The (Capitalist) Devil is in the Details or, the theory and praxis of academic conferences

Faust und Mephisto beim Schachspiel, Anonymous, via Wikimedia Commons

Faust und Mephisto beim Schachspiel, Anonymous, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Ho, ho, hey, hey, how many grants did you give today?

The academic conference is a microcosm of academia as a whole and contains all of the latter’s contradictions. Primary among these is the contradiction between theory and praxis. Theoretically, the academic conference is committed to the free pursuit of knowledge; practically, knowledge itself is traversed by the power relations of our capitalist, settler-colonialist, hetero-patriarchal society. Theoretically, the impulse behind the academic conference is egalitarian; practically, it conceals myriad classed, raced, gendered and other hierarchies. Theoretically, the academic conference is open and accessible; practically, it poses significant barriers to access (financial and otherwise) which disproportionately affect graduate students, contingent faculty, and other members of what we hesitate to call the academic precariat. These barriers have by now been amply demonstrated.

As organizers of the MLA Subconference, our engagement with these contradictions has primarily played out in relation to the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, as well as in our attempts to construct an autonomous shadow conference oriented towards transformative praxis. More recently, we have experienced similar contradictions in relation to the Cultural Studies Association (CSA). With the theme of “Another University is Possible,” the latter’s 2015 convention aimed to foster “an insurgent intellectual space for imagining, enacting, and mapping new forms of knowledge production and scholarly communication and community.” At the same time, barriers to access have increased: last year, for instance, the CSA provided travel grants to all graduate students who requested them, but this year they provided grants to less than half of applicants. (Email with CSA president, Dec. 15, 2014, and chair of the travel-grant committee, May 18, 2015, respectively.)

In noting this disparity, our intention is not to “call out” the CSA. It is rather to call on all of us—graduate students, contingent and tenured faculty, conference organizers and attendees—to consider how we can more profoundly join our intellectual commitments to our political practices, even or especially where these may not appear political at first sight. We have no doubt that the CSA genuinely seeks “new forms” of scholarly community, yet decisions about allocation of resources can inadvertently reproduce the same old, hierarchical forms we are all theoretically committed to overcoming. Academic organizations frequently lament the ongoing corporatization of higher education while positing these processes as outside of their control. But it is precisely our collective and individual decisions about matters such as budgeting that either challenge or reproduce such processes. We thus insist that the practical politics of conference organizing do not emerge in the choice of annual themes, plenary sessions or keynote speakers, but rather in more seemingly mundane choices as to venue, structure, cost, and financing. It is the relation—or rather, diremption—between these two which needs to be demystified.

One way to do this is for academic organizations to begin publicizing and rendering transparent their conference budgets. Accordingly, we here offer our budget for the 2015 MLA Subconference, “Non-Negotiable Sites of Struggle.” As a small shadow conference of recent provenance, we recognize that some of our financial choices may not automatically transfer to those of other, larger organizations. Nevertheless, we think that some insights are highly applicable.


2. The Seven Line Items of Highly Precarious Budgets

At thirty percent of our total budget, our largest line item by far was travel funding for conference participants. This $2123 figure included bus passes, gas money for local participants, and in one case the full cost of airfare; the bulk of it, however, went to partial travel stipends for conference participants for whom the high cost of travel to Vancouver would otherwise have presented a significant barrier. To determine this, we relied on self-reporting—anyone who told us they needed a travel grant received one. We allocated $1500 for this purpose and received ten requests for funds, dividing this equally in travel grants of $150.

Our next largest line item, catering, went towards providing breakfast and lunch for all conference attendees and participants. Because of our choice of venue, we were obligated to utilize university catering, raising these costs considerably as compared to 2014. This increase was, however, offset by the lack of venue costs—on which more in a bit. As in 2014, we were committed to providing a “free lunch” (and breakfast!) to all participants.

Our third line item was travel subsidies for conference organizers. Where possible we relied on other resources to get our organizing collective to Vancouver— typically institutional support. Where not possible, we paid the airfare of co-organizers in full. We discussed this choice at length as a collective, balancing concern about equity between conference organizers and participants with our commitment to fostering activist self-care—particularly given the enormous amount of labor required of co-organizers, both before and during the conference. We note that all members of the Subcon collective are either graduate students or adjuncts; if one considers these costs as subsidies for low-income and precarious scholar-activists, the total portion of our budget devoted to travel support rises to almost fifty percent.

We next allocated $1000 to a reception at Heartwood Community Café. Heartwood is a queer-friendly community organization devoted to social justice and liberation and serving ethically sourced food and drinks; in addition their prices operate on a “pay as you can” model in a spirit of “radical, unconditional, and relational hospitality, including particular concern for silenced voices.” We wanted to partner with local organizations who shared our commitment to transformative praxis and as such prioritized shared values over other considerations, such as convenience to our conference site. Because Heartwood was some distance from the latter, we provided round-trip bus passes to conference participants, which are included in the travel line discussed above.

For both environmental and economic reasons, we attempted to keep publicity costs to a minimum. The $477 in publicity included updates to our website, printed programs, a few posters to orient attendees, and the labor costs of our web and graphic designers, whom we paid at a rate of $15 per hour. The $377 in materials went towards a rented microphone, projector and wi-fi as well as for markers, paper and other materials for a participatory workshop led by members of the L.A. chapter of Critical Resistance. Finally, $120 went to honorariums for First Nations activists who convened our welcoming ceremony and to members of Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories who led us on a walking tour of sites of struggle in downtown Vancouver.

Missing from these numbers is one big budget item—venue. In order to allocate resources where they were most needed, and in keeping with our commitment to working with organizations who share our commitment to transformative praxis, we partnered with the Teaching Support Staff Union of Simon Fraser University, an independent, non-hierarchical, feminist labor union representing teaching assistants and contingent faculty. TSSU helped us to secure a venue at Simon Fraser’s downtown campus, within easy walking distance of the MLA convention site. Because we partnered with a university-based organization we were able to rent the venue at a heavily discounted rate, which TSSU graciously subsidized in full. This continues our pattern (begun in 2014 in Chicago with Columbia College’s Part-Time Faculty Association) of partnering with university-based organizations in order to secure venues at no- or low-cost rates.

Another missing—albeit often hidden—cost is that of lodging. We call this “hidden” because academic conferences typically provide lodging only for keynote speakers or academic “stars,” leaving participants to cover these costs themselves. In contrast, we worked with Vancouver-based activists, academics and union members to coordinate homestays for conference participants. While this entailed a significant amount of labor on the part of both hosts and organizers, it contributed to our overall effort to make the subconference more accessible to those for whom high costs would have otherwise posed a substantial burden.

Finally, all of our funding came through institutional sponsorships and individual donations from tenured allies and others (thank you!). While such a model may not be viable for all organizations, it was important for us to keep the subconference free and open to the public. Opting not to assess registration fees means our annual budget is highly variable. This renders the subconference somewhat precarious—but no more precarious than many of our participants.

3. Accounting for/as Literary and Cultural Studies

In a workshop on university finances at our 2014 subconference, Brian Whitener described the bond prospectus as the “Victorian novel” of contemporary finance. In point of fact, financial documents always tell stories—as scholars of literature and culture, we insist that financial “statements,” “accounts” and “reports” are exactly that. Like calls for papers and conference presentations, conference budgets give an account of our politics, practices and values. While we recognize that the needs and costs of every organization will be different, we believe that our 2015 budget tells a relevant story in several respects.

First, in terms of our commitment to subsidizing the travel costs of graduate students, adjuncts and other precarious intellectuals, we think 30% is a minimal benchmark and hereupon call on academic conferences to allocate a comparable portion of their budget to supporting non-tenured conference attendants. This figure may seem ambitious, or even utopian; currently, most academic conferences allocate only a small fraction of their budgets to travel subsidies. Yet, in light of the ongoing precaritization of academic labor, supporting the participation of under-resourced intellectuals is an increasingly urgent necessity.

In point of fact, our own goal for 2015 had been to fully fund all conference participants requiring financial support; our fundraising efforts ultimately fell short of that ambition. In the current context, we believe academic organizations need to be equally ambitious in setting social-justice challenges for themselves, even if aspirational. There is a lesson to be taken from defeat, or partial victory. Set goals. Attempt to reach them. Fail again, fail better.

Prioritizing accessibility will entail shifting resources away from other places. One major move would be eschewing high-cost convention centers and hotels in favor of low-cost community or university spaces, ideally underwritten by site-based organizations such as labor unions. If academic organizations chose less flashy but more affordable conference sites, how many resources could be freed up for other needs?

Such a move could be part of a deeper engagement with the politics of place. Partnering with community organizations replaces the anodyne placelessness of convention centers with a heightened awareness of, and engagement with, the spatio-temporal politics of our social and built environments. The groundwork for such engagement is often in place; organizations such as the MLA already offer “cultural excursions” in host cities. Yet academic conventions do not adequately consider the nature of their engagement with host cities, the relationships and partnerships they cultivate. Cultivating intentional partnerships can foster meaningful connections between academic and non-academic communities to their mutual benefit.

All of these choices involve a transfer of energy from the themes and theories of our conferences to the politics of conference organizing itself. None of them come without cost: choosing affordable, non-profit venues may mean compromising on amenities or location; prioritizing travel funding can mean less funding for keynote speakers; cultivating relationships with community organizations often involves significant labor. All of this can seem decidedly inconvenient , but it can also make conferences more convenient, since selecting a “convenient” venue, conference-fee or funding model always entails a political choice: convenient for whom? And to what ends? What constituency are we imagining when we make such decisions? What kind of community are we building?

These choices, deeply political, so often appear invisible—especially when they align, even if unconsciously, with the status quo. Challenging ourselves to challenge them can feel difficult, demanding, and deflating: as academics we so often prefer theorizing the political to acknowledging our own political practices. Indeed, these are “challenges” precisely because they represent a radical break with the current conventions surrounding academic conventions, and such sea changes do not happen overnight. Yet the university we all long for will require both ambitious goals and pragmatic steps—a political vision and a path to get there. We hope the preceding analysis can provide some points of departure.