Wednesday, April 9, 2014

'The Life of the Mind'--Reflections on a conference

'The Life of the Mind' -- a book by Hannah Arendt, 
and an encapsulation of why conferences matter.

The expression "political philosophy", which I avoid, is extremely burdened by tradition. When I talk about these things, academically or nonacademically, I always mention that there is a vital tension between philosophy and politics. That is, between man as a thinking being and man as an acting being, there is a tension that does not exist in natural philosophy, for example. Like everyone else, the philosopher can be objective with regard to nature, and when he says what he thinks about it he speaks in the name of all mankind. But he cannot be objective or neutral with regard to politics...


There is a kind of enmity against all politics in most philosophers, with very few exceptions.
 Kant is an exception. 

Hannah Arendt in a conversation with Gunther Grass, 1964 
in The Last Interview and other Conversations, Melville House Publishing, 2013.

For the second year in a row, I have made the big trip across the seas to attend the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference in Chicago. It was, as you might expect, a bit overwhelming for an Australian used to smaller conferences here (500 participants, 300 papers sort of size) to a conference with approximately 6000 participants, that many papers and posters, spread across five sessions and three and a half days. 

I 'accidentally' ended up at my first MPSA Conference last year following an email invitation to consider presenting. As academics, these days we are inundated with rather spammy email encouragements to attend this or that conference somewhere but this was a little different. After researching a little more about the organisation I decided it was about time I explored these international opportunities. It was a good decision (supported by the fact it meant getting over to Chicago, probably my favourite US city). 

It is encouraging, in a way, to see that political scientists from around the world are dealing with similar challenges with their respective areas of research and indeed, the eternal question of how to engage the general population in what we do on a day-to-day basis. It is incredibly valuable to share our cares and concerns in an international setting. As is often the case, it is the chat over coffee in between sessions that can bear out just as much as the more formal dialogue that goes on in session. 

I teach and research across a range of areas, although I like to think there is a common thread through all. What it does mean is that I have very difficult decisions to make as far as choosing panels to attend. No matter, I think the conference could be held over seven days and you still wouldn't get to attend all you wanted to hear. 

Each evening, I spend an hour deliberating, deciding, wishing I could be in four places at once. I have to split my interests across international security, Northeast Asia, domestic politics and foreign policy of Japan, women in politics, politics and pedagogy, political philosophy, psephology, terrorism...not to mention all those other areas I know next to nothing about, but would like to hear and understand. Sometimes, it is a toss of the coin, knowing that choosing one means missing out on least many of the papers end up on the website, eventually.

So many highlights this year but for me perhaps sitting in on two panels discussing Hannah Arendt, one after the other and across the hallway from each other, summed up for me the richness of this sort of engagement. To meet Arendtian scholars at this stage of my own research and thinking was great. I think one of the participants summed up our feelings best at the end of the second session when she said that perhaps one of the things Arendt wanted to come through in her work is that we would do exactly what we were doing...talking about ideas and politics, how we teach it, how we understand what others were thinking. There was a real sense of carrying on a legacy there in the heart of Palmer House in Chicago, I could almost sense Arendt's presence in the room. It was indeed, a 'life of the mind' moment for me. I came away from there already with encouragement and the germ of an idea for my paper proposal for the 73rd Conference; and it was still only day one. 

With such a spread of papers and sessions, sometimes the audiences an be quite small but it allows for marvellous dialogue. It is an embodiment of quality over quantity I think. 

The other sessions which emboldened me to pursue further research were the panels and roundtables on women in politics. Some very interesting discussions on representation and empowerment which relate to my research on women's representation here in Australia and in Japan...there may be a second paper to contribute there next year too. 

There was a further discussion in which I participated, and that was the status of the blog in the academy. That discussion alone has encouraged me to return to this space, on a more regular basis, and keep on posting. There is a perfectly good opportunity here for political scientists to translate our findings and our understanding to these platforms... and I shall do it more regularly. (That is was in the famous Empire Room of Palmer House added a certain richness...)

I remain fascinated by the very quantitative nature of US political science; in other words, many of the panellists are graduate students presenting various stages of their dissertation work and it is nearly always data, dependent and independent variables, binomial regressions and other things of like type...I can see that it is a dissection of empirical evidence to support various hypotheses. As a qualitative theorist and analyst, I find it quite remarkable. I suspect there is definitely a panel on the differences in research traditions across the world too. 

A further aspect of the conference I really respect is the very sincere and thoughtful commentary that chairs and discussants take the time to convey...something I haven't myself quite caught up with...but I will for next year, I promise myself. Typically, the discussant(s) will have read the presenters' papers very closely and offer valuable critique (mostly) of the presentations. I'd like to see this instituted more systematically at our conferences here in Australia. It gives the audience a platform for discussion too.

For me, the conference is a form of professional development. It allows me to tap into research and issues for our discipline that reading journal articles doesn't quite capture. Many in Chicago were surprised I made the trip from Down Under for a 12 minute presentation and a three and a half day conference. I think, if we are to share and benefit from our work, then it is imperative. 

Last year, I was partially funded by my faculty to attend; this year I paid my own way. Universities demand tangible outcomes to all monies wasted spent on activities such as this. That should be in the form of published, refereed top tier journal articles, or enormous research grants, or similar. That might happen, but it might not. I didn't feel I could take the university's money, not knowing what the result might be. Well, not quite, the results of attending such conferences are indeed intangible too, but that doesn't pay in the short-termism of the present university environment. I know that my teaching is enriched by attendance at international conferences, and that ultimately students benefit from that. It is also valuable to see your own work scrutinised by peers on an international level. I also know that I have reached a point in my research that is going to require some time for the work I am doing now to percolate through the system in the form of articles and a book or two. It was an important point in time to attend, the discussion on Hannah Arendt alone was worth enduring 40 hours of flying in six days. Like so many other aspects of our academic life though, what we might see as professional development and what the corporate university is willing to support as such, is getting further and further apart. It is disappointing...this was so much more valuable than a day of workshopping butcher's paper which is increasingly becoming the PD standard...even for us. 

I hope to return again next year. The organisation, the venue, the city, all resound in a vitality and energy that will keep me engaged and encouraged in my work. 

Thanks to all at MPSA and Palmer House.