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.

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.

 

The Pleasures (and Pains) of Hosting a BSC Annual Conference

Organising the British Society of Criminology annual conference is a huge job, but the task is more rewarding than you think

Conference2017_longVHeap

Dr Vicky Heap is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Fellow of the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies at Sheffield Hallam University. Vicky conducts research and lectures in the areas of anti-social behaviour, crime prevention and research methods, and is Editor of Safer Communities journal.

We hosted the British Society of Criminology annual conference at Sheffield Hallam University in 2017. This blog reflects on my experience of leading the organising committee for the BSC’s annual showpiece, giving an insight into the ups and downs of the process – and debunking a few myths along the way.

It’s certainly not a myth that organising the BSC conference takes a LOT of work. However, there were some real high-points. The thing that stood out to me the most was the willingness of the criminological community to engage with the conference, at all levels of proceedings. We secured some amazing plenary speakers who, aside from doing the business when it came to their talks, were also particularly efficient at providing all the required admin information. This may seem like a minor point, but the small things make a big difference to an organisational process that has numerous component parts. Similarly, when putting together the Masterclasses, invited speakers were keen to be involved and were truly innovative in their approaches to the sessions. The same can be said for the presenters invited to participate in the Postgraduate Conference. In total, 11 external and 8 Sheffield Hallam speakers delivered the workshops and they were ably supported by the BSC Postgraduate Committee, who chaired all the sessions. The level of assistance and encouragement provided by the BSC was second to none, with plenty of questions answered by previous hosts, especially by the folks from Plymouth. Coupled with the incredible support from our events team and student helpers, we had a huge team invested in putting together the best possible conference. This administrative support and commitment was matched by the enthusiasm of both presenters and delegates. We welcomed 332 criminologists from 13 countries to Sheffield across the four days, and it was great to see so many people. It felt like a friendly conference too, evidenced by the 50+ criminologists from around the world partying together until 4am on the night of the conference dinner!

SHU_party

I can’t deny it, there was the odd personal perk associated with being part of the organising committee. I am probably one of the few academics that does not drink coffee, so when it came to planning the ACJS sponsored refreshments I asked the events team to see if we could provide something a little bit different. I love fizzy drinks, doughnuts, cookies, and generally anything that’s bad for you! Fortunately for me, our chef agreed to create a bespoke set of refreshments for that slot, which were served from market stalls alongside the postgraduate poster event. The ice-cold drinks went down well on what was a stiflingly hot day and my dream of a non-coffee-centred refreshment break came true!

SHU_conference

On a more serious note, putting together the main conference programme was one of the most difficult tasks. First, we had to peer review the abstract submissions and we had a team of five people working on this between January and April and I can dispel this rumour once and for all: not all abstracts are accepted! Once we had our final set of panels and papers, we had to populate five parallel sessions across the three days of the main conference. Unlike other conferences which stipulate you must attend the whole event, the BSC conference affords a greater degree of flexibility by offering a range of delegate packages. This is where it gets tricky for the organisers, as we had to match up the programme to the registrations. Most delegates came to the whole conference, but there were high numbers of single day attendees too. On top of this, we received over fifty individual requests for specific time slots or times that had to be avoided because of things like transport constraints. We also had to think about spacing out the panel themes to avoid duplication, put single papers into appropriate panels (trickier than you’d think), and make sure there were a similar number of panels in each parallel session. It took me and Jaime Waters, who is the most logical-thinking and organised person I know, three long days, copious post-it notes and a massive table to finally piece the jigsaw together.

SHU_abstracts

The issue of presentation slot requests relates to a major feature of the planning process that potential conference organisers should be prepared for; your email inbox will explode! This is from a combination of internal emails from your organising committee, events team, website administrator et al., as well as emails from external delegates. In the six to eight weeks leading up to the conference I was probably dealing with an average of 50-60 conference emails per day. The final aspect to be aware of as a would-be conference organiser is to expect the unexpected. As with any large-scale event, there is the potential for things to go wrong. There were a few hair-raising moments along the way, which I can look back on now with a wry smile. One scary instance came the day before the printing deadline for the conference handbook when we realised that for some unknown reason, the punctuation in the abstract submissions had not pulled-through from the online submission point into the conference handbook itself. This resulted in eight members of the events team hastily going through each abstract and inserting every comma, apostrophe and full-stop at break-neck speed. Another example of people going above and beyond to ensure the conference was delivered as planned.

Overall, leading the conference organising committee was an interesting and valuable experience on numerous levels. At least if my academic career doesn’t go according to plan I’ve now got the offer to go and work for our events team. So, if I mysteriously disappear after the next REF, you’ll know where to find me! There were a few stressful moments, but seeing the event run as we had envisaged was really rewarding as well as a massive relief. To witness the global criminological community come together to share their expertise and passion for our discipline made it all worth it. If you are thinking of putting a bid together to host a future conference – go for it! There will always be people willing to help you out and you can certainly count on my support.

Contact

Dr Vicky Heap, Sheffield Hallam University

Email: v.heap@shu.ac.uk  

Twitter: @DrVickyHeap

Copyright free images: from author