with its rather grande title Understanding Change in World Politics, probably based on a diffuse feeling that in fact much of the event was far removed from the politics of everyday life here. The conference was located near downtown Baltimore, and when looking out of the window of my 8th floor room in one of the conference hotels, I could see the redeveloped harbour area glittering in the near distance.

As I am no fan of hotel food, I strolled around before breakfast on my first day to find an alternative. Not even two blocks from my rather posh conference hotel I entered a quite different world. Hardly anybody on the street was white; many shops are run down and many buildings boarded up. I entered a food market and bought a very delicious fresh fruit salad for breakfast – and again, when I looked around hardly any white person could be seen. Maybe it has become politically incorrect to speak about race or one’s skin colour – but that does not mean there are no deep divides exactly along those lines. Those dynamics were repeated when I boarded one of the great things about Baltimore, the free buses that on four routes cover most of the places where any visitor might wish to go. I think it is a great idea, exactly for such visitors, and potential attractions along its line are duly pointed put on the bus timetable map. But there were no visitors on this bus (apart form me on different occasions). Passengers again were mostly black, and I assume use this free service to get around town. Which is good in itself, as is the fact that this service exists (today in the morning news I heard the radical cut-back of the state is a key objective of the Trump presidency, thus how long any free services will exist might be open to question). Anybody I know from the conference would either walk when near enough, or get the service of one of the taxi-app companies. When asking people on the bus, who are all friendly and talkative, if they know anything about the ISA conventions, the answer is no, perhaps not unexpectedly (even if one bus route stops straight outside the convention centre).

Back at the conference, much talk is about counter-narratives, bottom-up, the local – and that of course is good in itself, but at the same time seems a rather strange performance of academic knowledge production, far removed from any ‘local’ (in itself a contentious term). What to do about all this, and the expectations of what makes a ‘good’ academic in an increasingly competitive environment? Expectations that include not only publishing in certain journals but also being ‘internationally known’, and the latter still mostly means having attended conferences in the US and been recommended by US academics, however anachronistic this may sound to many. I have no good answers and perhaps was almost quite lucky personally, having come into academia late and never with the ambition to rise up some pre-determined career ladder – I had a good professional life before academia and feel I can step away at any time, a fact that provides me with considerable freedom. My social highlight of the conference was perhaps a dinner with a group of colleagues who I had last met at an academic event in Copenhagen a while ago. That event was small in scale but brought together key people in the field, and thus allowed for deep reflections on what the key issue were. I have yet to be convinced ISA did do so in the same way.

Additional Information: I presented a paper entitled Dimensions of UN human rights prioritisation as a hindrance to conflict resolution and political engagement in the Horn of Africa, using the examples of Sudan (Darfur) and Eritrea. The paper was partly developed together with my colleague Allard Duursma. Feel free to email me for a copy of the presentation.


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