Expanding the ‘mental phone book’: unconscious bias and diversity in conference panels and edited volumes

This post originally appeared at the NYU Jordan Center blog on 3 August 2017.

Thanks to the feminist researcher and artist Saara Särmä, the blogging platform Tumblr, and some carefully-placed roundels of David Hasselhoff, the all-too-common sight of a panel or table of contents consisting entirely of male experts has had a convenient rejoinder since Särmä’s digital activism went viral in 2015: ‘Congrats – you have an all male panel!’

Särmä’s companion project, ‘Congrats – you have an all white panel!’, uses another legend of Eighties action cinema, Mr T, to call out events where – even on topics such as how to build a more democratic Europe – the picture of intellectual authority and expertise that organisers have created through their choice of speakers does not include any speakers of colour.

(Curiously – or not – the ‘All White Panels’ Tumblr gained much less traction with mainstream media such as the BBC, Time and The Guardian that helped #allmalepanels become a meme, even though Särmä had been speaking about both projects at once.)

As an academic who strives to put my first area specialism (the Yugoslav region) in a transnational and global context, and to understand how cultural imaginations of ideas like ‘conflict’ or ‘Europe’ are translated across national borders, I am frequently in the position of organising conference panels, selecting contributors for workshops, or choosing chapters for edited collections – including the volume on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR I published in 2017 – so that a team of researchers can offer more perspectives on a problem than any one expert could alone.

In fact, this is part of the work of academia I enjoy most: creating dialogues between people working on different disciplines or areas who might not have met each other, and being able to work with junior scholars launching exciting new research at the same time as senior scholars whose thinking has helped to shape mine.

But when editors operate entirely according to the shape of the field that they already take for granted, we are at risk of perpetuating the same structural inequalities that anyone with a commitment to diversity in their field would say that they are fighting against – as the journalist Stephanie Boland recently explained in comments that are as relevant to workshop organisers and volume editors as they are to editors commissioning for the press.

Boland, the Head of Digital at Prospect magazine in the UK, points out that even when editors are keen in theory to diversify their pool of contributors, unconscious bias in the heat of the moment – compounded by the factors that make the media a disproportionately middle-class and white industry – often makes them fail to live up to their own aspirations:

In the past, I’ve been in commissioning meetings where there is every good intention to end up with a diverse table of contents.

Nobody really WANTS an all-male features list – usually, there’s a bit of hand-wringing if one goes to press

But most places commission by topic more than by writer. If there’s a feature idea floating about, they go through their mental phone book

And because white people/men are more prominent in the media, and most people have some unconscious bias, the names that come up… well, you get the picture.

Waiting until the editorial meeting to correct bias doesn’t work. You’ve got to sort out our inner Rolodex.

Once you’re looking at your flatplan/book chapters/speakers list/conference program and going ‘argh, we need a woman’—you’ve already lost

Putting together a table of contents for an edited volume, or choosing who to invite to a conference panel submission, very often starts with the same kind of mental phone book.

On specialist topics, such as the work on the aesthetic and embodied practices of ‘militarization’ that is emerging as a research area in feminist security studies and International Relations, I could easily ask myself ‘Who do I know that studies X?’ and write down five or ten names that, in this case, would all belong to white women.

I would at least have avoided an #allmalepanel – but would have created yet another all white one, moreover on a topic (the normalization of ideologies behind state violence) where the situated knowledge of people who experience racism and Islamophobia is essential for understanding the politics of emotion (as Sara Ahmed names them) behind nationalism and state power.

As my own career progresses, and as I become someone with the capacity to propose and publish collections of academic work – so that I am starting to shape and define fields of inquiry, rather than just participating in them – there are topics where I start to feel as if I know ‘everyone’ in a field: we have met at conferences or shared tables of contents in other volumes, we belong to the same mailing lists or Facebook groups.

For a new volume or panel now, even where I am close enough to the centre of a topic’s academic network that I might ‘know everyone’, I want to commit myself to at least 20 per cent of the participants I choose – the equivalent of at least one panellist on a panel of five – being people I have never worked with before (and that target figure should go up, not down).

This is all the more important when the opportunity is part of an ongoing collaboration, where many participants will already have presented to each other before: diversifying the range of who is involved helps to ensure that the conversation emerging through the panel or volume will move beyond its past iterations, along new directions – thus advancing the quality of the research.

The unfortunate but necessary cost, of course, is that an editor or panel organiser cannot involve every participant from their immediate, instinctive ‘mental phone book’ every time.

Even with strategies like these, however, too many of the contributor lists for panels, volumes and issues I have organised have been all white. The two annual conventions I am most likely to attend are the Association for Slavonic, East European and Eurasian Studies and the International Studies Association. An ISA member could feasibly pledge not to appear on or organise an all-white panel in the same way that thousands of speakers in academia, business and technology have pledged not to appear on all-male panels. At ASEEES, the discipline contains so few people of colour – a situation that the Association for Diversity in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies is working to change – that, if participants made a similar pledge, far fewer panels could even be organised.

Beyond the levels of racial diversity in particular academic disciplines, moreover, other factors affect all my networks and have led to me organising all-white panels when I had tried to commit not to do so (including two panels at the ISA convention this year): the high costs of conference travel disproportionately affect people of colour, who – as a result of structural racism in academia – are more likely to be in low-paid and precarious work, and less likely to have the funds or time to travel.

The current US administration’s Islamophobic travel ban, which (first announced in January 2017) directly impedes scholars from the affected countries entering the USA and has persuaded many others, especially Muslims, not to travel, also contributed to the whiteness of our ISA panels, since after the ban was announced one participant (a South Asian woman) made the difficult decision not to attend.

At call-for-papers stage, at least, I could have chosen not to submit a panel I had organised if it turned out all white. So as not to disappoint other panellists, and because I have been excited about the opportunity to meet my colleagues, I have not yet made this choice: but, as a result, an all-white panel of mine has been selected when another panel, which might have contained more scholars of colour, therefore was not. I am still complicit in the panels’ whiteness even though I am pleased they went ahead.

Fewer structural constraints affect participation in edited volumes. Four years after beginning to plan Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR, there are still contributors I have never met, and while we did organise some related panels based on the volume (including at ASEEES 2016), developing the chapters never required the participants to gather together.

Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR involved authors based in Serbia, Germany, Britain, the USA, Canada and Hungary, and contributors who grew up in several other countries but now work abroad: and yet its table of contents, like almost every volume in Slavic and east European studies, is still all white.

If I were inviting and selecting chapters for a similar volume now, rather than in 2013, not only would there be more active researchers from underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities to approach, but I would have the benefit of four more years expanding my own mental phone book by reading outside what I initially thought of as ‘my area’ to try to answer how topics I had previously worked on (such as post-Yugoslav popular music, or the micropolitics of peacekeeping in Bosnia) had been structured by the global dynamics of race.

The effects of racism and unexamined whiteness in Slavic and East European Studies affect who chooses to enter or remain in this discipline in the first place: one panel or volume will not resolve this inequality on its own, but every panel or volume will make its contribution to the picture of diversity in the discipline that a researcher of colour forms, as they decide through their own impressions of the discipline whether it is likely to welcome them.

Editors and panel organisers in Slavic and East European studies are more likely to be conscious of ethnicity and nationality as an element of diversity than they are of race. Many specialist readers will already mentally note the balance of eastern European and non-eastern European contributors in a project, above all in gender studies, where east European scholars have often used analogies with postcolonial feminism to show how the Anglophone West has made ‘postsocialist’ Europe a periphery. Even the location where an author currently works – in the centre or the periphery of the global economy of academic knowledge production? – has a bearing, as Madina Tlostanova shows, on the politics of where intellectual authority is perceived as travelling ‘from’ and ‘to’.

(The idea of ‘coming from’ or ‘not coming from’ the region someone studies is of course a spectrum not a fence, complicated by infinite degrees of diasporic, familial and social entanglement – although some researchers, like me, are definitely not from eastern Europe no matter how one defines belonging.)

Without planning well in advance how to widen the pool of contributors I might involve in a project – and being open to the possibility that the boundaries of my theme might change as a more diverse group of contributors brings more diverse worldviews and politics to the original line of inquiry I perceived – I am much more likely as an editor to fall back on ‘unconscious’ bias and miss an opportunity to reach a better understanding of my topic as well as supporting the diversity of my field.

But the discipline will need as strong an institutional commitment to racial diversity as it has made to gender equality, and far more understanding from white scholars of all nationalities of the obstacles that scholars of colour face in Slavic and East European Studies research, to make the all white panel as uncommon as the all male panel at ASEEES.

How to write a conference abstract: a five-part plan for pitching your research at almost anything

One of the things about academic life that, when you’ve done them a lot, you start forgetting you didn’t always know how to do is writing conference abstracts.

Answering a conference’s call for papers will nearly always involve writing an abstract, or a summary of what your talk is going to be about, to a word limit the organisers have set – usually 200, 250, 300 or 500 words.

(Some may ask for other things, like a biographical note or a short CV, and some will choose papers on the abstracts alone – so make sure you know what else to send, and what word limit you’re working towards for a particular one.)

Some large conferences, like the ones scholarly associations hold in different subject areas, will ask for this almost a year in advance, which makes it even more difficult to know what to put in the abstract – since, especially if you’re a postgrad, you probably won’t yet have done the research.

I’ve probably been writing 5-6 of these things, with a success rate of more than 90%, most years since 2006, when I was in the middle of my PhD (on a topic – popular music and narratives of identity in post-Yugoslav Croatia – that followed on from my Masters, so I already had well-worked-out arguments to talk about) – most of these presentations will have needed abstracts written for them, aimed at audiences with different disciplinary and thematic interests (even the ones where I’ve been invited to give the talk, the organisers have usually asked me for an abstract so they can tell their networks what it’s going to be about).

Before I’d had to write most of these, I’d also been involved in selecting abstracts for a large postgraduate conference that a group of PhD students in my department organised in 2006 – so I’d read a whole spectrum of abstracts from stunningly clear and exciting to utterly baffling or, once or twice, so off-topic I wondered if it was meant for something else.

Smaller conferences often circulate all the speakers’ abstracts in one document before the conference or put them in registration packs; larger conferences usually make them available through their online system. Most abstracts at academic conferences that were high enough quality to be accepted have a similar structure, as you’ll probably start to see if you look through your next conference’s abstracts book.

Their purpose once they’ve been accepted is so people at the conference can work out which papers and panels they want to hear. Their first purpose, on the other hand is to persuade the organisers that they want your paper – and you – to be part of the discussion they’re having about their conference topic, in a context where they’ll almost certainly have more submissions than they can accommodate.

They don’t just want you and your research to be there – they need you and your research to be there – or that’s the impression your abstract ought to give.

The five-part structure I’m going to go through here would make sense to organisers throughout the humanities and social sciences (I’ve used it for abstracts that needed to fit into history, politics, sociology, geography, media or cultural or popular music studies, interdisciplinary area studies, anthropology, education, even conferences on topics my CV looked like I don’t study explaining why I did study them after all) – some of its principles probably apply in sciences as well, though your fields might have more formal requirements for what you put where.

This is an abstract I wrote in 2012, based on work from my postdoctoral project on translation/interpreting and peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for submission to a set of Feminist Security Studies panels at the International Studies Association conference in 2013. I’d been realising that my research about everyday intercultural encounters on military bases actually fitted in with what this expanding field of International Relations was doing, so I needed to emphasise topics that field was talking about (peace support operations) and concepts and approaches that the organisers would recognise as relevant (power and, since this was a feminist strand, above all gender).

Here’s the abstract, and then we’ll go through how each part works:

Gender, translation/interpreting, and the exercise of power in peace support operations
Dr Catherine Baker
University of Hull

Ethnographic perspectives on peace support operations invite us to view their  activities, and thus their exercise of power, as constituted by multiple acts of written and spoken communication between agents of foreign intervention and local people and institutions within the sites of intervention (Pouligny, 2006; Rubinstein, 2008; Higate and Henry, 2009). Yet since most military personnel in most interventions rarely speak the language(s) of their destination, this power rests in fact on multiple acts of translation and interpreting. To fully understand this dimension of international security we must therefore understand the experiences and positionalities of language intermediaries, not just of foreign military actors. Reflecting on 52 semi-structured interviews with foreign soldiers and locally-recruited interpreters collected during a project on peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, this paper suggests ways in which language and translation/identity are embodied, exploring nationality, ethnicity, military/civilian status and, primarily, gender. How did the discursive gendering of language and translation/interpreting structure recruitment and employment practices for language intermediaries? How did male interpreters negotiate the feminisation of their role? And how did the feminisation of translation/interpreting intersect with what has been perceived (with problematic essentialism) as a wider conceptual feminisation of contemporary militaries through peace support?

Here’s a model of the structure I mocked up for historian Stephanie McKellop when she was asking about abstract-writing advice on Twitter today:


Let’s take each of those sections in turn.

Step 1: start with the current state of knowledge in the field you’re engaging with. What do we think we know? (What you put here is also a bit of a performance of who you think ‘we’ are, for the purposes of joining this conversation.)

Ethnographic perspectives on peace support operations invite us to view their  activities, and thus their exercise of power, as constituted by multiple acts of written and spoken communication between agents of foreign intervention and local people and institutions within the sites of intervention (Pouligny, 2006; Rubinstein, 2008; Higate and Henry, 2009).

Here I’m making a point that had already been well established by recent literature on peacekeeping and peacebuilding: all these operations achieve what they achieve because they happen on an everyday level, and all these interactions are made up of acts of communication.

I’ve even referred to some recent academic works that have contributed to showing that. I cite them in a way that suggests I’m familiar with them and I think the organisers and audience will be too – don’t overuse this, but it’s another way to signal that this presentation would be contributing to a conversation that’s already going on. (And yes, I’ve used author-date referencing; sorry, humanities. Footnotes in conference abstracts don’t work well.[1])

I could add a first line with a really eye-catching detail that expresses the point I’m making as Step 1, but either I couldn’t pick one or the word limit was too short, so…

Step 2: move the narrative forward: something is WRONG with what we think we know.

Yet since most military personnel in most interventions rarely speak the language(s) of their destination, this power rests in fact on multiple acts of translation and interpreting.

All this (brilliant, valuable) work on the everyday politics of peacekeeping has missed something super important: language, translation and interpreting. (Words like ‘yet’ and ‘in fact’ are your signals here for showing that the argument is changing course.)

Suddenly we have a problem that needs solving. Narrative tension!

Luckily, someone’s just done some research about that…

Step 3: offering a solution.

To fully understand this dimension of international security we must therefore understand the experiences and positionalities of language intermediaries, not just of foreign military actors.

Here, I’m pointing to what I think can resolve the problem: accounting for language intermediaries (translators and interpreters) as well as foreign peacekeepers themselves. It isn’t perfect (for one thing, there’s a clunky repetition that I should have caught), but in using phrases like ‘to fully understand…’ it signals that it’s about what we can do to overcome whatever Step 2 is. The narrative moves forward again.

I’m benefiting in this particular Step 3 from having two feet in different disciplines. There’s a well-known idea in Translation Studies of ‘the invisibility of the translator’ (thanks, Lawrence Venuti), which had motivated not just me but also the senior academics who designed the project to research language intermediaries in war and conflict in the first place. Taken into other settings where people don’t talk about the invisibility of the translator so much, it’s one of those ideas that can stop people and make them say ‘oh, of course’ – which is exactly the kind of feedback I got after I gave this talk.

Even if your research doesn’t have this kind of background, though, there’s still something about the concepts, theory or literature that you use which will help cut through the problem you posed in Step 2 – and that’s part of what makes your research original.

(Remember that you’re much more used to the material you draw on most closely than most of your audience will be – what seems to go without saying for you now you’ve been reading about it for months or years can seem much more original to an audience who hasn’t.)

So what are we going to do about this? The next step tells them.

Step 4: methodology. What did you do (or what will you have done by the time the presentation happens) to solve the problem like you said you would?

Reflecting on 52 semi-structured interviews with foreign soldiers and locally-recruited interpreters collected during a project on peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina,

This is where your research volunteers as tribute. Summarising your methodology (was it interview-based? archival? creative? quantitative? What sources and data did you use?) shows that the findings from the research will be rigorous, and produce the kind of knowledge that the audience expects – or maybe the kind of knowledge that the audience doesn’t expect, because their methodologies have been too limited all along as well.

This was quite familiar methodology for my audience, so I didn’t spend much time on it – really just to specify the size of my collection of material, and something of the scope.

If you’re doing something unconventional with methodology, like Saara Sarma who uses collages of internet images to expand the boundaries of how International Relations experts think about world politics, you’ll want to spend relatively longer here. It’ll need more explanation, but it’s also one of your biggest selling points, so make sure you’re telling a strong story about that throughout the abstract: it’ll grab the organisers’ attention, but they’ll also want to know how the innovative thing you’re doing fits into or changes something about a field that doesn’t normally do that, and if you don’t make this clear you’re depending on how well or willing they’ll be to extrapolate from what they are able to see.

This may well be the hardest part of the abstract to write if the conference is many months away. Don’t worry if some things about your methods, sources or data change between now and then; conference audiences are used to that, and explaining why that happened can often become part of the talk.

By now the narrative’s really moving along. There was a problem; you Did The Thing; and now we’re somewhere different than we were before.

Step 5: RESOLUTION. We got there!

this paper suggests ways in which language and translation/identity are embodied, exploring nationality, ethnicity, military/civilian status and, primarily, gender. How did the discursive gendering of language and translation/interpreting structure recruitment and employment practices for language intermediaries? How did male interpreters negotiate the feminisation of their role? And how did the feminisation of translation/interpreting intersect with what has been perceived (with problematic essentialism) as a wider conceptual feminisation of contemporary militaries through peace support?

This is your hypothesis or conclusion, depending on what stage the research is at – either what you expect to find, or what you found. Frame it in a way which shows the reader what you’re contributing, in a way that resonates with what already matters to them because of what field they’re in.

Here, for instance, I’ve made some suggestions why gendered perceptions of translation and interpreting could tell us something about wider issues feminists and International Relations researchers would be interested in (gender inequalities in employment and the military; experiences of men working in jobs that are usually gendered feminine; an ongoing debate about how far peacekeeping might have been changing the gender politics of international security itself).

This part could have been a lot better: it ought to end in a more emphatic sentence, rather than a question, about how this research will change the part of the field you’ve seen that it could change. It still did enough to get the abstract accepted, because Steps 1 to 4 had made a compelling and original case – and it also gave me the basic structure for my talk.

You can use this structure to pitch almost any piece of research for almost any conference – once you’ve worked out what story it can tell.

[1] Unless, of course, you’re writing an abstract in a field where you’ve already seen a lot of other conference abstracts that look like that.

Introducing the intro text: why I’ve written an introduction to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s

Since 2013 I’ve been working on a new kind of book project for me: an introductory text on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, which I spent most of 2014 working on intensively and which is now due for publication later this year. (Indeed, it’s close enough that the publishers have been showing me options for the cover design; I’m happy with the one we’ve chosen, and am hoping it’ll be going public very soon.)

The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s will be very different to my previous two books (a research monograph on popular music and struggles over national identity in post-Yugoslav Croatia, and a co-authored monograph on translation/interpreting and peacekeeping during and after the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina). Firstly, it’ll be going straight into paperback, meaning there’s a good chance more of its potential readers will actually read it.

Secondly, it puts me in a very different relationship to its subject matter; Sounds of the Borderland and Interpreting the Peace were both the result of multi-year research projects after which I was the only person (or with Interpreting the Peace part of the only team) to have been able to write those books that way. With this book, on the other hand, several dozen scholars would have the subject knowledge to be able to write a book fitting the general remit I had when I began the project: a 50,000-word book aimed at a reader who is new to the topic and which fits into a series that puts ‘a strong emphasis on the different perspectives from which familiar events can be seen’.

(And it’s the right time to be doing a book like this; despite the volume of new research that continues to be published about the wars and their consequences, it’s still hard to find an up-to-date book to recommend to a reader who is new to the subject that will help to open up all the other books for them.)

Why should I do this, then, rather than anyone else?

In a post last year I talked about some of the micro-level decisions I was having to make while I was writing the book – choices, for instance, about organising events into a narrative, imposing an order on events by breaking them up into chapters and periods, making sure the reader can understand what’s at stake in essentialist or anti-essentialist representations of nationalism and ethnicity, and trying to make visible what truth claims are based on. I hope some of those thought processes will still be visible in the text (I wish I could have worked meta-commentary on my own narrativisation into the book in a much more structured way, but just didn’t have the word count to do it).

I set myself three objectives at the beginning of the writing process, which I think I have fulfilled – though ultimately the people who read and (I hope) use the book will be the judges of that.

First of all, I wanted it to help the reader understand research that is happening right now. The last few years have seen a new wave of archival studies about the core history of the wars, such as Josip Glaurdić’s The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia or Robert Donia’s new biography of Radovan Karadžić, but also research that has been trying to expand the angles from which historians and other scholars might look at the wars (such as Bojan Bilić and Vesna Janković’s important edited volume, Resisting the Evil: (Post-)Yugoslav Anti-War Contention), not to mention work that takes a position on the longer-term human consequences of the wars and the collapse of Yugoslav socialism (for instance, Damir Arsenijević’s edited volume Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Fight for the Commons, which was published earlier this year in response to the Bosnian ‘plenum’ protests of 2014).

Another objective was for the writing to show the reader how scholars make interventions into fields of knowledge, by giving some examples of how authors have set out to reinterpret or reassess elements of the histories of the wars. And a third – which perhaps can’t be entirely disentangled from the second – is to make explicit to the reader that their own beliefs and values are going to form part of how they (or the authors of any of the books in the bibliography, or me) go about interpreting and evaluating the events.

The book has eight chapters, beginning with a chapter on the long-term historical background to the wars, then chapters that cover the ‘1980s crisis’ in Yugoslavia; the independence of Slovenia and Croatia; the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and the Kosovo War plus its implications for Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia as well as Kosovo. (Already that’s slipping the boundaries of the 1990s – but then I’m a ‘lecturer in 20th century history’ whose research regularly ends up going into the 2010s…)

The last chapters (which are also informed by the teaching and research I’ve done in different disciplines) introduce ways in which the consequences of the conflicts have been researched and show how these research questions can feed back into understanding the 1990s: from debates over peacebuilding and reconciliation, through the prosecution of war crimes (an activity which has itself helped to shape historical knowledge about the recent past), into the cultural and linguistic legacies of the wars.

The long-term chapter was almost the most challenging part of the book to write, and the one that’s changed most dramatically since the first draft of the text (where it was twice as long, and much more detailed bibliographically – but when the full draft of the book started pushing 75,000 words in September, I had to accept that the first chapter couldn’t stay that way without pushing out another chapter later on).

I say ‘almost’ the most challenging part of the book because the most difficult – appropriately, perhaps – was the conclusion. Within 1,500 or so words – because the book length in this series just wouldn’t give me any space for war – I had both to sum up an account of the conflicts that I found most convincing and to show the reader the approach to historical narrative that the book had taken.

At times I wasn’t sure if I’d even improved on David Campbell’s classic review article ‘MetaBosnia‘ from 1998, which compared how ten works written in the mid-1990s had presented 32 political events that took place between 1990 and 1992 in Bosnia-Herzegovina; I hadn’t even been able to get into Campbell’s level of detail, or the level of detail that (with quite a different philosophy of knowledge) Sabrina Ramet was able to employ in her 2005 book about academic interpretations of the wars.

Moreover, as someone who aims to deconstruct notions of collective identity and narratives based on them, I need – like every other scholar in this area – to balance that against the responsibility of writing about real lives and deaths.

Ultimately, this needs to be a book which equips the reader to read more books, rather than being the first and last thing that anyone should read. This is not supposed to be even close to the final word on the Yugoslav wars, and indeed the format of the series precludes it from being that – which is one of the reasons I felt comfortable taking up the opportunity to write it at all. (It could however help open up discussion on how we teach, and how we might teach, the history of the wars from the point of view of two decades later – something that there’s a lot more scope to think about than I could cover here.) Mainly, it’s the book I’ve wanted to recommend as a starting point but which didn’t previously exist – which is usually a good reason to write anything…

Beyond ‘productivity’ in academic writing: or, what I did on my bank holidays

I could write this as a post about drafting three articles in four or five weeks. But actually they take a lot longer than that.

I have, nevertheless, found myself writing up three papers about very different things since the end of April. Late spring and early summer have ended up being my main conference season this year, so there would always have been some deadlines to meet in any case, but then I also agreed to join in a couple of collective efforts where my perspective could be useful, and then the whole thing turns into a game of deadline whack-a-mole, especially with student feedback and assessment on top.

One of the things I enjoy about my research profile as it’s developed is its versatility: when I can switch between different subjects quickly, I feel on top of my game, and it also creates a greater number of interesting modules I can teach than would have been the case if I’d stuck with just one strand of it. Although I work in a history department, I’ve also been part of a social sciences team, and my departmental base for research but not teaching in another institution was in Modern Languages. My regional focus is mainly south-east Europe and foreign interactions with the region, but I’m also finding more things to say about Britain, some of which I’m going to start to test in conference format after using blogging to explore them originally.

Hopefully, all three of these pieces will end up as journal articles, and depending on submission dates and the review process would be published in 2014 or 2015. For a UK academic, that’s good news, since 2014 marks the start of the next ‘REF period’, in which we all need to have four eligible publications of as high a quality as possible ready for the next Research Excellence Framework evaluation in 2020. 2020 is much too far away for me to know whether any of these three articles would be part of my REF submission (and that’s assuming that the REF would materialise in the form we expect it to), but keeping up a steady publication rate – something I’ve been doing since before I knew I was going to be working in higher education on an ongoing basis – removes pressure near the end of the ‘REF cycle’ to write something, anything.

The first piece is a paper on representations of the Balkans in the film adaptation of Coriolanus that Ralph Fiennes filmed in Serbia-Montenegro a few years ago (this link is to a detailed ‘idea map’ about the making of the film by Molli Amoli K Shinhat, which she told me about after I’d posted about the paper on Twitter). The look of the film draws heavily on news images from the Yugoslav wars, and even includes some archive footage from the wars themselves. Even though the director has billed it as a setting that ‘could be anywhere’, I’m arguing that the film depends on prior knowledge of the Balkans (or what viewers think they know about the Balkans) in order for it to make sense.

I wrote this for the International Feminist Journal of Politics conference earlier this month, which turned out to be an excellent place to give it, but I’ve had the idea since talking about the film with a historian friend during a conference in Denmark last year. Teaching on our department’s ‘Representing the Past in Film’ module, which I’ve been doing since October, also moved this paper up my priority list, although I’m not sure I’d use it if I was going to contribute to a film block in the module, except perhaps as part of something larger about place and space. Originally I thought I’d just write up a summary for the IFJP conference, with the intention of going back and expanding it later; as I started filling out the outline, though, I realised it was ready to draft in more or less its full form (apart from some material on Western identification with Rome that still needs to be added). That’s probably a sign it was ready to write in the first place.

The other two have needed a lot more preparatory work because, in one way or another, they were challenging me to engage with concepts I haven’t used before (which is part of the reason I wanted to do them). The second paper follows on from a conference paper I gave last December at an excellent workshop on ‘bringing class back in’ to the study of Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslavia, where I was talking about how far it’s possible to think of the local employees of international organisations in the region (including, but not limited to, interpreters for peacekeeping forces) as a distinctive socio-economic group. As a result of some discussions during and after the workshop, a research cluster asked me to be part of a special issue on their research theme. The struggle here was finding fresh data, and rather than referring primarily to interviews (which would have duplicated something else I was already working on), I ended up using two fictionalised memoirs by former interpreters as ways of opening up the wider issues that I wanted to talk about. I haven’t had the feedback on this paper yet (it’s likely to be coming in a couple of weeks), so still not sure how much more work it needs.

The third paper has put me through the most difficult writing process that I’ve had for several years. It’s supposed to be about various levels of collective identity in the study of post-Yugoslav popular music, and is intended for a music-focused special issue of an area studies journal. I’ve hit a series of obstacles in planning the article, going back to what now seems like a uselessly vague abstract I wrote last December, or even further back to thinking I could base it around a conference paper I gave last January when I already wasn’t fully engaged with the material I was talking about then, as well as my difficulties with a recent theoretical framework that I was supposed to be engaging with over the course of the paper. The breakthrough came partly through reading several unconnected books that seemed to work well with each other, but also through realising why I was having such serious problems understanding that framework (basically, my methodology, and quite possibly my mind, just doesn’t work like that – and then I could begin developing an argument underpinned by the reasons why it didn’t work like that). The paper has ended up being about the relationship between different collective identities than I thought it was going to be about – using data I was reminded of when I started setting up my music and politics web resource – and, as I write this, the issue editor hasn’t yet seen it, but I’m very glad we at least have something to revise…

None of these are large-scale projects, but I wouldn’t want to think of them as tangents either. There’s one on popular music, one on the international-organisation sector, and one on foreign interactions with south-east Europe, which is quite a good representation of my research interests. They also give a fair idea of how I tend to come up with publications. Nearly everything I’ve written as an academic output has started out as a conference paper; my first four articles were all part of special sections or issues based on the conference panel I’ve been part of. Although publishing too much in special issues can have drawbacks, I probably wouldn’t be publishing now if not for them. In particular, I owe a lot of my confidence in publishing my work to Denisa Kostovicova and Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic, who organised a conference on ‘transnationalism in the Balkans’ in 2004 and asked me to contribute my paper on popular music, which extended some of my Masters dissertation, to a special issue of Ethnopolitics based on the conference. (After various revisions, and some adventures in typesetting, the paper became this article in 2006.) Apart from a postgraduate workshop in Dubrovnik, this was the first time I’d presented a paper, and to have a benchmark for what publishable quality actually meant gave me something to aim towards with the 3-4 articles I spun off from my PhD.

(The Dubrovnik workshop is probably why I’m usually not too anxious about verbally presenting papers. Not many things about communicating research can be more nerve-wracking than presenting in a second language you’re still not very fluent in, in front of an eminent historian who also used to be the chief secretary of the Serbian Communist Party.)

These days, as I’m able to attend more conferences and as my networks have grown, the workflow often looks more like: conference where I was doing something else -> idea -> paper -> maybe a conference or two to try it out -> submission and publication -> thinking about something I didn’t quite manage to develop in the paper, which may lead me on to another idea in due course.

There are reasons why I’m able to work at this pace, and not all of them are very comfortable to talk about. Some of them are to do with my research always having been interdisciplinary, so that several academic audiences are equally important to me, and I don’t feel intimidated in adding new ones when I become conscious that I want to address them. This year, in the first year of my new post, I’ve had a reduced teaching load; my assessment load in May has been smaller than it would be otherwise, and the two bank holidays that happen to fall this month have been perfect for pushing on with difficult writing tasks. But also, I wasn’t self-funding a PhD, trying to find time for academic writing while researching part-time, working full-time hours in another job to keep up, or out of work at a time when I should have been building my post-doctoral publication record. I don’t have caring responsibilities or any emotional pressure to be home from work ‘on time’. I started my research trajectory when junior researchers didn’t have to compete for funding in order to pay the author fees for publishing in what their academic judgement told them was the most appropriate journal – and my reservation here isn’t so much ‘What if I wouldn’t have won the funding?’ but ‘How could I have been comfortable publishing what I wanted to publish and knowing that I was doing it at the expense of others who didn’t win?’

Even though I found the months between the end of my full-time contract in 2011 and being offered my current job in 2012 stressful, I still hit a lot of the privilege indicators Melonie Fullick flags up in this post on academic careers. Essentially, I get to play on a much easier difficulty setting.

So it’s my responsibility to turn this productivity into something more than a good publication record and personal benefit – and more so than ever, now that the stress of whether I’m going to find a job, and what kind of job I’m going to find, is gone. I need to keep making sure that the new ideas I work on refresh my teaching. I need to work on making my research accessible to publics outside higher education, not just in terms of ensuring that others can read the publications but also in communicating the ideas in different forms (one of the reasons I blog about Eurovision in May). Now that I’m in a post where I’m able to design projects over a longer space of time, I also need to conceive of research with public engagement built much more closely into it than I’ve done before. None of this is something I should do for my own sake.

And it all takes a lot longer than a week or two.

A small blogging milestone, or, what is this all for?

This blog hit a small milestone in January: the first time it received more than 1,000 visits in a month. Compared to much more frequent bloggers, institutional group blogs, or bloggers on the platform of a publication with its own audience, that doesn’t account for very much, but for an individual blog that still contains only thirty posts I’m still quite happy with it.

A lot of the hits this month came from a post on feminism and academic language that I wrote during the Suzanne Moore/Julie Burchill transphobia controversy. I’ve never had a post be shared so widely or for so long as this was, even though the posting time (early evening on a Sunday) broke all the rules I generally go by about the optimum time for posting blogs so that they get read (lunchtime or early afternoon on a weekday, with a follow-up on Twitter to catch evening and transatlantic readers).

This post had 400 readers in its first two days, was shared on some blogs and forums that I’d never heard of as well as by more Twitter followers than any other post of mine, and can still bring in a ‘long tail’ of 10-20 users on one day or another. It almost broke my record for hits in a day, and might have done if I’d posted it earlier. That record (353) still belongs to my post on the Olympic opening ceremony, which I wrote the very next morning and which benefited from lots of internet searches for elements of the ceremony from people trying to work out just what had been going on. The blog had 982 visits in July 2012, a record until last month. More interestingly, something started happening in July that has led to a long-term increase in reader and visitor numbers: before July 2012, I’d only had one month when the blog had had more than 500 hits (May 2012, when I’d written a series of posts on the politics of the Eurovision Song Contest), whereas since July 2012 every single month has had 600 hits (all right, 591) or up.

Maybe my Olympics posts in July brought in an audience who hadn’t been reading about cultural politics, languages and the military, or teaching practice, but who stayed around. (I did have a big bounce in Twitter followers and retweets after the opening ceremony post.) Also, though, I think the responses I had to my blogging in July must have started altering my sense of what I could use a blog for. Many of my posts in the rest of 2012 were about aspects of British public memory, national identity and remembrance. I’ve never researched these in the sense of having written academic articles or research proposals about them, but I have a lot of experience writing about the same themes in another society, and blogging has made me feel as if I do have something interesting to say.

(I used the Olympic opening ceremony as the basis for a taster seminar on national identity and public events during an Excellence Hub event that we organised at Hull last year for local sixth-formers who are doing History A level. Afterwards, one of their teachers asked me whether this was something they could do a module on. And, well, I’m working on it…)

In the long term, this may even end up adding to my academic publication strategy, as well as the ways that I engage with people through other forms of communication. In the Research Excellence Framework (the national evaluation of university research in the UK), 20% of a department’s score is based on ‘impact‘, or ways in which research has changed or benefited the economy, society, culture, policy or quality of life, in sectors outside academia. To get credit for ‘impact’, there must be a demonstrable link between the effect achieved and an academic publication. It’s not enough to have talked generally about the Eurovision Song Contest, let’s say; I’d also have to demonstrate that a research article or book of mine on the Eurovision Song Contest had an identifiable, impact-y effect. (In this case, luckily, I have one, but I would still need evidence that somebody referred to it and it then inspired or altered their actions.) So if there are topics I have the potential to be influential on, I ought to make sure – at least for the purposes of this evaluation exercise – that I have a piece of academic research published about them too. I might not have identified some of these possibilities if not for blogging.

The Journal of Victorian Culture‘s online arm recently ran an excellent blog post by Naomi Lloyd-Jones on ‘how to be a #socialmediahistorian’. (I don’t research the Victorian era, but I consistently find JoVC‘s posts engaging, which is a sign they’re doing it well.) I can only agree with her conclusions about why historians and other researchers can find social media platforms so useful:

Being a #twitterstorian is a brilliant springboard for wider work as a #socialmediahistorian. And, in an era when ‘presence’ is about far more than just attendance at conferences, being a #socialmediahistorian is becoming increasingly vital in constructing a well-rounded persona, and visibility, for oneself.

The biggest money-spinner in the western world

Academic publishing is the biggest money-spinner in the western world, according to a provocative column by the Guardian environmentalist George Monbiot.

Monbiot, like his Guardian colleague Ben Goldacre of Bad Science, uses academic research to support his arguments and likes to direct readers to the original sources. Usually, these are articles in subscription-only journals published by conglomerates like Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell or Taylor & Francis (the journals arm of Routledge). Access rates can run into three figures for an individual yearly subscription covering 4-10 issues a year; viewing one article from one issue without a subscription is likely to cost £20-30, and the digital copy may not even be permanent.

So what’s the point if the general reader can’t access them, Monbiot writes today:

It’s bad enough for academics, it’s worse for the laity. I refer readers to peer-reviewed papers, on the principle that claims should be followed to their sources. The readers tell me that they can’t afford to judge for themselves whether or not I have represented the research fairly. Independent researchers who try to inform themselves about important scientific issues have to fork out thousands. This is a tax on education, a stifling of the public mind. It appears to contravene the universal declaration of human rights, which says that “everyone has the right freely to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits”.

One of the comments on his article, a contributor to the Guardian comment blog, suggests that journal subscriptions are getting in the way of academic research having public impact:

In my occasional forays into writing for CiF and elsewhere, I’ve often wanted to refer to academic articles. If I were to pay for just two or three of them, I would literally be working at a loss. Because I’m not attached to a university, I can’t even get free access to most of them in person.

The day Monbiot’s column appeared, the price of articles became the topic of the day in the higher education Twittersphere, with responses pointing towards blueprints for transforming academic publishing through open access and social media and (in the contrarian corner) reasons why publishers’ profit motive supports innovation and counterbalances risk-averse peer reviewers, plus a reminder that Canadian universities are involved in a related struggle with copyright clearing houses.

Most journals are published by commercial publishers and charge for access. Open access journals which make their content freely available online from the beginning are usually smaller and operated by academics or institutions themselves (two examples are Anthropology Matters, a journal set up through the Association of Social Anthropologists postgraduate network, and Narodna umjetnost, the bilingual journal of the Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb). However rigorous their peer review, they are rarely considered as prestigious as Anglophone academia’s established ‘top’ journals.

Researchers regularly complain to each other about journal access fees – though the strain is greater on librarians, whose budgets may not let them take out a new institutional subscription unless they drop an old one. As funding is cut, academics shouldn’t expect to take even the current subscriptions for granted.

I run into journal paywalls several times a month, even at a well-resourced university. Last week, it happened with recent issues of one of the top-ranked International Relations journals, Security Dialogue; not perfect, when you write about international intervention.

I can use British Library Direct to buy a DRM-restricted PDF of the article at less than the publisher charges (or at least I could; the landing page was full of 404 errors when I tried to confirm pricing for this post).

I can email the author for a copy and hope it isn’t computer failure day, sabbatical time or maternity leave. (Not much use if, say, I’m researching a paper on postsocialism and the author is Daphne Berdahl, an authority on postsocialist East Germany. Berdahl died in 2007, so independent scholars won’t be reading her articles on nostalgia and consumption any time soon.)

What I’ll probably do, if the article is marginal, is just end up citing someone else.

If I transfer a syllabus to a new institution, I need to look up the journal readings again to check whether students will have access to them through e-journal subscriptions and the VLE for the module or whether I will need to bring in 25 print-outs of an important article.

It’s better than it used to be. Research councils like the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which funds my current project, expect that any work they fund will eventually be made publicly accessible. Journal publishers now ask for a period of exclusivity, usually 18 months, before authors can make articles public through an institutional repository of ‘e-prints’ or a self-archive (the searchable SHERPA/RoMEO database helps you check journals’ policy on self-archiving).

E-prints repositories are getting better, but still don’t work perfectly. The e-prints of my own articles are spread between the institution where I did my PhD and the institution where I’ve worked since 2008. I could bring them together by listing them on academia.edu (a social network for academics I’ve hardly used as yet) and hosting them on the document sharing site Scribd. I could upload them to a discipline-specific repository like the new Social Science Open Access Repository, and hope that it lasts longer than the anthropology repository Mana’o, which shut down after prolonged technical problems in 2009.

One anthropologist I know has a departmental web page, with links to pages for his publications on the e-prints server, and a personal web page, where you can download the same publications as PDFs by clicking on a direct hyperlink.  Guess which link I give out to my students?

It’s academics’ own scholarly practices that give academic journals their status. Journal articles go through peer review (but that’s not what costs money, since peer reviewers, like article authors and many journal editors, work for free).  That’s institutionalised in evaluations such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, which doesn’t recognise book chapters (papers submitted to be chapters in edited volumes) and makes authors rush to submit to journals in 2011-12 so that their article can pass review and be published by the REF deadline of October 2013.

The modularity of research tools such as Google Scholar and Mendeley work against the book chapter, since they can easily retrieve articles’ metadata (and sometimes text, if you’re logged in through a university) and make them much more visible in the researcher’s information universe.  Working on an interdisciplinary project, it can become less relevant what journal an article is published in, more relevant how high it comes in a Google Scholar keyword search.

If the system is broken, though, it might get worse.

One model for commercial open access publishing is the ‘author-pays’ open access model being introduced by at least two journal publishers, Springer and Maney. Springer’s new suite of fully ‘open’ science, technology and medical (STM) journals charge ‘article processing fees’ of £475-£1310 (with institutional membership options and waivers for low-income countries), and its OpenChoice option to publish an article in other Springer journals as open access costs €2000.

OpenChoice at Maney costs £1250 for STM journals and £500 in humanities, with a long article surcharge ‘in recognition of the fact that many humanities papers can be lengthy in their final published extent’.

In an academic publishing world dominated by author-pays OA, researchers would have to cost publication fees into their grant applications – and ensure the article was published during the period of the grant. Rich departments might choose to support publication for some or all of their staff members; unaffiliated researchers, and academics working in poorly-funded departments who hadn’t won an external ‘big bid’ for their research, would find publication much more difficult. (Yet another way to transfer risk on to the individual.)

Full author-pays OA would even prevent researchers from overshooting publication targets the way that my colleagues on my current (research-council-funded) project have happily been doing. Even from a corporate managerialist perspective, that must seem like a bad move.

Maybe future researchers will need to think in terms of writing two ‘outputs’ per article idea – one for the subscription-only audience and one for public engagements. A few months ago I submitted an article to a journal that’s also associated with a website that addresses the wider public, and I certainly have that in mind – as long as I can find suitable royalty-free images, which should be a post in itself.

In the meantime, the low-tech solution wins out, as @DrTomFlynn tweeted during a discussion of the Monbiot column this morning: ‘@georgemonbiot’s article about publishing misses one vital fact: ask any academic, and they’ll send you it for free’. (Apart from Daphne Berdahl, I suppose. Do we need to be appointing literary executors for ourselves?)

The biggest money-spinner in the western world, though? I used to work in an office supplies retailer; so sit down, and let’s talk about inkjet cartridges…