Sabina Maslova reflects on organising a conference and workshop during the pandemic.
Conferences in social sciences and humanities can be of different scales and quality. Over the years in academia, I have been lucky enough to attend a number of those and get a good grasp of what I feel makes a good conference interaction and what does not. Reflecting on those experiences, I came to the conclusion that the most valuable academic events were the smaller-scale workshops dedicated to a specific topic that brought scholars specialising on this issue together with a common purpose of meaningful interaction and exchange (e.g., preparing a publication. I felt that conferences like this, with fewer participants and higher levels of engagement, turn out to be the most insightful for both participants and the audience.
When I came across the opportunity that CRASSH provided for conference organisers, I thought it would be a good idea to organise a conference that could become a collaborative platform to speak about housing and planning. Together with my former PhD supervisor, prof. Francesco Chiodelli, we developed and submitted a proposal for “Houses of Cards? The Rules and Institutions of Housing Illegality in Western Countries” and won funding for that year.
While we gradually were going through the steps of organising an in-person international conference, launching the call for papers, planning the format, venues, the pandemic hit and we faced, like many others at that time, difficult decisions around what to do with the planned conference. It got postponed for a few months, then half a year, then a year. Over this period of uncertainty and daily changing regulations, it was increasingly challenging to plan a conference. As time passed and the periods of complete lockdowns changed to some levels of normality international travel was still highly limited, and the university buildings were remaining closed. An online event seemed like the only viable option.
After many discussions, we settled on holding the conference in two stages: an online conference, first, and, when the regulations allow, organising an in-person workshop. Since the focus of the conference was on the informal practices in housing that were emerging within highly regulated and institutionalised settings of the Western countries, it was particularly interesting to observe, from this point of view, how fluid and negotiated the laws and regulations around the pandemic were and the related social distancing and international travel restrictions and associated testing requirements differed and changed significantly across various countries where our participants were joining from.
Following the public release of a call for papers in January 2021, out of a number of submitted abstracts, 13 studies were selected for presentation and discussion at the online conference which was held on 19-21 April 2021. We spent three afternoons with various presenters and attendees from around the world joining either for a session or the whole three days, asking questions, contributing to the discussion, sharing ideas and cases.
Our online conference brought together cases of various forms of housing illegality/informality and participants portrayed informal practices in the field of housing with different layers of both public and non-public actors involved. Presenters shared their research findings from many contexts of the Global North, such as Australia, UK, Germany, US, Spain, Italy, and Switzerland. The keynote presentation by Alex Vasudevan from the University of Oxford, which opened the conference, contextualised historical accounts of urban informality in the Global North and set the tone for conversations around framing housing illegality, and the later discussions kept reflecting and re-thinking our understanding of informality. The presentations of the conference can be found on the conference website and the CRASSH Youtube channel.
The feedback we received in the post-event communication was positive and included messages highlighting that the conference managed to reproduce the feeling of being together in the same space, it was possible to have good discussions and build new networks beyond the screen. Subsequently, based on the quality and relevance of contributions at the online event, authors of selected studies were invited to develop their paper drafts and participate in an in-person writing workshop that we successfully hosted (while the changing covid-related regulations permitted) at the University of Cambridge on 20-21 September 2021. The purpose of this second stage of work was to advance the paper drafts, provide and collect individual feedback for each contribution, exchange ideas, and develop overarching thinking around the discussed issue. This in-person meeting after many months of isolation and screen fatigue, despite anxiety associated with travel, felt like an ‘academic treat’ as described by one of the participants.
Organising a conference with CRASSH in the pandemic was an incredible learning experience that allowed us to develop communication and decision-making skills in the context of uncertainty and contribute to organising a thought-provoking academic workshop with networking and creating space for academic exchange. Thanks to the amazing support of CRASSH and Nicki, in particular, it worked well. This is a great opportunity for any academic scholar to make a meaningful contribution in the exchange of knowledge and ideas.