On June 17th, I attended the PGRA 2010 Conference at Canterbury Christ Church University (PowerPoint after the jump; see previous posts for details on the paper I presented). The 9th annual postgraduate research conference sought to bring together researchers from different disciplines to discuss their experiences united under the theme, “The Adventure of Research: Is Research Enough of an Adventure?” The openness of the topic meant for an invigoratingly diverse series of panels devoted to all aspects of postgraduate research. Graduate students and organizers Baptiste Moniez and Tammy Dempster of CCCU did a very commendable job in constructing a brilliant full-day conference packed with information and discussion.
Some background notes: I have been at the University of Kent, which sits on a sprawling green campus atop a hill on the outskirts of the city of Canterbury, since 2002. The city’s other major educational establishment, Canterbury Christ Church University, has its main, compact campus closer to the city center in addition to newly acquired premises around Canterbury. It is natural that there remains some level of competition between Kent and CCCU in Canterbury. They may share a city, but, from my experience, they are much like two different worlds. I might even go as far as to suggest that the University of Kent peers down from its lofty hilltop at the city center university with some level of snobbery. In 8 years, this was sadly my first time at an event on the CCCU campus.
One notable feeling that I took away from the conference was a genuine sense of researcher community – especially across departments – that I have rarely witnessed at Kent. Perhaps this is because CCCU is considerably smaller, with fewer departments overall, so that the research students are likely to work in close proximity and with similar members of staff. There was an impressive and cohesive sense of a graduate/postgraduate entity. Kent’s recent addition of an American-style Grad School has some catching up to do. I also got the impression that, despite challenges along the way, everyone at CCCU really enjoyed their work, their colleagues and had strong relationships with members of staff. Many of the students had returned to higher education from various walks of life or from the sheer desire to “start anew”, which makes for refreshing perspectives sourced by lifelong learning.
In addition to the friendly atmosphere of the conference, it was also carefully planned. There were three sessions in the day, with three to four parallel panels per session and three presenters per panel, grouped into themes. So, for each hour, attendees could choose 3 of a possible 12 presentations to view. Unfortunately, this meant that you had to miss more than you actually saw, but that is the trade-off for other benefits of a single-day conference with plenty of presenters. Most of the attendees were from CCCU (hence the comfortable, “local” feel), but others were from Kent (like myself), Brighton and Brazil.
It was a relaxed day and the contributors and other attendees were genuinely interested to share each other's research and life stories. As one person in a morning session commented, some presentations were like “therapy for PhD students”, whereas others (including mine) were about more specific research projects, how they had developed and what they had learned. The most useful aspect for me was hearing from researchers in other disciplines. I also believe that the conference theme “The Adventure of Research” made for particularly engaging contributions.
I missed the earliest panels, but arrived in time for the second and third sessions. Here’s a brief synopsis of highlights from my day.
The first panel I attended consisted of three presentations offering interesting analogies for the PhD process: comparing it to a journey on a ship (Baptiste Moniez, CCCU), a roller coaster (Paul Hudson, CCCU), and various fairy tales (Maria Lehane, CCCU). Each of these presentations was an informative and very personal look at the doctoral research journey from the unique perspectives of three different fields, including two mature students. I could empathize with both the sailing and rollercoaster analogies, although it tends to be my life around the PhD that is full of turbulent seas and winding tracks, while the research process, bureaucracy, student requirements and supervision have been relatively straightforward and even unproblematic. Maybe I’m the odd one out, but I’ve never felt overwhelmed by the pragmatics and practicalities of doing a PhD. It is life and financial matters that get in the way and threaten to sink the ship. Nevertheless, it is always reassuring to speak with other research students about what are usually quite similar experiences. Commiserating on one’s personal failures is a necessary task for a researchers pursuing academic careers.
Immediately after lunch (the free food was excellent, and not just because it was free), was my turn to present. The response was very positive, and I got the impression that my internet research was both a new subject and a new approach for many listeners, which made it extra enjoyable for me. It is a challenge to present discipline-specific methods and topics to an open audience, but it was well-received. The follow-up questions opened up an interesting dialogue about popular media impressions of the internet, how/why to study technology users and non-users, theoretical concerns behind the “real” and the “virtual” dichotomy, and doing anthropological fieldwork.
After my presentation was Fanny Chan (University of Kent) who discussed her research from the very early stages of her PhD in Marketing/Business. Since anthropologists generally find it unfathomable to consider the marketability and earning potential of their research, listening to business students is like entering a world of mystery and wonder. This presentation focused on television advertising in Hong Kong and the UK, both of which have only recently jumped on the product placement bandwagon as pioneered by the mavericks of televised capitalism over in the USA.
The response from the conference audience to this was fascinating. Virtually all the comments came from the perspective that product placement is wrong and research to encourage its spread borders on sinister. Why do we generally find product placement so repugnant, and new legislation allowing it to take place on TV so off-putting?
Maybe because I’m American and my entertainment background was not shaped by ad-free programming and the BBC (save PBS), I’m perplexed by the uproar. To allow product placement in 2009 does not seem like a radical thing to do. At this point, most people are so used to ads on the internet which enable them to acquire free (and sometimes better-than-paid) services. Acknowledging that money makes the world go ‘round, we develop our own built-in visual filters to skim over things like product placement. While I find it fairly easy to ignore in most American programs, the short clip that Fanny showed from a local HK program was strikingly different. Actors emphatically waved around branded soft drink bottles and rustled a brightly-colored bag of snacks while ecstatically munching on its contents. Are there culture-specific thresholds for this kind of advertising?
Suren Raghavan (Politics/IR, University of Kent) closed the session with his presentation on Sri Lankan politics, religion and violence. Interestingly, he spoke of Political Anthropology – not the “anthropology of politics” as I have come to know it, but as the “politics of anthropology” – and its ramifications for the people who are represented in anthropological work. In face of some of the inadvertent (sometimes negative) impacts that anthropologists can have on the people and places they encounter, Suren calls for re-evaluating the received wisdom from oriental anthropology with regard to Sri Lanka. In particularly, he seemed to emphasize that anthropologists in this area have not adequately perceived the “contexts” of localized politics and have thereby unwittingly fed into ongoing conflicts. Instead, he argues, more attention should be paid to primordial identities. Suren admits that several of his assertions were made to provoke the audience; namely, that violence, religion and nationalism are essentially “in the blood” of all Sri Lankans and that Sri Lanka is in a “pre-modern” state of being, not ready for liberal ideals and certainly not able, at this stage, to “progress”, hence the inherently violent nature of its people.
Religion and nationalism are two of the most dangerous byproducts of humanity. Primordialist, religious, ethno-nationalist, yet also informed and persuasive, academics are therefore a frightening prospect. I had to press Suren on the fact that he did not do justice to “his people” (often using the label “we” and “us” to describe his data) in making primordialist claims. He relied heavily on Anthony Smith and dismissed all suggestions of the constructed nature of identity, projecting the idea of nation back in time as an explanatory factor. Suren was a good sport in the face of my criticisms, but I worry about the applications of these perspectives on local politics, of which he is no doubt an expert and in an ideal position to make essential contributions to Sri Lankan issues. Taking a fatalist approach to inevitable violence and an evolutionary approach to social development seems destined to perpetuate the products of what he attributes to a new version of Buddhism that promotes war and delays peace in Sri Lanka. However, I am sure that his perceptions of all sides of these issues run deeper than could be condensed into a short presentation.
Between sessions and after the close of the day, conference attendees had plenty of time to continue their discussions. An after-conference drink might have been nice, too, but I suppose for those who arrived at 9:00, the day was long enough. I met several interesting research students, none of whom were anthropologists. I like my anthro colleagues, but sometimes a change of outlook is refreshing. The research students from Christ Church were engaged, friendly and inviting. I’m not sure I’ve previously used any of these words to describe their equivalents at my own University in the same city. How does that happen? Perhaps CCCU and Kent students should meet half way up the hill from time to time and next year’s conference could be two-day joint venture.
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