A personal reflection on attending and presenting at national and international research conferences

Cartoon image of a woman standing beside a paper flipchart speaking in front of a crowd of nine seated people.

Laura Bellussi is a Research Fellow on the CAFADA project. In this blog, she reflects on her recent experiences of attending and presenting at national and international research conferences.

If there’s something that 2022 wasn’t devoid of, it was conferences. Unique chances to learn and see the foundations of my work shaking as I learned of many other professionals doing their thing much better than I did. Then, slowly, rebuilding. Reframing. Restructuring. Sometimes scary, sometimes exciting.

In July, there was Karlstad in Sweden. Jane and I travelled all the way to Scandinavia to present the first draft of our policy analysis with the Bacchi approach. An analysis of how domestic abuse is conceptualised in a sample of Scottish and English policy papers compared to practice briefings and academic literature. A huge and complex piece of paper that still needs fixing – because the next big paper is the one that hasn’t been written yet. It was a symposium, more than a conference. Small groups of academics gathered in rooms to criticise and analyse in-depth each other’s papers; Carol Bacchi attended too, at a distance, and very kindly messaged each one of us to offer her support in case we needed her.

So that was good. I felt destroyed by the critiques. But Jane was more optimistic. I love a good critique, anyway.

Then there was September. Málaga. What can I even say? It was massive and dispersive, yet so crowded and exciting. I could move from room to room as if I was attending the Edinburgh Fringe and had to choose amongst a variety of picturesque shows. It was brilliant. I loved meeting in-person academics I had only read about as much as I cherished meeting new ones, discovering their inspiring work in the field of criminology. I remember sitting in an Andalusian-style yard to catch my breath, taking my shoes off, and starting a conversation with a perfect stranger, an American professor, in the sun. Summertime academia dreamland.

An image of the outside of a building at Northumbria University in Newcastle.

And then there was December, as I had the chance to attend this intimate, one-day conference in Newcastle. Northumbria University. This time, the theme was: coronavirus, childhood, and care. I had worked with my colleague Siân for almost two years on a study which was so endearing to us, yet the reviewers had made it so challenging for us to publish it. We had conducted it just the two of us, unfunded, me while I was leaving my internship and her while she was ending her maternity leave, both of which happened to occur during the first coronavirus outbreak. It was the tough one when everyone was properly locked in. We spoke with the mothers and fathers of “lockdown babies” and their experiences of online support. It was exciting to remember those times and talk about this study at the edge of 2023, in Newcastle.

Yet us researchers all had a lot to remember. We were proposed a very unusual activity. At least for me, a newbie of the conference world. We were proposed to engage in some sort of automatic writing. Remember lockdown. What was it like? Choose your words wisely. Then narrow them down. And down. And down. Until you have only two. Two meaningful words. We wrote those words on surgical facemasks. Then, we were invited to use our hands, and manipulate tinfoil to represent our words.

An image of a white table with four pieces of tinfoil art in the shapes of a dinner plate, knife and fork; a love heart, and; a small ball and a slightly larger ball. There are also three blue coloured surgical masks with the words 'dinnertime' and 'cuddles' written on one, 'need' and 'loved' written on the second, and 'loneliness' and 'loss' written on the third.

Academics work with abstraction all the time, they try to conceptualise reality as much as they can, yet that task which was at the exact meeting point between pure abstraction and limited concreteness, was so new. Some young people attended the conference too, and they showed us their artefacts. They talked about Netflix, their family, their “rollercoaster” of emotions. And here is what some of us academics came up with.

Dinnertime cuddles”

“Withdrawal stuck”

“Threat exhaustion”

“Chaotic care”

“Need loved”

“Mutual opportunities”

“Loneliness loss”

“Swimming freedom”

An image of a white table with five pieces of tinfoil in the shapes of: a square with a tinfoil laptop; a rectangle with the word 'Netflix' written on it; a small square with the edges folded up sitting beside a very small ball of tinfoil; a large rectangle with the edges folded up, with three or four small balls of tinfoil inside the rectangle, and; a twisted piece of tinfoil that looks a little like a trophy or statue; . There are also two blue coloured surgical masks with the words 'missing out' written on one, and 'withdrawal' and 'stuck' written on the second.

The conference was not only a presentation of abstracts anymore, but became an art exhibition itself, with the work of both the researchers and what are sometimes our subjects/objects of research: the children. Common experiences, different visions, yet with a sense of empathy and an invitation to walk around and discover “the other”. Talking through our tinfoiled visions.

One of the studies that struck me the most, during this conference, was the story of how a museum of contemporary art in Newcastle (the gorgeous “BALTIC”) became the scenario for nurturing groups for parents and their “lockdown babies”. Care happens in caring spaces, and in our geographies of care we can’t miss to mention the important of art to express how we really feel, when words are lacking; especially in a context like a conference, where most people feel so tight up by the need to impress and create useful networks, and real feelings are hard to express.

And you, which words would you have used?

Theme by the University of Stirling