Cultural studies and obsolescence

Posted on | April 22, 2009 | 36 Comments

Last night, along with a few other cultural studies scholars in Sydney, I was invited to meet the new CSAA President, Amanda Third. The idea was to “think out loud about the fact no-one has come forward to hold this year’s CSAA conference” and to see what people are thinking about “the CSAA version of CS at the minute”.

Since establishing itself in 1990, the CSAA has run an annual conference in various cities around the country, as well as Christchurch, New Zealand, since the official name change to incorporate “Australasia”. From my understanding, this makes the CSAA the longest running cultural studies association worldwide, so it’s a shame that the current scenario has emerged, although it does point to questions a number of prominent scholars are raising about the ongoing utility of the term.

Various justifications and explanations were given for the lack of volunteers for holding the conference this year, including

– administrative changes to institutional groupings at various universities (cultural studies departments, divisions and courses are on the decline almost everywhere except where I work)

– arguments about cultural studies and its connotations, particularly due to media coverage during the “culture wars”

– what cultural studies means in contrast to “cultural research” – and the impact of the ARC Cultural Research Network on conference attendance in recent years

There were also wider issues, such as how the economic climate affects university funding prospects, and a general lack of time and incentive for potential organisers.

Nothing was said that explicitly addressed whether the quality of the conference is an issue in whether people want to come, or what exactly the association stands for beyond the conference itself.

The Professors who attended agreed that it was a shame that the CSAA wouldn’t be held “because of what it offers postgrads” and junior scholars.

This made me wonder, has anyone actually asked postgrads and early career researchers whether they value this annual conference? What do postgraduates and recent PhD graduates of cultural studies think about the fate of the CSAA?

From talking to some of my peers in recent weeks–those who, even when they have graduated with cultural studies PhDs, face limited prospects of ongoing employment in their field of qualification–it seems little wonder that there is a lack of interest in the association, since it has done very little to prepare graduates for this reality.

But, since there wasn’t much opportunity to say this last night, and since the invitation was only extended to a small group of people, I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts on whether there are factors contributing to the CSAA’s current situation. If this blog is read by anyone, I figure it is people who have some opinions on cultural studies 🙂

So, do you think Australian cultural studies is obsolete as a movement? What should happen to the annual conference? And if you are an early career researcher, what should the CSAA do to make itself useful for you? Are there other conferences and disciplines that matter more?


36 Responses to “Cultural studies and obsolescence”

  1. Catherine Driscoll
    April 22nd, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    God you really trapped me on this one, right?

    No, I don’t think CS is in any way obsolete. I don’t even think that pgs with CS specialisation are finding it that hard to get jobs, compared to other Hum&SocSci areas.

    What I think about the CSAA is not the same thing and one of the problems, I think, is that it’s far too easy for me to separate them. That is, the CSAA certainly did once position itself as speaking for and about CS in Australia but I think it has become just another annual conference. That’s fine in a way. I mean, we once needed a ‘what the hell is CS’ voice in a way we don’t need now because some identity for it is now presumed (even if versions of what it is often don’t agree). And god knows people who are sick of navel-gazing about the state of the discipline have a point. But if that’s going to be what the CSAA is – an annual conference – then it needs to be a bloody excellent annual conference that speaks to a broad CS constituency and is capable of being both foundational and provocative.

    There. If I’d gone, that’s what I would have said.

    As for the conference I think there should be one and, as I said to both you and Anna, I’m happy for USyd to do it in 2010 or 2011 it just wasn’t possible for practical reasons in 2009.

    Oh, a PS provocation of my own – I don’t think it’s true that cultural studies *courses* “are on the decline”, they’re all over the place. Calling a dept CS is something else, but if, say, the changes at Melb dislodged a dept called CS that’s no more true than that they dislodged a dept called English.

    (Now aren’t you glad I don’t do blogs as a rule…)


  2. klaus k
    April 22nd, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    Hmmm, haven’t been to a CSAA conference in years, and yes other conferences have taken priority. There is a question of utility addressed for me in making that decision, given that I’m only likely to go to one big conference a year. I’ve wanted to see what sorts of questions a non-cultural studies audience will ask of my work, and whether there are possible connections with related disciplines. I’ve also wanted to test where exactly I’m most comfortable working, and given I’m early in my career I’m trying not to prejudge where that might end up being. It may be that I’m not qualified to comment, since reading what I’ve written above, it doesn’t seem I’ve made a decision in favour of cultural studies, in spite of my training.

  3. Laura
    April 22nd, 2009 @ 9:42 pm

    Speaking from an adjacent discipline with multiple FOR codes in common with CS, maybe once a year is just too frequent?

  4. klaus k
    April 23rd, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    Yes, I think that would work for me Laura. Every two years. A bigger conference less frequently could still address the needs of postgrads, while there would be more time to arrange keynotes etc from international scholars.

  5. Terry
    April 23rd, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    As someone who is not an ECR, and who is running another conference this year (ANZCA), it may be a bit impertinent for me to chime in, but here goes.

    I certainly don’t think that ‘Australian cultural studies’ is obsolete, but an ‘Australian cultural studies movement’ is, as that rests upon a kind of cultural nationalism and unity of purpose whose historical moment has definitely passed.

    In that light, I think that CSAA needs to think more about its conference as a a valuable business proposition for those who have multiple choices as to where to present their work and spend their conference funding.

    ANZCA came back from the brink of bankruptcy in 2001-2, and there may be some useful take away messages form that experience.

    One is that the Association need to have a surplus, and the conference is the primary means of generating that surplus. ANZCA was headed for bankruptcy after having a conference in Ballina; CSAA may also be bearing the costs of hing a conference in Kalgoorlie. To reduce the marginal cost of attendance for most delegates, the next CSAA conference would have to be in Sydney or Melbourne.

    Second, lever off others for international keynote speakers. Keep antennae out for who else can foot the bill for the trans-Pacific flight or the trip from Europe or Asia, and meet the costs of the domestic travel only. For example, ANZCA09 has Barbie Zelizer and Nick Couldry as keynotes in no small part because the ICA is running a regional conference in Melbourne the following week.

    Third, CSAA conference organisers should read Glenn Bowden et. al., Events Management, write out a checklist based on it, and follow that checklist for the 9 months between first publicity and final event.

    Anyway, my thoughts, from the Faculty of “cultural studies with funding”, as our Foundation Dean called it.

  6. Mel
    April 23rd, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

    It’s a total shame to hear that the CSAA conference isn’t going ahead this year! As a self-funded postgrad with a shit supervisor in a shit department, I can’t emphasise enough how vitally important those conferences were for developing my sense of collegiality and community. I could be treated seriously and get genuinely interested and engaged feedback on my ideas. It’s hard to convey how little of that I was getting in my home department.

    Also, those conferences were a really heady mixture of intellectual discovery and hedonism – maybe only postgrads and ECRs get into the party side of things, though. I feel sad thinking about going to a conference and then just going back to my hotel room and going to bed early. I think the best bits are long dinners and epic drinking sessions – at one stage we were going to found a new journal, Pub Theory.

    Also, I agree with Terry that Kalgoorlie was complete woop-woop and, while I can understand the need to look beyond the east coast for venues, it totally blows out the costs, especially for postgrads who may not have institutional support and have to fund their own attendance.

    Also, academics are high-school girls at heart and if the popular kids won’t be at the party, they aren’t gonna go either. Nobody wants to go to a poorly attended conference – what’s the point in presenting your ideas if the people you want to meet aren’t even there?

  7. melgregg
    April 23rd, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

    Mel, If I start another blog I wanna call it “a high-school girl at heart”. Perfect 🙂

  8. John
    April 23rd, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    I agree with Terry that we may have allowed the principles of inclusion and politico-social activism get in the way of basic business principles (this whiff of inauthenticity affects even the academy), and are now paying the price.

    I also agree with Mel, and even though I’ve got a good supervisor and an (occasionally) supportive department, I also value the opportunities to make new contacts with the wider CS community, for both academic and intellectual reasons. And social as well, I suppose. It is true that large, generalist conferences are never as productive or as fun as small, specialist conferences, and I guess that’s why many people think that CSAA was mainly of benefit to PGs. But a CSAA conference is absolutely the best way to meet the people who I hope will one day be my colleagues.

    I guess I should also comment on the point above about the impact of CRN Annual Meetings on the attendance at CSAA conferences. This one has been around for a while, and frankly, I can’t see it. The decline in attendance of senior academics was becoming obvious well before the CRN existed, and I think can be (partially) explained in regard to my comments above about generalist vs specialist conferences, and the comments about the benefits to “junior scholars” in the post. In fact, the CRN events at the 2005 and 2007 CSAA conferences likely increased the numbers of senior academics in attendance.

    I think the absence of senior academics from the conference is regrettable, and members of the Association have talked about this for some years, without actually agreeing on a solution, but I don’t think that blaming the CRN is going to change it.

    Of course, if you’re right, we’ll know next year 🙂

  9. melgregg
    April 23rd, 2009 @ 6:08 pm

    We won’t know next year if there’s no conference then either! I would certainly agree that CSAA has made inclusiveness a key goal, but I don’t see much evidence of “politico-social activism”. I can think of specific conferences that had more political agendas than others – the very location of Rancière’s keynote at UnAustralia in Parliament House still seems to me an amazing feat, and John Frow’s address that closed the conference was one of the most moving and brave examples of politically-engaged cultural studies I’ve witnessed.

    But the consistency with which the association has backed away from engaging in activism, on the very basis of its inclusiveness, is perhaps the impasse that is at the bottom of all of this: it is the consequence of trying to accrue the benefits of cultural studies as an empty signifier; of not actually standing for anything.

    If there was more politico-social activism surrounding CSAA conferences I bet there would be an increase in attendance *and* a viable business model 🙂

  10. C
    April 23rd, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

    “I don’t even think that pgs with CS specialisation are finding it that hard to get jobs, compared to other Hum&SocSci areas. ”

    Really? It contributes to why the csaa is struggling. A casualised and contract-based workforce plays a big role in the ebb of enthusiasm. At the moment many recent graduates and ECRs simply need a job and some certainty first … think “priorities”. Some have left the field due to a lack of opportunities. A bit rich under such circumstances/conditions of possibility to ask for continuing unaffected enthusiasm and more unpaid labor to roll out a conference, isn’t it? The reason is structural and grounded, not ideological or because of shifting loyalties.

  11. Pen Robinson
    April 23rd, 2009 @ 10:32 pm


    As a very recently graduated postgrad (I got my puffy hat three days ago! Can’t quite believe I’m now allowed to call myself Dr!) who attended the Kalgoorlie conference last year, I have a few thoughts on this topic.

    First of all, I want to thank Amanda Third and the other conference organisers for putting on one of the best conferences I have ever attended. Kalgoorlie was difficult to get to from Sydney, and pretty expensive, sure, but I felt that those attended had a really incredible and memorable time (not least because of the exotic and beautiful desert location and the fun late night pub sessions – Karaoke Kalgoorlie-style, anyone?). 🙂

    The 2008 CSAA conference was the first cultural studies conference I’ve been to. Throughout my PhD candidature I’ve been going to the annual TASA conferences – in large part because that’s where most of my postgrad friends and colleagues were going.

    I always feel like my work is much more cultural and gender studies than it is sociology, but the TASA and CSAA conferences usually overlap in the first week of December, so I usually had to pick one and I’d go with the one where all my friends were going. 🙂 (I wonder how many other cross-disciplinary researchers have this dilemma each year?)

    In 2008 the two conferences didn’t overlap so I was able to attend both (scraping together my last bit of postgrad funding and contributing some of my own money) to attend both: first Melbourne for TASA and then Kalgoorlie for CSAA. The perfect academic adventure/holiday for the month after thesis submission.

    I suspect it was partly my immense relief about having finally finished my thesis, but I thoroughly enjoyed both conferences. I must say, though, that the intimacy of the smaller CSAA conference (versus the larger than usual TASA conference) played a big part in the success of the Kalgoorlie conference, as I see it.

    Not sure where I’m going with all this ramble, except to say that I really hope the CSAA has a long future and I certainly think cultural studies as a discipline is not obsolete.

  12. melgregg
    April 24th, 2009 @ 9:48 am

    Great point Pen – are cultural studies and sociology so very distinct that their conferences should be scheduled at the same time each year? Anyway, congratulations on making it! And good luck with whatever the future holds…

  13. Anna Hickey-Moody
    April 24th, 2009 @ 9:30 pm

    Hi Mel 🙂

    Delightfully, I agree with different points made in ALL the posts above.

    One thing I would say, though, is that it would be good if CSAA took this chance to convene a day long discussion (or symposium) about C.S in Australia in Sydney after S.O.T.I. ~ I just think there are genuinely shared intentions for lots of attendees / members.

    In fact, I am going to email Amanda Third and make the point in person!

    Thanks so much for your thoughts on this issue. Australia needs more discussions like these.


  14. glen
    April 24th, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    Empty signifiers have utility purely as fab fashion accessories for the post-post-ironic.

    soooo, why don’t we bugger the association off and have an anti-conference conference?

    Title: Pub Theory: Cultural Studies when it isn’t

    1) Lets have only postgrads, ECRs and super-cool rockstar cultstud ECnR (Early Career non-Researchers, putting their awesome skills to use making money for someone else)
    2) No possibility of publication afterwards, unless it is via blog or somesuch
    3) It would need to be held over a weekend to allow those working stiffs to attend
    4) I vote Sydney for the location, it is between QLD and VIC, cheapest flights from elsewhere, soz SA and WA
    5) Ballot accomodation to keep costs down and party up (I can house one person, or three drunks)
    6) ??????
    7) Profit.

    What am I missing people?

    MelC, you up for it? LET’S DO THIS!

  15. cnw
    April 24th, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

    For one thing, I would strongly urge DO NOT ALLOW THE TASA CONFERENCE TO OUTGUN CS! The fallout from such a scenario is yet another crunching blow for anything that might even pass as innovative work in cultural studies in this country. Without the duo, base mediocrity will reign supreme.

    The TASA and CSAA are not distinct, but the conference timing has been a sign of militant antagonism for some time. That’s fair enough: “they” think their ethnography doesn’t stink btw. This needs strategic thought otherwise neoweberians will eat us for breakfast. oh, and that perfect bludger faux “academic” who has aspro. You know who you are.

  16. db
    April 24th, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

    There are a lot of good points made in all the comments that would be beneficial for the Association, but Glen’s suggestion is great in that it inverts the value chain in a way that seems characteristic of CS’ original aims. Wasn’t it partially about saying to English and Sociology in their grey-bearded days: “Fuck you old farts, your paradigms can’t touch where we’re at, so we’re upending the system and getting amongst it, real f***ing life”. Whatever the procedural issues in Glen’s suggestion, it at least seems to capture that spirit, and I’d fund myself along if I was in the vicinity, cos it sounds like fun.

    I’ll even save my rant on cultural studies and disciplinarity (which can now run to about 40 minutes) for a 3am soporific on one of those nights :).

  17. Laura
    April 24th, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

    Db, there are English farties here who are very probably deeply wounded by your words.

  18. glen
    April 24th, 2009 @ 11:33 pm

    OK, I’ve been down to the shops and given this some more thought, and I am happy to report that the anti-conference idea is even more awesome than before.

    Thanks db, I like your analysis, putting on my Deleuzian hat, I’d suggest we have the potential to differentially repeat the CS-event. I am also putting you down for a paper. Email me a proposal at glen dot r dot at gmail dot com. Awesome.

    I’d like to append the above dot points with a few more:

    8) Venue, this got me scratching my head for a while… until I remembered that I worked for 2 years in a place (a bookshop) that does 50-200 person events, has PP facilities, a bar, a toilet, books for the bored and loves this sort of thing. Then there are two other similar venues in the same strip (s/h bookshop and a cafe) in that they also have events and also love this sort of thing. I’ll make enquiries. What date suits everyone? Anyone got any other ideas?

    9) Themed panels? Now there are two points to this.
    a) If my undergraduate years taught me anything it is that themes rock because they allow everyone to dress appropriately. We need awesome themes like “Cultural Studies: Epic Fails” looking at the failures of CS (which is really in the dialectic with all these definitions of CS debates, ie What is CS? counter-histories of counter-histories FTW!), “How to spend someone else’s bureaucracy in ten easy steps!” on how to get funding out/in/beside the institution, and “Producing surplus value in the whatever economy using CS” on exploiting the shit out of hard won critical literacies. So themes, good?
    b) Theme t-shirts. We need to take it old school street protest and make our own t-shirts. They will be awesome.

    10) Activities, now this is where it gets so awesome I can’t contain myself. We need a committee to organise this, which I can’t be part of so I don’t fuck it up with too much enthusiam. I’ll only offer two words: sing and star.

    11) Promotion and fund raising. My first idea is to auction the conference on eBay and tell BoingBoing so it eventually filters through to the MSM. Maybe we could lean on MSM connections to make it happen. If some dickhead can auction off a night out with his mates then we can do the conference. Whoever wins the conference auction gets shared banner naming rights. I really hope it is the Sydney Institute. That would be awesome. But a white knight would suffice, or even a grey knight. This probably also needs a committee. I vote for Richard Branson being on the committee.

    12) Oh, that reminds me. Find people to head up the committees. Hmmm, email me at glen dot r dot fuller at gmail dot com if you are keen.

  19. glen
    April 24th, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

    My eight parentheses turned into Buddy Holly. 8) Even the dot point numbering is awesome.

  20. Melissa Hardie
    April 25th, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    Like Catherine I’d be interested in seeing the meeting take place at usyd (in fact raised this with her a while ago but as she says 2009 wasn’t a goer). I hope we can do this.

    I wonder if I am the only one who finds it hard to get to CSAA because it bumps up against the most frantic bit of examination each year? I know timing is always hard but I wonder about that. I’d agree with Catherine (if I’m getting her right) that there’s probably little diagnostic relation between the perturbations of CSAA and the “discipline” of CS, but I see something else in it.

    Melissa Gregg comments on two spectacular events at the UnAustralia Conference: Rancière’s keynote at Parliament House and John Frow’s closing address. She’s exactly right — those were massive moments, significant events in the life of cultural studies in Australia (I’d add Larissa Berendht’s keynote for the trifecta). She’s also right that there’s a failure to take hold of an activist impulse that’s enervating and deteriorating at its heart. C comments on the structural violences that are gutting academic life at the moment. I would include the continuing devaluation of ALL academic staff, but agree that its pernicious and biting edge is experienced by the next generation, a development that is now sufficiently old that its effects are felt at all levels.

    Instrumental thinking is its hegemonic tool, and the narcissism at the heart of managerialism (what’s in it for me?) is a damaging pedagogy. CSAA is perhaps just one place where this logic play out.

  21. Mark Steven
    April 25th, 2009 @ 12:38 pm

    “This made me wonder, has anyone actually asked postgrads and early career researchers whether they value this annual conference? What do postgraduates and recent PhD graduates of cultural studies think about the fate of the CSAA?”
    Though I’m nowhere near as well informed of the field as those posting above, my ignorance here perhaps gives reason to why I’ve come to value the CSAA conferences.

    I’m a first year PhD candidate who has spoken at CSAA the past two years. While it hasn’t been the best forum in which to air my research – due to what I’ve heard described as diminished attendance, and what Mel Gregg diagnosed as empty signifier syndrome – I appreciate CSAA as an opportunity to listen to and weigh in on discussions like this one. To participate in debates that might give shape to a set of disciplines I one-day hope to inhabit.

    As a postgrad there is little encouragement to consider Cultural Studies itself – and I assume part of that is because postgrads aren’t exposed to as many of the economico-institutional issues as tenured academics might be – but the CSAA conference seems to be the venue where that kind of thinking is promoted.

    For instance: last year, in Kalgoorlie, Fred Chaney gave an incendiary opening address – he threw down the gauntlet, as it were – and so managed to inflect most of the boozed-up pub sessions for the rest of the week. Taking part in those discussions was one of the few times that I’d been asked to think through the discipline, its purpose, and the possibility of a future in and of Cultural Studies.

    What I’m getting at is this, and I’m perhaps guilty of Melissa’s narcissism here: the CSAA conferences are perhaps most valuable to postgrads not because we can present our work and hear about others’, but because it’s one of the few instances in which we’re encouraged to think about Cultural Studies beyond our individualized projects.

    But if that’s reason for postgrads to attend, for the conference to be more than navel-gazing, as Catherine has it, I think the first thing that has to be addressed is what I understand from the above comments to be a pathological shift toward inclusiveness at the cost of engagement and activism.

    (also – while Kalgoorlie was a fun venue, it absolutely murdered the budget. I was only able to attend because of CRN funding combined with that from my own department, and this came nowhere near covering the costs. Yes, I’m happy to have paid to attend, but I could barely scrape together the wherewithal and that was with funding which only so many postgrads received)

  22. Melissa Hardie
    April 25th, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    Mark wrote:
    “What I’m getting at is this, and I’m perhaps guilty of Melissa’s narcissism here: the CSAA conferences are perhaps most valuable to postgrads not because we can present our work and hear about others’, but because it’s one of the few instances in which we’re encouraged to think about Cultural Studies beyond our individualized projects. ”

    That’s the opposite to what I meant by “narcissism” — that’s *exactly* what remains good about the conference, for everyone, and maybe especially for postgrads who are not yet institutionally given much access to/influence in thinking about CS beyond the individual project. By narcissism I certain don’t mean “care of self,” rather incapacity to see beyond self-interest, aligned with institutional reward for same.

  23. Mel
    April 25th, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

    Glen, I think the most productive planning meetings would happen at restaurants and pubs. 🙂

    I’m happy to be involved in any gonzo conference, and I think that sponsorship and funding is the most time-consuming and tedious aspect of organising any such event.

  24. db
    April 25th, 2009 @ 8:05 pm

    Hi Laura – for the record, I think English in the 2000s is generally more exciting than Cultural Studies. However, I’;m pretty sure that in 1975 that was not the case – perhaps those who were around then can comment authoritatively.

    For me, “interest” centres around something being at stake, where our long-held beliefs might be at risk… that’s obviously true in English (the battle between methodological approaches being highly consequential), but I don’t really see it in CS (where a slightly slack/pluralist approach to method is the norm). Perhaps Glen’s suggestion of the relation between the media scholar and the non-academic media personality is one area where the definition of CS might be under some kind of pressure. What’s the difference between a CS academic’s work and The Chaser? They are different, but elaborating that difference in terms of the aims of CS would be interesting I think.

  25. kiley gaffney
    April 25th, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

    I wonder if I am still the postgraduate rep for the CSAA. I have heard nothing since before Christmas but I am still on the executive committee according to the site so I’ll speak from that position. Mel, I’ve previously been quite open about how ineffectual I believe the ‘opportunity’ to speak at most conferences is, whether local or international can often be. Speaking to two of your friends who already know all about your research, etc does little to engender confidence in a speaker let alone a researcher. They offer more opportunity for postgrads to hear or learn from more senior researchers than anything else.

    My personal experience highlights this. I was overseas during last year’s CSAA conference but the previous year’s in Adelaide was made salient by the sheer number of simultaneous panels that, although offering more postgrads the opportunity to speak, did so at the expense of actual engagement by listeners. My supervisor didn’t even attend my panel although also at the conference (don’t even get me started on mentorship!). The lure of the international speaker or the research similar colleague is far more enticing than engaging with the work of early career and postgraduate researchers it seems. I think they function more for postgrads as a networking opportunity and a three day masterclass.

    I have been lucky enough to secure an ongoing early career position at QUT but in Music and Sound rather than Cultural Studies specifically. I still teach through a cultural studies framework (interdisciplinary, critical, etc) but inside a different discipline. Same approach inside a different program.

  26. C
    April 26th, 2009 @ 9:33 am

    “I don’t really see it in CS (where a slightly slack/pluralist approach to method is the norm)”

    What a load of bs. Do some actual reading of current CS db … before throwing around insults.

  27. Melissa Hardie
    April 26th, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

    kiley wrote:

    “My personal experience highlights this. I was overseas during last year’s CSAA conference but the previous year’s in Adelaide was made salient by the sheer number of simultaneous panels that, although offering more postgrads the opportunity to speak, did so at the expense of actual engagement by listeners. My supervisor didn’t even attend my panel although also at the conference (don’t even get me started on mentorship!). The lure of the international speaker or the research similar colleague is far more enticing than engaging with the work of early career and postgraduate researchers it seems. I think they function more for postgrads as a networking opportunity and a three day masterclass.”

    I feel your pain; that’s a lousy experience. I could put a bit of a spin on it and add that in some significant way this is probably not an unhelpful (though of course demoralising) taste of life as an academic. Unless you are especially blessed (as I know some contributors here are) you will face a lot of uncollegial indifference to your work at all stages of your career, from your colleagues and peers, as well as brisk summary judgements from your students, who will always be the toughest audience. I’ve given a few papers to rooms full of empty chairs, which may say something about me, but I prefer to notice that it happens to a lot of academics, not just postgrads. At the CSAA in Canberra I think there were more of us on my panel than in the audience, and this was for various reasons, including some unfortunate timetabling, etc. Actually I think it’s worst of all for people stuck post-PhD pre-job, for whom there is scant or no support, financial or otherwise, at all — they have it tough indeed. It was still a terrific conference.

    The mentoring issue is important, but I can’t comment on what may have been going on for your supervisor (for example, another commitment or whatever that I’d hope had been explained to you). I’ve been in the situation of having multiple supervisions timetabled against each other, for instance, a real bind. It can go the other way as well, of course; at the CSAA at UTS my panel had a terrific audience and something real happened then, I think. But that’s rare in my experience, especially at the mass gatherings. You might want to save yourself for smaller events.

    That aside, let me say I think the opportunity to hear the work of others is what best drives conference attendance, and the requirement to present is often attached to funding (slim as it might be, or non-existent) or else an impetus to get work done. It’s not just postgrads who benefit from the three-day master class!

    The scale problem will always be there for a conference like the CSAA; your experience is a valuable reminder of the negative effect of the pernicious structure of parallel sessions. I just recently gave a paper at Harvard where my session was located, I kid you not, in a corridor seating area. Bizarre.

  28. kiley gaffney
    April 26th, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    Thanks Melissa. The corridor session is hilarious and borders on performance art! I didn’t particularly mind the absence of an audience, my fellow panelist did though–she was self-funded and had come from New Zealand. My previous career as a musician has made me impervious to the lack of a crowd and I have always viewed conferences as an opportunity to engage in a broader collegial community.

    I too think the killer is for post-phd pre-job speakers who are self-funding and really feeling the precarity of academic life. I’ve been lucky enough to get an ongoing position before I’ve even completed but I was increasingly concerned about the outcomes of putting so much time and effort into my phd while struggling with children and a part-time job. I’m lucky to have the support and mentorship of a great group of early career and more senior academics to get me through.

    On that note, the pre-conference postgrad/early career workshops I found to be really important, if only for their focus on forging a national community and readying postgrads/post-phds for the academic job market. I’d love to see that tradition continue.

  29. WildlyParenthetical
    April 26th, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    The question of CSAA is an interesting one, and it’s been the topic of many conversations amongst my postgrad cohort. On the one hand, yes, I agree that there has been a level of inclusiveness that has undermined the political activism of the area of study. But on the other, some of this seems to have occurred through some very specific exclusions. Almost every year, the local (Australasian) keynotes and major panel participants are drawn from the same pool. The ‘superstars’ of CSAA, many of whom seem to be more media studies focussed than cultural studies thinkers (though obviously there’s substantial overlap).

    In the meantime, one of the few departments left in Australia which was actually called Cultural Studies (up until the beginning of this year) was almost entirely excluded. I’m talking about Macquarie Uni. I’ve been to most of the CSAAs of recent years (not Kalgoorlie, as it was almost entirely out of my reach as a brand new ECR, and besides I was feeling pretty disillusioned about the usefulness of CSAA anyway) and not once has an academic from my department been included in the program except where they have submitted abstracts (now pretty rare). Yet numerous scholars from other Sydney universities are continually given keynotes or invited into plenary panels, even when they are primarily media studies people rather than cultural studies. CSAA seems to be quite clear about what ‘kind’ of cultural studies it values.

    I find this interesting less because I’m protective of ‘my’ university (because I’m actually unimpressed with it on a number of levels), but because there’s a particular ‘style’ of cultural studies that seems to be at work at CSAA, and it’s very specific. I’ve spoken to a number of the academics from my uni as to why they don’t attend (given that I’m not expecting all the work to be done by the conference committee!) and the answer is pretty clear: they feel CSAA tends to be apolitical, tending to be anti-theory, a bit scared of real engagement, and so don’t get very much out of presenting there. ‘Inclusive’ a bit of a mis-nomer (as it usually is, though I think Mel is right that the *intention* is to be inclusive). In general, I have had very little feedback on papers I’ve given at CSAA; like Kiley says above, presenting to people you already know doesn’t actually do wonders for anything. At the last one I attended in Adelaide, I deliberately simplified my presentation, stripping out almost all of the theory, and still I had very little engagement with it. This would seem to be a problem. Others have had similar experiences, and in Adelaide at least, I spent a lot of time hanging out with others who felt pretty much the same as I: that this conference, which was supposed to be our disciplinary home, felt very far away from our interests, and very far away from being interested in us. By comparison, other conferences I have attended have allowed for interesting cross-disciplinary discussion, have engaged theoretically and politically, and felt more engaging as a result, than CSAA ever has.

    All of that said, I know why I have put my PG research money towards attending CSAA, and that is because I think it could be otherwise, and would prefer to be part of making that kind of reworking possible than simply throwing my hands up and opting out like the academics at my university have tended to do. Nonetheless, I remain torn over whether it’s a worthwhile thing to throw my energy into.

  30. Michael Dieter
    April 26th, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    The association should become more focused on providing relevant conferences with clear topics and agendas.

    In my opinion, CSAA 2007 on sustainability was a good example of an event that struggled to address the set topic. Why run a conference on such a crucial issue and then use the theme to discuss the sustainability of the discipline?

    Achieving relevance, and generating innovative modes of thinking and collaborating, might mean making some hard decisions about how an event is structured from the beginning – are panels always the best format, for instance? How will the speakers/participants be chosen? In this respect, a general CFP for any papers that define themselves as cultural studies is not always be a good idea.

    Moreover, if CSAA is supposed to be broadly inclusive, this should be seriously debated. Beyond the limited range of humanities-based disciplines present at the events I attended, activists, artists and other creative workers (for instance) were almost completely absent. These are groups that the association should clearly be in conversation with in my opinion if it wants to innovate.

    The association should let the success of the discipline be defined by the tangible outcomes of these events. It seriously needs to drop the heroic narrative about CS as a political interventionist movement and just get pragmatic.

    Finally, CSAA should not be concerned with throwing parties for postgraduates. As one of these students, trust me, we can take care of this ourselves.

    (As a side note, why was nothing was said on the quality of the conferences in this meeting Mel? That would seem to be a fairly important factor!)

  31. dogpossum
    April 29th, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    I think C’s first comment is the most useful:

    “I don’t even think that pgs with CS specialisation are finding it that hard to get jobs, compared to other Hum&SocSci areas. ”
    Really? It contributes to why the csaa is struggling. A casualised and contract-based workforce plays a big role in the ebb of enthusiasm. At the moment many recent graduates and ECRs simply need a job and some certainty first … think “priorities”. Some have left the field due to a lack of opportunities. A bit rich under such circumstances/conditions of possibility to ask for continuing unaffected enthusiasm and more unpaid labor to roll out a conference, isn’t it? The reason is structural and grounded, not ideological or because of shifting loyalties.

    Frankly, I feel that not running a conference is a good thing, in that it might suggest that a bunch of pgrads aren’t going to get screwed over. Sure, there is the argument that running a conference is ‘good for your CV’, but I’m not actually buying that any more. It’s used as justification for exploiting pgrads as tutors, as research assistants, as casual lecturers, as markers, as content-producers for subjects, as … hells, I could go on and on.
    As an ECR who _is_ finding it difficult to find full time work, I’m not crying about the lack of a CSAA conf this year. Mostly because I really do think that Catherine’s first comment:

    “I don’t even think that pgs with CS specialisation are finding it that hard to get jobs, compared to other Hum&SocSci areas”

    is actually misinformed.
    Though there may be fewer jobs in other HSS areas, I don’t think I can walk past the first part – the implication that there are actually jobs in CS for ECR. I’m beginning to think the term ECR does _not_ include those of us who have completed (fabulous) PhDs, (mad) research skills and (fully sick) teaching skills, not to mention a whole host of other wonderful bits and pieces on our CV and _no_ full time work. ECRs are those who have actually managed to squeeze into a full time position.
    Ironic, much? Particularly when you consider the fact that the vast bulk of teaching – the actual face-to-face engagement with students and communication of ideas and fascilitating of learning – is actually conducted by the faceless, nameless and transient ‘not-quite-in-a-career’ researcher-teachers.
    I think it’s perhaps a little more accurate to think of us as ‘stooges’ or perhaps ‘scarily exploited’. There’s no shortage of sessional teaching around the place, but in almost every instance (of the five universities I’ve taught with) the working conditions have been heinous. I have been justifying my taking on this sort of work as ‘something for the CV’ or ‘good networking’ or ‘developing good skills’, but I think, if I were to be honest, it’s really ‘getting screwed, and not in a happy way’. Perhaps pgrad work is really a process of institutionalising us to accept these sorts of conditions, readying us for work in the sausage factory, rather than preparing us for a wonderful and creative, stimulating future in research or teaching.

    So, honestly, I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the CSAA conference this year. I’m busy looking for full time work in other places, and one more paper at another mass conference will not help me with that.

    I have previously been a big fan of conferences, of any size, mostly because I like going along to listen to papers, to give papers and gain interesting feedback, to meet people at the pub, catch up with old friends, etc etc etc. But a lack of funding has made attendance utterly impossible. And one more mass conference (as with yet another semester of sessional teaching) really won’t make a speck of difference to my CV. I’m also finding myself wanting to call bullshit (loudly and aggressively) every time I hear someone discussing postgraduate career options or the value of a PhD.

    If cultural studies were to be relevant to… well, to me, then there’d be better working conditions for sessional tutors and jobs for new kids. Not just ECRs who’re already in the system or the older kids, who’ve been there for ages. Because I’m finding it damn hard to justify continuing to teach undergrads ‘the values of cultural studies’ when that teaching is by far the most exploitative work I’ve ever done. It’s seems more than a little contradictory.

  32. glen
    April 29th, 2009 @ 6:54 pm



    Mass withdrawal of labour is the only solution to strategically changing the structural conditions when the ‘surplus’ labour pool is being exploited.

    This will only happen once the enthusiasm is completely exhausted (or accelerated to the point of absolute mobilisation). I am not sure how this will happen. The belief in any possible positive outcome needs to be quashed. Perhaps from an external source like the closing down of or cross-departmental integration of a cultstud-ish department/s at one or more universities.

    The other problem, and this I feel is quite a big problem, is that the structural conditions of the university means that Heads of Dept and other senior academics are perceived to be doing the postgrad students and casualised post-PhD non-ECRs academics a favour by giving them casual work. I use the word ‘favour’ on purpose because it has the limiting affective conditions (‘conditions’ in the Kantian sense) for possible action that are felt when you ‘owe’ somebody. Young academics are not going to become militant in situations where they oppose those doing them favours or at least feel as if they are doing them favours. Let alone if they are actually mates…

    On a positive note, perhaps it is better to focus on the pursuit of ‘ideas’ rather than the employment context in which it happens. The reality nowadays is that academia is not a calling (except as a centrifugal social force for the socially inept), but an industry like any other, or perhaps even worse than many others.

  33. db
    April 29th, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

    A belated note to C: I came to cultural studies in the first place because it was the field in the late 70s and early 80s that was having methodological discussions of significance in the humanities and social sciences. These have gone on to cause a massive shift in many HASS fields – I’d go as far as to say that no serious work in those broader traditions is left untouched by CS.

    There is great work being done by individuals, but I read enough in current CS journals to know that serious methodological (i.e. how we do what we do) discussions are rarely surfaced. I’d love to be proved wrong, please provide some examples of the critical debates I’m missing before calling me out on my lack of reading. My experience is that most CS-trained scholars do the obvious thing and identify more firmly around the contexts they study rather than the (appropriately diffuse) methods they use to study it. For this reason, a CSAA conference is much less interesting than a conference about “labour”, or “television”, for example.

  34. ana australiana
    April 30th, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

    A thought on Glen’s point re academia ‘not being a calling any more’ and being ‘now as much of an industry as any other’. I have often wondered if the tension between these two notions of academia is the reason behind the bad industrial relations practices – those who feel called to the life of the mind (?!) are easily exploited because they will go above and beyond the expectations of a ‘normal’ job (this would apply to other ‘creative industries’ too I expect). If universities actually acknowledged that they were for-profit corporations then at least the funding and human resources models might be more straightforward – I might sense more of a clear choice between ad hoc freelance cognitive labour outside the institution or heavily corporatised/industrialised wage labour inside it. My friends who work for companies or public sector orgs are frequently appalled by my stories of not getting paid on time, having no identifiable line management and so on – maybe this is because their organisations know what they are, and say it – if that makes sense?

  35. ap
    May 2nd, 2009 @ 6:36 pm

    oh well i am always a bit late to these things:
    but as to glen’s pub conference, can i suggest a hostile take over of critical animals that runs as part of this is not art in newcastle?
    it was started (i confess, by me) as a place for ercs and postgrads to present work to each other. for a few years i ran it with david teh from usyd and jon dale from adelaide – totally detached from the power structures of the academic industry, and in close proximity to a well stocked bar.

    personally, i think more diy is a good thing; and this is not art is an interesting model of how people experiencing precarity due to their positioning in generational hierarchies can get together and make their own opportunities.

  36. klaus k
    May 2nd, 2009 @ 7:57 pm

    Of relevance to some of this discussion are the issues currently being discussed at Laura’s blog:

    Further to the more general situation (over which I think there may be some fundamental points of disagreement between the casualised teaching force and those in full-time positions), the question of teaching-only positions obviously resonates with other debates over cultural studies institution building, induction and questions of canonicity.

    As for the NTEU position itself (“A teaching-only academic is an oxymoron”): for those of us in that sort of disavowed situation (where ‘teaching-only’ means ‘paid-for-teaching-only’, in most cases) who are also, to differing degrees, invested in cultural studies, it does seem to illuminate the fraught terrain upon which even something as reflective as the State of the Industry Conference will be played out.

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