Doing Conferences Differently

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It is late into the night of the first day of our conference, and we are sitting on the floor of a house where many of the delegates are staying.[1] In the midst of the general buzz of an ongoing conversation, one of the delegates, a writer, teacher and activist, tells us: ‘You are doing this in academia, so it is doomed to fail in one way or another, but it’s still worth trying’. The phrase stays with us: it speaks directly to the contradictions of our attempt to organise a conference differently, to make it less hierarchical and politically engaged. In this piece, we briefly present the method we used and offer some preliminary reflections on what worked and what didn’t.

Conferences really should be a great deal more enjoyable, and a great deal more useful than they so often are. That goes for academic conferences, but also for gatherings of political organisations or activist groups that mirror academic practice. If you have attended either type, you will be familiar with the problems. Above all, they can be intensely hierarchical and competitive. Giving a paper, asking a question, making an observation, or approaching someone else whose work interests you during a break can be terrifying, and by no means only for graduate students or junior scholars. There are real reasons for that fear. But the feeling at these conferences isn’t always one of fear: it is often simply boredom. The composition of the room is likely to reflect tiresomely predictable racial, class and gender hierarchies, and the format reinforces them. This not only makes conferences intimidating and boring but also keeps many people out.

When a group of us (three white male historians, at early stages in our careers) decided to organise a conference inspired by David Graeber’s 2011 book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, we agreed we would try to do things differently. We feel people in universities should try to engage in the public conversation that seemed to be opening up in the wake of the global financial crisis, but so far does not seem to have progressed very far. It seemed clear to us that the usual type of conference was not fit for this purpose. We had heard about the experience of a conference organised by the anthropologists Andrea Cornwall, Frank G. Karioris and Nancy Lindisfarne at the University of Sussex in Falmer in 2014, and thought we would try to adapt what they termed ‘the Falmer Method’ for our own event.[2]

We circulated a call for papers as widely as we could, inviting scholars and activists within (and beyond) the disciplines of history, anthropology and other social sciences to take up the challenge of Graeber’s book to analyse the relationship between debt, money and human society on the broadest historical and geographical scales. We asked people to submit proposals for short papers (max. 3,000 words) for us to circulate in advance of the conference. Once we had selected proposals, we would ask people to send in their papers and then divide the participants into groups. Participants would then read all of the papers from their groups (they were each assigned to two groups). During the conference itself, there would be no formal paper presentations: instead, people would draw on their reading of each other’s papers in round-robin discussions.

The ground-rules of a round-robin discussions are simple. You sit in a circle, with a facilitator, and each person speaks in turn for up to two minutes, and then passes to the person on their left. You can pass your turn, but you can never speak out of turn. If you have a question for another person in the group, then you ask it in your turn, and they can address it during their turn. If people stick to the rules – and it is the facilitator’s job to ensure that they do – then it is much harder for the usual suspects to dominate the discussion. This format was initially developed by activists within the civil rights movement and then later adopted by radical trade unionists.

Receiving the proposals, and then the pre-submitted papers, was exhilarating and a little bewildering. As we had hoped, we found ourselves reading papers on subjects far outside our areas of knowledge. We were learning a great deal, and could see we were going to learn a good deal more from the conference itself. When selecting, we did our best to ensure the diversity of both the attendees and the topics covered. While this basic level of awareness allowed us to get a decent gender balance, we clearly did not do enough to get more non-white people involved. One lesson is obvious: if we are to overcome structural inequalities engrained in academia, pro-active measures are necessary.

Meanwhile, we also decided to have ‘plenary’ sessions that we called ‘conversations’. The idea was to have two people first talking to each other and then engaging all participants in a general conversation that would bring some of the key topics discussed in small groups together. In retrospect, we feel that we should have trusted our delegates more and allowed more time for small group discussions. Part of the problem with the ‘conversations’ was the layout of the room: we had the first two speakers sat up on a dais, while the rest of us sat below in rows of fixed seats and desks. During the break before the very last session, we realised that there was another room available with movable chairs. This enabled us to sit in a large circle for the conversation with Kate Belgrave, who interviews people affected by public sector cuts, and Fanny Malinen, from Debt Resistance UK. The atmosphere in this final – explicitly political session – was a bit different. This felt the most like an actual collective conversation and a productive political debate, centred on such issues as the class composition of the people in the room, hate as political emotion, and electoral politics. A real division was revealed between those who felt the UK Labour party’s move to the left under Corbyn had opened up new space to push for change on issues such as public and household debt, and those who were much less optimistic.

At the end of the first day, David Graeber gave a keynote talk on ‘Debt, Service, and the Origins of Capitalism’. He began by developing an intervention into the debate about bridewealth that he had introduced in his Debtbook, and moved on to discussing the relationship between debt, labour contracts and service. David noted that while the notion of wage labour occupies a central place in the debate on the transition to capitalism, the systemic history of the different forms of wage labour and their evolution in the middle ages and early modern period is not written yet. He made a link between ‘service’ and wage labour and suggested that we should be asking how it came about that a life-cycle activity (serving in someone else’s household for a period of adolescence) provided the paradigm for the experience of life-long wage labour. The time for discussion immediately after the talk was limited, but David stayed around for the whole conference and took part in the conversations and group discussions.

The most important thing for us, though, was the group discussions. A couple of the participants wrote to us afterwards to say that they had been sceptical about the format, but had then been delighted to discover that everybody in their groups had read all of the papers. The facilitators interpreted their roles differently: some did not speak at all, others gently steered the discussion onto ideas that had emerged in papers not yet discussed. All of them seemed to make the participants feel comfortable. We would like to express our sincere thanks to them here. One thing we noticed happening was that groups simply waited for those who felt tongue-tied. This highlighted how many people sit in silence through discussion/question sections of conference sessions in other contexts. The way people formulated their ideas was also less cagey: people just talked, and listened.

As organisers, initially we nervously flitted between the groups, trying to listen in on the different conversations and get a sense of how it was working. This made it very hard to listen properly, so for the second and third rounds of group discussions, we simply chose groups to sit with. There was a lesson here, too: the format may sound complicated, but actually it works best if you’re prepared simply to relax into it, and trust your fellow participants. Some general topics of conversation emerged: about how public credit emerges in the first place, what its relationship is to ‘royal’ debt, how different public debt is from household debt, and about alternative theories of how money is created. We talked about the naivety (or cynicism) of the notion of ‘financial illiteracy’ and about the framing of debt for purposes of analysis or activism. We talked about kinship, markets and the state, and about what we learn from how we prioritise certain debts over others. We were surprised by some subjects that didn’t come up. Student debt was explicitly addressed in one of the pre-circulated papers, but did not seem to be a major topic of general discussion.

The experience of the group discussions – as well as the deliberately long breaks between sessions and the meal we had together – created a pleasant, friendly and constructive atmosphere. It was our perception, at least, that the sleazy sexual politics and the cliquey-ness we have witnessed at some conferences was absent. Of course, we cannot ignore our failures too. As one of the delegates pointed it out to us, there was a possible contradiction in trying to organise a more equal conference around discussing a famous book by a high-profile academic. Beyond that, the conference sometimes leaped back into the hierarchical practices of academia. ’Conversations’ did slip into more conventional question-and-answer dynamics with top-table speakers, and even in the small group discussions some of the pre-circulated papers received more attention than others. We did not manage to attract a more diverse audience. The political discussion felt slightly detached at times. After all, the constrictions of academia played their role. However, we feel it was, and still is, worth trying. Several of the participants told us or wrote to us that they were planning to use the model for future conferences. We’re not sure we’ve quite cracked it yet, but we seriously recommend that anybody planning an academic or political conference has a go at something like this.

Graeber has suggested that ‘conversation is a domain particularly disposed to communism.’ By this he means ‘baseline communism’, the way in which humans help each other out without introducing notions of hierarchy or exchange all the time. In our experience, there isn’t very much ‘baseline communism’ on display in most academic or political conferences. We don’t think it has to be that way.

[1]Debt: 5000 Years and Counting, hosted by the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures at the University of Birmingham, 8–9 June, 2018. Organised by Ilya Afanasyev, Nick Evans and Nik Matheou.

[2]A. Cornwall, F. G. Karioris, and N. Lindisfarne (Forthcoming), ‘The Falmer Method. Towards a New Kind of Conference’. See also their (eds.), Masculinities under Neoliberalism (London, 2016). Our deepest thanks to Nancy Lindisfarne and to Jonathan Neale for their guidance in the planning of our own conference.

Ilya Afanasyev is a Research Fellow at the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures.

Nicholas S.M. Matheou is a doctoral candidate in Oriental Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford. 

Nicholas Evans is a Junior Research Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge. His research is on early medieval history.