The conference organisers of the 'The Social Life of Care' conference, which took place in May 2021, reflect on organising a conference across continents and during a pandemic.
When we first conceived of 'The Social Life of Care' conference in 2019, hardly anyone had heard of coronavirus or imagined what living through a pandemic could be like. By the time the conference materialised in 2021, we had all become intimate with lockdowns, social distancing, and indeed crises of healthcare. In the days leading up to the conference, one of us was in India witnessing a large scale tragedy in the face of the state’s complete failure to care[ii]. Closer to time, some participants were withdrawing because of personal Covid tragedies and pandemic burnout. We simply could not ignore these developments in the planning and running of the conference. The space and format of the academic conference is not usually a particularly caring one, catering largely to the normative academic subject who is white, masculine, able, and carefree (in many senses of the term), but for us a conference on care without the practice of care would have been self-defeating.
When we started planning the programme, we asked ourselves what a caring conference could (and should) look like. From the point of conception, we were committed to contesting the Global North bias of the mainstream care literature. We, therefore, attempted to distribute the call for papers widely by connecting directly with scholars based in the Global South. Going against the spirit of competition and hierarchy that tends to inform selection of papers for conferences, we decided to accommodate every paper that made a clear and salient contribution to the theme - with over 100 applications, this was no easy task! We put together a three days programme, with valuable input from CRASSH (Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), allowing plenty of time for discussion as well as breaks[iii].
Even though the fluctuating situation in the UK offered a window for convening the conference at least partly in person, we made an early call to run it entirely online to avoid creating unequal modes of participation. Attending conferences can be an elitist pursuit – travel, accommodation, and registration fees price people out; hostile border regimes make it impossible for some to attend[iv]; and conference venues often edge out disabled people. An online conference meant that scholars from all over the world, with different kinds of caring responsibilities, and physical and mental abilities could participate. However, recognising inequalities in access to as well as practices of digital technology, we did not harbour illusions of the conference being completely inclusive. We realised that many carers were participating in the online conference while simultaneously attending to caring responsibilities. An in-person conference would have allowed the possibility of at least creche provision. In that sense, we were at all times working within the structures and restrictions both of the online format of the conference and of the male-centric academy, but we made attempts along the way to mitigate barriers to participation.
We asked participants for pre-recorded video presentations so they could take their time, in their own space, using familiar equipment, to produce exactly what they wanted to present without the fear of technical issues on the day adding to the pre-conference nerves, particularly for those who experience intersecting marginalisation within the academy[v]. The use of breakout rooms allowed for a less intimidating experience of discussion in smaller groups. Any time a participant emailed to withdraw, including in the minutes leading up to the panel sessions, we replied with a simple “Sorry to hear, but not a problem at all”, demonstrating mindfulness of the circumstances of the pandemic. But these caring practices, that we hope made the conference experience smoother and enjoyable for the participants, required additional labour from us, highlighting what we understand as ‘tensions of care’ and the difficulties in challenging the prioritisation of academic production over social reproduction.
For example, for the three days of the conference, we had to be constantly available to make adjustments to the programme at fairly short notice and to anticipate likely issues and barriers. Between sessions, one of the organisers remained by their screen to chat with the participants and ask them how they had found the session. This added a human face and a more personal feel to the virtual conference, but massively increased the screen-time and labour borne by this organiser. We also had to occasionally deal with sessions running into break time. With the aim of showing care to the speakers as researchers, we extended the sessions to enable them to conclude their Q&A responses. However, in doing so, we neglected to consider other caring priorities that participants may have had, such as, the need to feed children or to rest as a practice of self-care, particularly given varied time zones. Navigating running the event from our homes, with our own caring responsibilities, alongside supporting the presenters was a challenge.
The labour that went into the conference was not an outlier, but rather an example of the way that academia is facilitated by care. This care, however, is largely unremunerated, invisibilised, and dismissed, carried out largely by workers, including administrators, students, and academics on precarious contracts, whose gender, race, age, and ethnicity ‘naturalises’ them as carers. As women in early-career and administrative roles, some of us parents and carers, some of us women of colour, we fit the image of such ‘naturalised carers’. This was, in part, offset by our privileged membership of elite institutions, which allows us to garner recognition of our work within normative systems of academic achievement.
The care that went into the conference, however, didn’t just flow unidirectionally, from us as organisers to participants - we as organisers also demonstrated care for each other, for example, by volunteering ourselves for different tasks to lighten the load on one person’s shoulders, and by asking for and receiving assistance. The trust that these interactions and offers required was facilitated by our acquaintance through the Gender and Working Lives research group[vi], where we have been regularly convening for the last few years. The care that we demonstrated for each other was borne from the relationships that have been formed through our regular reading and writing sessions, foregrounding the importance of community-building within the academy.
We also wish to highlight the care the participants showed, both to us as organisers as well to other participants. Over the three days, we experienced various technical glitches, particularly around the sharing of pre-recorded videos. We all learnt a lot about the nuances of Zoom and the dangers of heavy reliance on the internet (which tried to crash mid-event for one of us!) But the speakers and attendees showed great patience as we resolved these issues – and often helped us to do so, drawing on their own technical skills, as a practice of academic care. Through participants’ reciprocal caring labour, the conference became, for us, a shared space of care, pointing to ways of re-envisioning academia through a collective ethic and praxis of care.
We know that we did not get everything right. There are issues that we could think of solutions to only in retrospect. For example, we wondered whether we could have organised this online event in a way that genuinely took into account the feelings, wishes, and needs of children who many of our organisers and participants were caring for as well as thinking about in their research. What would a genuinely children-centred conference look like? We also thought about the possibility of caring grants that could have enabled participants time away from their caring responsibilities. Perhaps this is more of a possibility now that conference funding is not being spent on food, travel, and accommodation? While some parts of the world are beginning to recover from the pandemic, others are mired with issues of vaccine supplies and crippling health infrastructures. In these conditions, we are wary of calls for hybrid conferences, which could create a hierarchical participation system. We hope that by sharing our experiences, we may encourage conference organisers to recentre, revalue, and reflexively practice care at the heart of academic life.
Information about the conference, including the session recordings, can be found on the conference website.
[ii] Krishnan, V. ‘Uncritical support for Modi paved the way for India’s COVID-19 crisis’. Accessed on 21 June 2021.
[iii] This is in the spirit of the ‘slow scholarship’ movement and feminist calls to democratise academic events, and inspired by The Nap Ministry’s advocacy of the Black feminist framework of ‘Rest is Resistance’.
[iv] Ehdeed, S. 2019. The Impact of Visa Denial in Academic. Accessed on 21 June 2021.
[v] Gunaratnam, Y. 2020. Presentation fever and podium affects. Feminist Theory. doi:10.1177/1464700120969348.
[vi] Gender and Working Lives group is on Twitter – @GenderWorkGroup – and can be contacted via email – firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views, thoughts and opinions expressed on the CRASSH blog belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of CRASSH or the University of Cambridge.