I have decided I want to go to the et4online (Emerging Technologies for Online Learning) conference at the end of April. This particular conference holds some significance as it was the last academic conference I attended before my cancer diagnosis. This year I’m going to the conference not because it is a particularly great conference (although this year will be better than last), but because I know a lot of people that are going. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of connections via my participation in social media, this blog, various free online courses such as #rhizo14, but also through conference attendance. So for me, this year’s conference is about connecting with people. If I get an update on some cool stuff that is happening in the Ed Tech world, that is a bonus.
I have been to a lot of conferences during my PhD studies – a lot more conferences than most of my peers. I’ve figured out the games that need to be played to secure what limited funding is available as a PhD student, a research assistant, and Part-time professor. I’m fully aware that the reason I can support my conference habit is that my husband has a well paying job and that we did well with our money during the pre-Y2K boom years. In short, I’m aware that this has given me the privilege to attend various academic conferences.
What is bothering me about conferences like this is that it is a collection of people who are privileged, and yet many don’t recognize this. If you don’t have the privilege that affords you the opportunity to travel to conferences, you don’t get the opportunity to meet people face-to-face and interact with them. You miss part of the experience.
As my PhD years come to a close, I will soon no longer qualify for the “student” rate at conferences. This too will close the door for me. I will no longer be able to access the limited funding that is available to students nor the reduced rates given to students. In a world where universities are replacing tenure-track professors with contingent instructors (aka adjuncts or part-time professors), the ability to afford to attend conferences is significantly reduced. The structure of conference fees is based largely on the assumption that if you are not a student, then you have access to grant funds or employee funds to cover your conference fees and travel. This means that those who are privileged enough to have tenure-track positions are disproportionally represented at conferences.
As I sign myself up to attend the et4online conference and fund my entire participation out of my own pocket, I’m highly aware that I’m participating in the privilege that money can buy. I’m buying myself a seat at the table and the opportunity to interact with amazing people – who somehow have also figured out how to play the game of academic privilege. It bugs me that the system is setup in a way that allows me to buy my seat, but also excludes those who cannot afford to buy their own seats. I feel guilty about buying my way into the seat – and find myself wanting to find ways to contribute such that my participation doesn’t feel so privileged. Perhaps this is in part what made me so uncomfortable at the career session at et4online last year – it was too many people with privilege not recognizing that the privilege they hold does not extend to the next generation of early career academics.
I’m left with the question – what can we do to help extent the experience of the conference for those who are not privileged enough to attend? And what can we do about conferences in general to help close the gap between those who are privileged with tenure-track faculty positions and those who can only find contingent academic work?