Ah yes conferences, the playgrounds of academics. You laugh but actually conferences have in my experience at least been exactly that. They have been spaces where academics work hard and play hard. Good conferences offer great papers and discussions, too much coffee and sugar and then too much rich food and alcohol to top it all off. Late nights, early mornings, not enough exercise… it is of course a recipe for disaster. Increasingly I am distancing myself from the work hard play hard thing. Don’t do anything hard! Conferences are fabulous. They offer opportunities for catching up with colleagues and friends, for lively and sometimes heated discussions, for quiet reflection on new ideas or new thoughts on old ideas. They’re an escape from the daily grind of the office. The coffee and lunch breaks as well as the evening social activities are often as much part of that, if not in some ways more important in renewing connections and helping ideas form. So yes it’s work and yes it’s play and I am not by any stretch of the imagination advocating being a saint.
However, there is also a darker side to conferences and conferencing. The crippling anxiety some academic feel before and during their paper presentations, the pure horror at having to be with other people for a significant amount of time, the pressure of being on the ball and on your game all the time, the pretense of hyper performance and the glorification of busy. Saying ‘actually I achieved everything I wanted to this summer because I decided I wanted to do fuck all and just have a proper rest’ somehow sounds and feels less acceptable than the frantic, but oh so familiar ‘oh my god I can’t believe the summer’s over, I haven’t even really started on my to do list yet’. This is bonkers.
I used to attend pretty much every session and all socials at all conferences I went to. I was often last woman standing and first woman up. I used to be able to function feeling pretty crap and hungover and usually didn’t even really notice until I got home. I don’t actually know if I can still do that but the reality is that I don’t want to. There are better ways to do the conferencing thing and get a lot out of it but also preserve sanity and health. I started editing this post yesterday. I’d actually started writing it at the conference in Mexico last year (June 2017 archive for the posts from the conference if anyone wants to have a look) but I think I have always tried to be too generic – to give advice that works for everyone and it just sounds vague and unhelpful. So I have re-written the thoughts below to focus on what it is I do, don’t do, should do, wish I did…
- We all have different conference tolerance levels that probably also change over time. Very few people can take in every session – particularly if they are packed in. Tuesday I went to one session and then had a power nap. I was sad to miss the session I missed but that’s life. It is always possible to ask for the paper or have a conversation with the presenter at a later date. Yesterday I felt pretty good so I went to all sessions – however…
- … I had too much coffee. This is a real thing at conferences for me. It is so easy to just keep drinking the stuff at every break and before you know it you had some at breakfast, before the session, after the sessions, at lunch, after the afternoon session… and I didn’t drink anywhere near enough water because I forgot my water bottle in my room. I need t carry a water bottle or I just don’t drink – possibly because I’m an idiot.
- That links nicely to food – you don’t move much if you are attending several sessions. I have liked walking from building to building at the SLS conference this week. There is something nice about those few minutes of fresh air but often you have to work much harder to achieve that. In Mexico for example everything was in the hotel and I had to make a conscious effort to go outside, breathe, make sure I actually saw some natural light. Oh hang on I was going to talk about food – yes well even though you might not move much, your brain is working bloody hard, or at least mine finds it hard! So you need fuel but you don’t need a full English breakfast, pastries, cookies, a huge plate full of sandwiches, wraps, cake, a 4 course meal….. I love a little conference indulgence and I am currently sitting in my room with a Cafe Mocha which I almost never have at home but which just feels lush on this sunny but cool morning. A little indulgence isn’t a bad thing. I now usually have whatever sweet thing is offered with morning coffee because the afternoon version is usually bigger, heavier and more likely for me to induce a complete afternoon sugar crash. Yesterday I had both and had the most awful sugar headache through the final plenary session.
- Social events – I’m not a fan of people so these used to be pretty awful unless I already knew people in which case they were marginally less awful. Now I just don’t go unless there is a specific reason to. So Tuesday night there was a dinner which I hadn’t booked for but then last minute I had the chance to catch up with a wonderful academic and friend so I got a ticket and we spent the evening hovering at the edge of the drinks reception and at dinner creating our bubble around our conversation and then I left early. I did not go to the conference dinner last night. I have a low people tolerance level. People exhaust me so conferencing all day and then playing in the evening is a huge ask and I need time out, serious time out, half an hour isn’t going to do it. There are some conferences where social events are really part of the deal or where my role requires me to be there. I adjust accordingly during the day and I make sure I know who is going
- Sleep – well I stopped writing at about 10pm last night and went to bed. That is a late night for me in general terms. I am usually ready for bed, tucked up and probably asleep by 10pm. For a conference it’s an exceptionally early night. Sleep is important but I often don’t get enough. I was wide awake at 5.30am this morning and yesterday. If I need a powernap I’ll have one
- Exercise. Like I said, its easy to hardly move at all. I like exploring places with a little run and recently I have run regularly at conferences. In Mexico I even joined the organised fun run. Not the greatest experience so today I have not joined the SLS conference fun run. I did my own thing yesterday and quite honestly, this morning I just could not be bothered. Instead I got up and played with some ideas on my paper. I may go at lunch time though but I have also learned not to see this as another thing I have to somehow squeeze in while I’m at a conference. I will do it if, and only if, I really want to
- That brings me to the last and possibly most important point – conferences can be really anxiety inducing. They can push all my buttons – the ‘am I good enough’ buttons, the lack of sleep buttons, the too much caffeine buttons, the I don’t belong here buttons, the alcohol buttons, the sugar buttons, the ‘oh my good people are hideous’ buttons, the noise buttons, the ‘here’s another bloke in a suit explaining the world to me’ buttons, the ‘I feel really stupid’ buttons and the ‘there’s all this other work I should be doing’ buttons… there are more I’m sure, I have a lot of buttons. So more and more I am learning to listen to myself and take note of rather than dismiss the early warning signs. Yep, I can function perfectly well through high levels of anxiety and even minor panic attacks. Unless you know me very well you would never know but it’s not actually much fun, or healthy. Sometimes that means doing less at a conference and missing sessions, sometimes it means being very selective about the people I spend time with and sometimes being borderline rude (sorry) and walking away. It means choosing sessions as much by who else will be in the room as by topic, it means being ok about not asking questions or making a contribution. Perhaps counter intuitively I have become quieter and am less likely to ask questions as I have become more confident in what I know and don’t know. I am ok with giving my brain more time to process and I am ok with emailing someone later if something does occur to me that I really want to talk about.
So in short, my conference self care for me is about drinking less caffeine (rubbish at it) and alcohol (pretty good at this lately and this time not drinking at all given the Great North Run at the weekend), getting enough sleep (not great at it), eating well including some conference indulgences but as with running – eat to fuel (mostly good), drinking enough water (ok as long as I remember my bottle), being aware of when I am getting to capacity and dipping in and out of things (good) and allowing time, space and activity for the adrenaline that will inevitably build up when I have to spend time with people in a work environment like this to dissipate or be burned off (pretty good).
I should also say though that actually going to conferences is a form of academic self care for me. It allows me to connect with people across the discipline(s) I work in. It gives me a check on where I am with my research and what else is going on and how what I do fits into the bigger picture. The discussions, whether formal or informal, are good for the soul and for perspective. I often find them challenging from a sanity perspective but not attending and sharing my work and listening to others would be far far worse.
SLS Day 2 commenced after a pretty poor night’s sleep. It needed to be good. Day one set the bar pretty high (oops, already used that pun on Twitter yesterday – can I get away with it twice given that it’s not quite as obvious a pun unless you read the tweet and/or my account of yesterday?). Anyway poor night’s sleep – The usual London dilemma – I had to choose between being too hot or it being too noisy. I am such a country girl, I just can’t deal with the city noise, it just really gets to me so – too hot it was. I gave up trying to sleep at 5.30am and sat up sleepily and sweaty. Given that I was already sweaty I thought I didn’t really have an excuse to not go for a run. I pulled my gear on and headed out and had a lovely little 2.5 ish mile trot out along the Regents Canal.
Breakfast was a bit meh so on the way to the first session I bought a coffee that actually looked, smelled and tasted like coffee. The first session was my random session. I always have at least one at every big conference I go to. For this one I chose the Legal History Stream which started with a paper by Ann Lyon (Plymouth) talking about ‘It Wasn’t Just About the Suffragettes. The Representation of the People Act 1918 and the Realities of Voting in the 1918 Election. I loved this paper because it combined an analysis of the Act set in its historical context with personal stories from Ann’s family. It was a lovely example of being able to touch history through those lovely family connections and thinking through what the 1918 Act would have meant for those family members. That paper was followed by one from Judith Bourne with a great presentation on Bertha Cave who applied to join Gray’s Inn in 1903. I was struck by how little we know about her as a woman and Judith pointed out how she has sort of been decontextualised and isolated from her environment with a dehumansing effect. She is known as an unsuccessful almost first woman lawyer. I found the analysis of the reasons for prohibiting women from joining the legal professions interesting too and I don’t think that these been consigned to history. The culture at the bar is one of tradition and order and strict rules based on the English class system and a specific form of masculinity. Allowing anyone from the ‘wrong’ background in threatens that order. First women, then working class folk, where will it end… Somehow this doesn’t sounds like we’re talking 100 years ago. Outsiders are indeed a little troubling, aren’t they. The third paper was by Janet Weston who looked at the history if measuring mental capacity. I was still wrapped up in the first two papers that I lost focus through this one. It was a great paper with lovely stories of those involved in mental capacity cases and I was struck by how often a lack of mental capacity had nothing to do with the person whose capacity was supposedly in question but was about protecting women from others who might take advantage of them… I wish I had kept more focused because there was so much good stuff in there.
As I walked back to the publisher exhibition area and, importantly, coffee I was reflecting on the on how fabulous it was to be able to go to random sessions and listen to things that are slightly out of my area of expertise. It allows me to think about things in a slightly different way and prompts ideas about my own work. Conferences are actually really important to improve thinking. I had a quick coffee, picked up a couple of publisher’s lists with discount codes and then headed back over to the Law building for a Practice, Profession and Ethics session. I must walk round with my eyes shut or lost in deep thought most of the time because it was on this walk over that I registered that the ‘square’ I’d now walked past at least 6 times was in fact a graveyard. I like graveyards. I wished I could linger and explore it more but the session called. For those interested it is the Novo Cemetery, a jewish cemetery and you can read all about it here. It’s somehow quite moving. On my way back after the session I looked at it from the windows of each floor of the building as I came down the stairs. It has quite a powerful pull and somehow triggered an emotional reaction before I knew anything at all about it.
The first paper in that session was presented by Caroline Gibby (co-authored with Amanda Newby and Lisa Down) and was on Integrating Professional and Ethical Contexts. There was some great stuff here about the need to keep discussions about ethics and codes of conduct separate and about the value and pitfalls of narrative pedagogy. I like the idea of teaching ethics by stealth and there are lots of ways this can possibly be done throughout the legal curriculum and in professional/clinic settings. I wonder whether we actually need to start with thinking through what sort of ethics and values teaching we do through the explict as well as the hidden curriculum and then maybe make that more explicit. I like the notion of supporting students to become confident independent thinkers. I think this might be the key to lots of things. I need to think about this more though.
Next up was Richard Collier talking about wellbeing in the legal community and focusing on the group least is known about: us; legal academics. There is so much in his paper that resonates and that links to many themes I have been thinking about. I don’t want to steal his thunder and I hope the paper is published soon but here is a very brief summary of the argument followed by some thoughts:
- The literature points to lawyers (as in practitioners) just getting by – I think this sounds familiar in terms of the academy
- We still actually know very little about the private life of university law schools but we do know some things about other areas of the academy and law schools, while possibly unique in terms of being able to withstand some of the pressures facing Higher Education generally ( and I am not that convinced that they are all that different from other disciplines), law schools are not immune to those factors
- Metrics, hyper performance and acceleration are coming together to create a menta health crisis in the (legal) academy
- There are pockets of resistance – we need to slow the university down!
- And we need to be crtical of the wellbeing movement – challenge the narrative of resilience and also of the hapiness industry.
Thoughts: I agree wholeheartedly with every single word Richard said. The marketised university creates an environment and setting where good mental health is almost impossible but where the responsibility of having and maintaining good mental health is put solely on us and when we inevitably fail on that we do so because we are not resilient enough (in my case probably because I haven’t completed my online resilience training). But resilience should surely be about crisis or particular difficulties. Resilience is not about getting through normal every day life. The problem is that we have normalised overwork, perfomance metrics and all that other crap. There were links in the paper to my work on excellence and on academic indentity and the paper also raised questions for me about what, as educators, we role model for our students. My brain is still working on this and thoughts pop in and out my head.
Lunch was, like breakfast, a bit meh. Hot food just doens’t work for these sorts of things – do decent wraps, sarnies, salad etc. Much better. Then, rather ambitiously I think, the organisers put two plenaries in the afternoon. The first was Access to Justice in Troubled Times chaired by Mr Justice Robert Knowles with contributions from Mrs Justice Maura McGowan, Dame Hazel Genn and Professor John Fitzpatrick. The rather depressing message from that session was the our justice system is falling apart, access to justice is basically non-existent for many and that law schools are not only providing invaluable service to individuals who seek advice and support in university law clinics but are basically also propping up the system, a system which Maura likened to the NHS – the bulk of the work and the most emotive work is being done by those judges working in the most difficult conditions. As Maura said in response to one of the questions- ‘in an ideal world you would not have UG students providing legal advice… but because we’re in the state we’re in, it has to work’. There may be some hope with a move to more of the work being moved online but like Hazel I am a little sceptical and like Hazel I hope the powers that be will collect or allow the collection of data that will allow the research community to fully evaluate the changes being made. We have to do better.
While the speakers were interesting I found the panel overall odd. Too much ‘men in suits talking’ at the end and the Chair was directing the questions/conversation in an odd way and limiting the audience participation which made it slightly uncmfortable to watch. I was in need of coffee. As I was walking over somone I only know from Twitter caught up with me and said hi so it was great to meet properly and we chatted over coffee and then headed to the second plenary of the afternoon. The Rule of Law in troubled times. I was flagging a little and my brain was quite full but I enjoyed all three papers even if they all over ran leaving almost no time for questions or comments at the end. I liked Renata Uits’s point that there is a key difference between Rule of Law and Rule by Law but that the line between the two is really only easy to draw with hindsight. She was talking mostly about the Polish and Hungarian context and attacks on judicial independence, a theme which Murray Hunt returned to. I think she is right in saying that the rule of law is vulnerable to abuse because it is an abstract concept that lawyers talk about and it is difficult to translate into practice, it easily slips into rule by law and constitutional engineering the like of which we are currently seeing across the world – Murray gave examples in addition to the central and eastern European examples but I have now forgotten them.
Thom Brooks spoke about the rule of law in the US and there were really no surprises there. Trump talks about support for the rule of law but only really in terms of immigration and walls and what he really means is strict law enforcement (but not against him or his friends). He quoted Bob Dreyfuss saying ‘Never before … has a president so openly challenged the legitimacy of the entire justice system’.
Throughout the plenary I was struck that this was such a legal panel. I missed the political science discussions on this which I have been able to dip into more recently attending political science events. I missed the more critical approach to terms like populism and democracy and also rule of law actually. I felt a little alien in my own discipline because I realised that we’re using the same words but mean slightly different things, or understand them differently, but that the political science meaning is more familiar to me, and more meaningful, because those are the debates I have engaged in. Maybe I’ll make a half decent politcal scientist yet.
So that was that. My brain is full. I am not going to the conference dinner (something about dinner at the Inns makes me feel deeply uncomfortable and I’m not paying a small fortune to feel deeply uncomfortable) so a quick trip to the Co-op later and I have provisions for the evening and vague ideas about just chilling out doing nothing at all – or maybe catching up on things I never get round to like sorting out this blog a bit, filing some stuff (electronically) or just reading a few of those articles I have been meaning to read for ages.
I went to a workshop in Birmingham today. More on that in another post if I can find the time to write that. For now I am writing because I need to. Because it focuses my thoughts on doing something. I left the workshop feeling a bit tired and struggling a little with this silly cold that started on Friday. Otherwise I felt fine. I walked across campus in the dark and drizzle. Fine. I got to the station and made my way down onto the platform. A little anxious. So many people. I squeezed onto the train and went right to the end of the carriage. I needed to breathe but the end of the carriage meant being boxed in. Rock and hard place.
The journey from the University to New Street Station is 7 minutes. 7 agonising minutes during which I could feel the panic building. I tried to control my breathing, I tried closing my eyes, I tried my mantras, I tried all the things I’d perfected but haven’t really had to use for such a long time. (I did have a little attack the other week but nothing compared to this). It didn’t work. I got off the train and got swallowed up by a sea of people. I must have had tears streaming because a little while later I noticed that my face was wet.
I had my phone in my hand. I wanted to call but what would I say? And I couldn’t actually lift my hand to dial or anything anyway. I just walked with the mass of people slowly up the steps, too slowly. I wanted to scream. At the top of the steps I ducked right when everyone else seemed to be going left. A tiny little space to breathe just a little. I asked Facebook for suggestions for a quiet place in Birmingham New Street to sit and breathe knowing that such a place probably doesn’t exist. I couldn’t stay where I was, the crowds were relentless.
Walking helps, walking always helps. Taking deliberate steps and breaths I walked but it didn’t help, it was too slow, too many people. I focused on the ticket barrier, went through, thought ‘out’ would be a really good idea but ‘out’ was so busy, so many people just rushing and just so many people. I froze, turned round and went back. Up, up the escalator was the current path of least resistance. I went up and saw Foyles. A bookshop. Bookshops are quiet. I dived in and walked to the back. I wondered round. My chest was so incredibly tight, breathing hurt. I found myself standing and staring at ‘teen fiction’ for a while. Slowly, slowly everything slowed. I felt less dizzy, less urgent. I looked at my phone – no suggestions.
I walked towards the front of the shop. I still had nearly an hour before my train. Everything was busy and I could feel the world speed up again as I got closer to the door. Then I realised that the middle of the floor I was on had several restaurants sort of open plan popped together. They weren’t busy. It felt a bit like the eye of a storm where it’s calm with all the craziness whirling around the outside. If I could get there I might be able to just sit there, have something better than a sarnie for my tea and breathe. I’m not sure how long I stared at the path between me and the entrance to ‘Giraffe’ but eventually I went.
I don’t remember getting there. I sat in a little booth flanked by the kitchen on one side and empty tables on the other. I ordered a salad and a smoothy, nourishing and yummy stuff although I wasn’t at all sure I could eat. Kath phoned to reassure. I was starting to feel better. But breathing hurt. My smoothie came. I closed my eyes and took a long drag on the straw which induced a coughing fit rather than the calm I was aiming for. I tried again. Now my bubble was starting to build around me. The techniques I learned in the Bradford days when panic attacks were daily occurrences were working. My salad came, I realised I was actually hungry. I sat and looked around. From here things didn’t look too scary. My world had stopped spinning.
Eventually I got the bill. I took some deep breaths and took the shortest possible route, which of course I’d worked out as soon as I sat down, to the escalators. Once at the bottom I was briefly disoriented then saw the barriers and my platform and went for it. I got down to the platform and tried to focus. I tried to shut out the world but it wasn’t working. It was too busy and the panic started again. The train took so long to arrive and just as pacing up and down didn’t seem like it was going to be enough a couple of messages came through on twitter and on messenger. The tightness started to ease just a little, just enough for me to function, get on the train, find my seat and focus on typing this. Sharing it with you.
I’m breathing ok now. I think the tightness is now mostly from my cold/cough, I don’t feel dizzy anymore. I just feel tired. Really tired. Anxiety is a bitch and today she got me. She got me without warning. I wasn’t expecting her, I wasn’t ready for her. Why should I be. She’s been AWOL for over a year or at least she’s been in the background. Now that I know she’s back she won’t get me as easily again, not with that force. Time to step up the yoga, the breathing and the running miles. The bitch might be back but I learned a thing or two last time. Bring it.