How to get into conferences for free

burglarI picked up a blog post from Twitter yesterday that left me very cross. I decided not to retweet it, mainly because I couldn’t fit all my crossness into a one-word comment on the original tweet, and partly because I didn’t want anyone to think I was condoning the views expressed by the blogger.

The post was published anonymously by someone calling themselves ‘Weasely’, who complains about the cost of a recent four-day conference priced at £120 for early birds or £150 for late bookers (£100/£130 for postgraduates), plus a year’s membership of the British International Studies Association (BISA) if you’re not already a member (£30). Weasely thinks that if you can’t afford to go to a conference, you should simply gatecrash – he or she suggests that forging a badge would be helpful – and take everything you can while you’re there, including food and drink for later. Carry tupperware and flasks for this purpose, advises Weasely, and help yourself to a bottle of wine from the wine reception. Get your tenured friends, or those with permanent posts, to help you gain illicit entry. The blog post is titled ‘Steal This Conference’.

The conference Weasely complains about was run by BISA which, like the Social Research Association (SRA) on whose Board I sit, is a learned society and a registered charity. The Boards of these organisations are made up of volunteers who work hard in their own time, alongside a small number of paid staff to put on events like these – who, because they are very dedicated people, also work in their own time as well as their paid time. BISA has one full-time member of staff, the SRA has the equivalent of approx 1.5 full-time staff, and these people are not highly paid. Also, learned societies, being registered charities, are not for profit. If we’re lucky, we do make a surplus from our events, which is used to support our other activities for public benefit, and to build up reserves against the times when we’re not so lucky and we make a loss.

Attending a conference without paying either reduces the surplus or increases the loss. This practice would push up costs. Even Weasely’s suggestions are likely to have that effect, as learned societies will now have to consider buying more expensive badges, perhaps with bar codes or holograms and the equipment to read them.  They will also have to consider paying people to monitor entry to individual sessions as well as to the conference as a whole.

I don’t know why Weasely thinks it’s OK to steal a conference place, food and drink etc. His or her commenters are more measured. One uses shoplifting as an analogy, which seems quite reasonable in the circumstances, and Weasely responds rudely with the view that ‘shoplifting can be essential for survival, so screw you’. I don’t agree with the tone or the content of that comment. Debate is vital; rudeness is neither necessary nor collegial. Conference attendance is not essential for survival, even in career terms. Asking for help can be essential for survival; shoplifting is stealing. Stealing is rarely defensible, and stealing from volunteer-led charities is despicable.

I think BISA did really well to keep the price of their conference so low. Postgraduate members were being charged £25 per day, which has to be a loss leader as that wouldn’t cover the cost of venue hire, food and drink, let alone the delegate pack, admin support, and all the other costs. I suspect there was a great deal of work behind the scenes, e.g. to attract support from sponsors, persuade suppliers to offer discounts, and find funding for speakers. But I do realise that even such low costs are out of reach for some people – because I am one of those people. As an indie researcher, I would have to pay at least £150 (early bird booking fee plus a year’s membership) plus travel and accommodation, which hikes the cost dramatically, and be prepared to spend four days not earning any money. That is often the clincher.

But sometimes there are conferences I really want to go to. So I’ve found out how to go to conferences for nothing, and do so ethically: offer to volunteer. Conference organisers often need people to do all sorts of things: staff reception desks, babysit important speakers, run around at plenary sessions with roving microphones. If you have the skills, you can convene or chair a panel or two. And, as with festivals, helping for some of the time gets you free entry the rest of the time, often with travel and accommodation thrown in. Plus you get to meet the organisers who are often influential people. So all I have to contribute is my unpaid time, and that feels like a fair exchange to me.

This isn’t widely advertised, and may not be available at all conferences, but it isn’t hard to ask. For me, asking would be easier than stealing. So if you want to go to a conference, but the cost is more than you can afford, give the organisers a call or drop them an email. Explain your predicament, tell them about your skills and abilities, and ask whether you can offer your services in exchange for a conference place (and, if necessary, travel/accommodation). Do this as far in advance as you can – though it’s always worth a try, even if you only find out about a particular conference at the last minute. I’d be very surprised if you didn’t receive a sympathetic hearing at the very least, and you might well find yourself with a good deal and some new friends into the bargain.

Shut Up And Read

readingI loved my writing retreat over the last two weeks, but it’s left me feeling a bit unbalanced. No, not like that! Let me explain. All writing and no reading has left me feeling as if I need to follow up my writing retreat with a reading retreat. I love reading as much as I love writing. I’ve been reading intensively about creative research methods for the last couple of years, and now there’s lots of other research-related reading I want to do. But why can it be so hard to find the time?

I think it’s partly because reading isn’t seen as ‘doing something’, particularly by managers. Practitioners who I interviewed for my first research methods book gave varying reports of this. Some said their managers did value reading and would recommend journal articles they thought would be helpful for staff. Others said their managers did not value reading, particularly where staff had a busy caseload. Yet how can practice be evidence-based if staff and managers don’t have time to read the evidence?

Never having been an academic, I naively thought that this would be different in academia: that all academics would understand the importance of reading, and the act of reading would be valued as an essential part of an academic’s work. Sadly, I now know that this is not the case – or, at least, not everywhere.

I had an interesting discussion on Twitter last week with Inger Mewburn (aka @thesiswhisperer) and Annika Coughlin about why reading isn’t regarded as work in the same way as writing. (Inger pointed out there was a blog post in that, so here it is – part one, at least; she has promised to write a follow-up.) Maybe one reason is that reading is something you can do anywhere: on a sun lounger, during your commute, in the bath, on a plane. It’s portable, a time-filler, and that makes it seem like a leisure activity rather than work.

I think perhaps another reason is that reading is hard to quantify. You can say ‘I’ve read this article today’, but have you read every word? Did you understand it all? How much can you remember? I’m sure we’re all familiar with the phenomenon of reading something and retaining nothing, even straight after we’ve finished. The number of books or articles you’ve read is irrelevant if you didn’t understand or retain much of their contents. On the other hand, writing is very quantifiable, even if none of the 500 words you’ve just written will make it into your final draft.

Like writing, though, reading helps us think, and learn, and understand the world around us. Writing, thinking, and reading are the three pillars of the researcher’s working life – or they should be. As a researcher and a writer myself, I want people to read and use research and articles and books, because otherwise what’s the point of all my hard work? Some organisational cultures are much better at producing research than using it, which seems to me like a crazy waste of resources. We should use research first, and only produce more research when that’s really needed. But to use research, we have to… guess what? Wait for it… yep, we have to read.

TBR books Jun 15We all have to read. Including me. Here’s my current TBR pile – and it’s going to grow bigger, as I’ve just finished an online shopping spree to help me catch up on some topics of interest. I’ve made a commitment to reading at least one chapter a day, six days a week. And I’m not the only person who has been thinking along these lines; yesterday @tseenster of the Research Whisperer posted in a similar vein about her commitment to read at least two journal articles a day.

I’ve been wondering for a while why people are so keen on ‘shut up and write’ sessions, yet nobody runs ‘shut up and read’ sessions. And why do we have an #acwri hashtag on Twitter, but not an #acread hashtag? If we, as researchers and writers, can’t make reading a priority, then we can’t expect other people to read our work either. And that would be a sorry state of affairs. So maybe it’s time for us all to start talking about reading, sharing what we read, and generally telling the world that reading is both important and enjoyable.

Writing, Fast and Slow

fast and slowOn Monday of last week, Pat Thomson published a very interesting post about writing fast. I don’t use the exact approach she describes (though I might, one day, now I know about it) but I do often write fast, so the post resonated with me. I was writing fast that very day, and the day after as well; Pat’s post kept flitting through my mind.

Then last Wednesday, the fourth full day of my writing retreat, I ground to a halt. I did some good thinking, and a little actual writing, but not much. I told myself I was tired – and I was: a big storm had disturbed my sleep on the Monday night, and a recurrent car alarm on the Tuesday. So I did bits and bobs at my desk, in between going out for a walk, and making food, and having a nap. But I knew, really, that the slow-down was part of my process.

I’m good at writing, and part of being good at writing is getting the words down on the screen (or the page, if you’re that way inclined). But now and again there is a day, or part of a day, when the words won’t come. This isn’t me waiting for the muse, or procrastinating, or suffering from writer’s block. Though I much prefer being productive, I know that sometimes I need to do a kind of active waiting. It’s not taking time off, it’s like what musicians do during the rests in a piece, attending closely to the pauses between notes which are as much a part of the music as any of the sounds.

Last Wednesday evening arrived, which was a relief because I could declare myself off duty, fairly sure that the words would be flowing again by next morning. I spoke to my partner on the phone, ate a cheese salad washed down with a glass of wine, and read some more of the terrific Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman-edited issue of the New Statesman. Then I retired to the sofa with a novel and a cup of cocoa, enhanced with a dash of spiced rum, and some salted caramel chocolate. All this with a gorgeous sea view. Bliss! So relaxing.

Around 9.45 pm I got up to head for bed, looked out of the window, and saw a low red moon rising from the Channel between England and France. I have no idea why ideas began to flow just then, but they did, and generated so much energy that before I knew it I was pulling on a jacket and trainers and heading out of the door, over the road, and down the steps onto the beach. The waves thundered onto the shore in rhythm with the insights thundering into my mind. I stomped towards Dungeness, then back towards Dover, shingle crunching underfoot like an army eating popcorn in synch. The moon path followed me, patient and attentive, a French lighthouse winking to its right as if to remind me not to take myself too seriously. I walked until all the ideas had settled, and felt as relieved as if I’d just had a good [insert bodily emission of your choice]. And of course the next morning I was back to working at full speed.

In his great book Thinking, Fast and Slow (which the observant reader will notice inspired the title of this post), Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman explains the difference between our fast, intuitive thinking, and slow, rational thinking. He says, ‘The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind.’ (2011:4) His central thesis is that human reasoning is flawed, and I’m sure he’s right. But I wonder whether creative thinking is rather different from rational thinking. From learning about my own writing process through several decades, I am certain that now and again I need to make time for slow, intuitive thinking. Perhaps particularly in our world of information overload, I need to make space for the silence in my mind so that the mental work can happen. Sometimes I can do this consciously, such as by booking a writing retreat, or by thinking of a writing problem as I fall asleep and trusting my silent mind to solve it overnight – which it usually does. But sometimes, like last Wednesday, my process tells me it’s time for some slow writing. In practice, that means a few hours or a day with little or no increase in the actual word count. I know from experience that if I ignore this, and try to struggle on, I just get more stuck and cross and frustrated. I’m much better off going for a walk or pottering around the house, actively waiting while the mental work happens, silently, in my mind, which I can’t hear but I can choose to trust. So, although they don’t always come at times that I would deem convenient, I’ve learned the value of my slow writing days.

Writing Retreat

writing retreatI am on a solo writing retreat, on the south coast of England. The photograph shows my workspace for this week and next. I’m in an unfashionable area so it’s comparatively cheap. I looked at Cornwall, initially, and found a sea view meant that even a studio flat would cost over £1,000 for a fortnight at this time of year. Here I’ve been able to rent a whole house for much less, and that means I can have friends to visit at the weekend which will be fun.

But from Sunday to Friday of this week, then Monday to Friday of next, I have 11 uninterrupted days to write. I know some people prefer communal writing retreats, but I’m such a compulsive communicator that if I went on one of those, I’d probably spend more time talking to people than typing words. Despite being a sociable person, I also enjoy my own company, so some solitude is a welcome change from my usual densely populated life.

There are 15 tasks on my to-do list ranging from guest blog posts to books. Of course I don’t expect to finish them all – indeed, five depend on input from other people which may or may not arrive during this fortnight. But I do expect to make significant progress with several, tick off at least three, and reach ‘next draft’ stage with at least two others.

Having a bunch of tasks to choose from helps my productivity. If I’m growing weary of one task, and losing interest, I can turn to a different challenge. And when I simply get tired of writing altogether, a little reading or a short walk will refresh my mental muscles.

rough sea picI love to write with a sea view. Some people find it distracting, but I find it relaxes me and all the space of sky and depth of sea somehow offers more room for creativity. Though today, with gales and huge waves striking the shingle shelf opposite so hard that the spray hits the second-floor window in front of me and I can feel tremors through the house where I’m sitting, it is a tad distracting at times. But I’ve ticked off the first of the items to tick off, this morning, so I’m allowing myself a little sea-gazing now and then.

I also enjoy the way in which working on one task can shed light on another, seemingly unrelated, task. There’s a feeling I experience when I’m making meaning, as if everything is connected to everything else in a myriad of beautiful ways. I can never see or know the whole, but sometimes, through the interaction of thoughts and words and being and doing, I can comprehend a little more of the pattern than usual. It is not, and will never be, within my grasp, but now and again I can almost touch it, and maybe, if I reach a little further, think more, move more… I find that sensation addictive, and it’s a big part of what keeps me writing.

I am very, very lucky to be able to give myself this space to write. It’s not often I have both the money and the time. And I wouldn’t want to work like this always, but I find it really helpful, now and again, for making a good deal of progress in a short time. So it’s both self-indulgent and productive, which is a rare combination.

Sometimes the writing is smooth and steady, sometimes words spill onto the screen as my fingers hammer the keys. Sometimes I can see my way ahead clearly, other times my view is obscured. But, like the waves, the words keep coming.