Travelling without a map: conference drifting

Conferences like the BSC are more a circle than a straight line; they move ahead, certainly, but at their best they also circle back such that each generation benefits from the one before it and assists the one after.

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Stefania Armasu,  Elaine de Vos,  Rhiannon Lovell, Liam Miles, and Jeff Ferrell

There are many things adrift about being a student at an academic conference. We exist centrally in an environment where PhD funding and jobs in academia are scarce but are marginal to mainstream academic activities. So, faced with the knowledge that the annual BSC conference was to be held at Birmingham City University, our current educational home, it was clear that by volunteering to assist, we would gain an opportunity to be in the company of leading academics in the field. As the saying goes, “fortune favours the bold” and some early doors, casual conversations led to the opportunity to write this blog, not as a disparate group of students who had drifted along to the conference, but as an interconnected (if liminal) group together with Jeff Ferrell, one of the keynote speakers. In keeping with Ferrell’s concept of intensities of ephemeral association (Ferrell, 2018: 18), the brevity of our student guide relationships was countered by the intensity of the immersive experience of spending 12+ hours a day together, connected by our yellow ‘student guide’ t-shirts, knowing that by the end of the week, we would once again drift apart.

The opportunity to conduct a mini ethnography of the inner sanctum of the BSC conference felt therefore like a major coup. With our own primary fields of interest including ethnography, cultural criminology and deviant leisure, to attend the keynotes of both Thomas Raymen and Jeff Ferrell was like turning up to the local pub for an open mike night and discovering Dave Grohl and David Bowie taking turns. It was fantastic to see that the conference theme of ‘Transforming Criminology’ not only encompassed a wave of ultra-realist speakers but also a predominance of female criminologists. Women won every prize awarded during the conference, so can we fully subscribe to the assertion that the world of criminology is still ‘too male’ or is the BSC an island of equality in what Frances Heidensohn (the BSC Outstanding Achievement Award winner) has described as ‘Lonely uncharted seas’? The conference did however seem ‘quite pale’. Was this due to lack of opportunity or a sense of exclusion? All we can offer as students, new to the discipline, is that we felt welcomed and embraced by all those who took the time to talk to the ‘yellow shirts’ and the experience was truly transformative.

Despite our previous engagement with academia (one of the authors of this blog had worked with David Wilson on the documentary ‘Voice of a serial killer’), it was at times overwhelming. We all experienced the feeling of imposter syndrome but it did not take too long for this feeling to wane. From the very beginning, delegates were friendly, open, and always up for a discussion regarding our interests, plans for the future, and experience of the conference, offering their own insights and advice. The conference allowed us to attend panels on subjects we already had interest in, and subjects we had not even considered. We realised while attending these panels that we were not imposters, and that is why we were not treated as such. The panels, the keynotes, and the conversations allowed us to see that criminology is a broad, far reaching discipline that is constantly transforming and evolving, and so therefore, should its criminologists. The warmth of the welcome received from other volunteers, delegates and lecturing staff at BCU, made us soon feel included and inspired to further develop skills and progress in criminology and academia.

This eagerness of the delegates to engage intellectually with the student volunteers can be traced to the delegates’ gratitude for the hard work and kind assistance of the volunteers, and to the pleasure delegates take in being able to have open-ended, informal discussions with aspiring criminologists outside the confines of the classroom. But it can be traced to something else as well: the fact that the delegates were once students themselves, equally overwhelmed by the conference experience and afflicted with the same sort of imposter syndrome. As difficult as it may be to imagine, even the most senior scholar was at some time in the past a young student of criminology, reliant on the guidance of older scholars, and inspired by their work and their careers. In that sense, disciplines like criminology and conferences like the BSC are more a circle than a straight line; they move ahead, certainly, but at their best they also circle back such that each generation benefits from the one before it and assists the one after.

The conference itself was well organised and it ran in a way which provided opportunities to meet with delegates, talk about their research and consider future applications of critical theory. After hearing talks given by Simon Winlow and Danielle Balach Warman based on their ethnographies and research, we were inspired even further. It seems that a new generation of academics, from 19 upwards, have all been truly inspired to take the baton of criminology and academia, and to meet the aims of this 2018 British Society of Criminology conference, to ‘transform criminology’.

We still cannot believe how much knowledge we have gained in such a short time and we now know such knowledge to be a fundamental part of a national conference such as the BSC. But most importantly, the conference ignited our passion and, if there was ever any doubt about whether this was the career we wanted to pursue, we are now more certain than ever that we want to be part of this. We want to conduct research, we want to teach, and we want to make a change through our work in the same way that most of the academics that took part in the event do.

To truly transform criminology, it is clear that there is a need to break free from the tethers created in part by the commodification of academia which has led to the constant regurgitation of theory, and to create new theoretical frameworks that are less bound to, and constrained by, the previous legal definitions of crime. By enabling the student helpers or ‘yellow shirts’ to jump on the metaphorical freight train with the ascendant greats and established legends of the discipline as equals, new possibilities never previously imagined, not bound by time or place have become apparent to all of us. By travelling for a while, without a map and not really knowing where we were going to end up, we all emerge from the conference as more enthused, more invigorated criminologists. In this sense, we’ve concluded that a conference like the BSC demands of its participants – and especially its student participants – a fine balance between respect and reinvention. Certainly mutual respect among all participants is essential, as is appreciation for the contributions made by established scholars. But equally important is reinvention; that is, a willingness on the part of students and young scholars to explore perspectives outside their immediate field of study, a dedication to critical engagement with existing ideas, and a passion for the development of new criminological models. The ongoing vitality of the discipline depends on it.

Reference

Ferrell, J. (2018). Drift. Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press.

Authors

Stefania Armasu is 21 and has just received a first class honours in her undergraduate degree at BCU and is hoping to continue with a Masters in September.

Elaine de Vos is 46 and nearing the completion of a Masters in Criminology at BCU.

Rhiannon Lovell is 22 and nearing the completion of a Masters in Criminology at BCU.

Liam Miles is 19 and has just completed his first year as an undergraduate in Criminology at BCU.

Jeff Ferrell is 64 and is a professor of sociology at TCU and a visiting professor of criminology at the University of Kent.

 

Image: courtesy of the authors – pictured Stefania Armasu, Liam Miles, Jeff Ferrell, Elaine de Vos.