The academic privileges that money can buy

I have decided I want to go to the et4online (Emerging Technologies for Online Learning) conference at the end of April. This particular conference holds some significance as it was the last academic conference I attended before my cancer diagnosis. This year I’m going to the conference not because it is a particularly great conference (although this year will be better than last), but because I know a lot of people that are going. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of connections via my participation in social media, this blog, various free online courses such as #rhizo14, but also through conference attendance.  So for me, this year’s conference is about connecting with people. If I get an update on some cool stuff that is happening in the Ed Tech world, that is a bonus.

I have been to a lot of conferences during my PhD studies – a lot more conferences than most of my peers. I’ve figured out the games that need to be played to secure what limited funding is available as a PhD student, a research assistant, and Part-time professor. I’m fully aware that the reason I can support my conference habit is that my husband has a well paying job and that we did well with our money during the pre-Y2K boom years. In short, I’m aware that this has given me the privilege to attend various academic conferences.

What is bothering me about conferences like this is that it is a collection of people who are privileged, and yet many don’t recognize this. If you don’t have the privilege that affords you the opportunity to travel to conferences, you don’t get the opportunity to meet people face-to-face and interact with them. You miss part of the experience.

As my PhD years come to a close, I will soon no longer qualify for the “student” rate at conferences. This too will close the door for me. I will no longer be able to access the limited funding that is available to students nor the reduced rates given to students. In a world where universities are replacing tenure-track professors with contingent instructors (aka adjuncts or part-time professors), the ability to afford to attend conferences is significantly reduced. The structure of conference fees is based largely on the assumption that if you are not a student, then you have access to grant funds or employee funds to cover your conference fees and travel. This means that those who are privileged enough to have tenure-track positions are disproportionally represented at conferences.

As I sign myself up to attend the et4online conference and fund my entire participation out of my own pocket, I’m highly aware that I’m participating in the privilege that money can buy. I’m buying myself a seat at the table and the opportunity to interact with amazing people – who somehow have also figured out how to play the game of academic privilege.  It bugs me that the system is setup in a way that allows me to buy my seat, but also excludes those who cannot afford to buy their own seats. I feel guilty about buying my way into the seat – and find myself wanting to find ways to contribute such that my participation doesn’t feel so privileged. Perhaps this is in part what made me so uncomfortable at the career session at et4online last year – it was too many people with privilege not recognizing that the privilege they hold does not extend to the next generation of early career academics.

I’m left with the question – what can we do to help extent the experience of the conference for those who are not privileged enough to attend? And what can we do about conferences in general to help close the gap between those who are privileged with tenure-track faculty positions and those who can only find contingent academic work?


16 responses

  1. […] which should be taken lightly and many of which are struggles for faculty and staff as well–see Rebecca Hogue’s post on this and all of Maha Bali’s writing on virtual conference attendance), we then have to pay close […]

  2. […] the buzz of the conference to conduct these sessions with us. In addition, Rebecca recognizes that she is privileged enough to be able to afford to travel to several academic conferences. Maha leveraged her privilege as an organizing committee member at […]

  3. Frances Bell Avatar

    Thanks for your post Rebecca. I think that the funding of conference attendance works differently in different countries, in different universities and even in different departments in the same universities. In the UK, we don’t have tenure as such but we do have some staff on permanent contracts and I suspect, sadly, a growing number on temporary contracts. When I was employed as a Senior Lecturer, I had no travel/conference budget. Any conferences I attended were funded from project money brought in (used for dissemination purposes). Maybe professors have travel/conference budgets – I don’t know.

    I helped to organise an education conference in 2011 at my university at that was very successful from participants’ perspective but because (I think) it was not seen as strategic from a research perspective, the subsequent conference was cancelled – austerity:) When I attended a conference no-one was deputed to cover my work – I had to negotiate a swap.
    I can identify with Alan’s point about the self-employed. Now that I am retired, I realise that I am privileged in my pension compared with what my children’s generation will be but even so, my pension is small, and paying for a conference is quite a big decision. I am highly selective about my choice of networking activities, preferring free events, but still needing to cover costs of travel and accommodation. I may be paying to attend a conference later this year that is local to me but I may need to just pay a day rate and miss out on extended networking.

    One last issue is that of the lack of transparency on the costs of keynote speakers. Some attend the full conference and contribute broadly. Others fly in for their talk, and disappear shortly afterwards , presumably picking up their cheques on the way out.

    Privilege – it’s complicated I think.

  4. Maha Bali Avatar

    Great post, Rebecca! One tiny way to help others is the funds raised from the edtech women dinner will be used go fund someone’s conference registration and accommodation next year. But it’s only one person and doesn’t solve the problem.
    The other way is what we’re hopefully gonna be doing together which, while imperfect, and does not directly address issues of privilege, improves access to ppl who can’t go.

  5. Ronald L Avatar

    If you’ve got the money for it, I’d say go for it. It’s wonderful that you realize that you are priviliged. No need, no use, to feel guilty about it.

    In general though, I think that the world-wide conferences are a bit out of date, old fashioned.
    Holding a conference e.g. on elearning by having people fly for thousands of miles is kinda crazy.
    Why not hold the conference online? Teach as you preach, or do your conference with the tools your telling others they should be using in education.

    If we’d hold our conferences in another way, more like in an online course or an online community, than more people could join.
    Compare it to what we do in P2PU or Coursera.
    The F2F time could be done (sort of) in a Google Hangout.

  6. Ashley Shaw Avatar

    I’ve realised before that I’m quite privileged as a grad student in that I can afford to fund my own way to conferences (the $200/year we get from our department is so useless as to be almost insulting). And still there are many I haven’t attended because of cost. It’s a bit of a catch-22, isn’t it? You have to do conferences in order to build up your CV to get a job where you can actually afford to go to conferences…

    That some conferences now have a ‘virtual’ stream is somewhat helpful, but these are few and far between, and you do miss out on much of the conference experience. Like you say, if conferences somehow recognised ‘paying your own way’ vs ‘funded’ in their registration fees it could also help.

    But overall it is a question of privilege, and reifies that money does buy privilege. Just another of the myriad faults in the system that I wish we could change…

  7. Nomad War Machine Avatar

    Actually I had a grant a few years ago while I was a GTA (adjunct) and I was allowed to pay myself to be the PI – I just wrote myself into the bid and the Higher Education Academy were happy to pay out

  8. AK Avatar

    The subject of conferences came up for recently in my EdD cohort. Most conferences that I would like to attend (such as: AAAL, TESOL, ASTD, SALT, OLC, Educause, EdMedia, etc.) cost a lot of money to register, and also to fly there and get a hotel. I’ve basically “settled” on attending CampusTechnology each year (I’ve usually been able to get in for free) and the NERCOMP annual conference (I usually present a poster or something, so admission is free – this year I forgot the deadline so I didn’t submit any proposals…so no conference for me :p). CampusTech is in Boston each year (so no hotel or travel) and NERCOMP is in Providence, RI (a relatively easy 3 hour drive – one way)

    While I could potentially lobby my organization to pay for a conference away from the home-base, but I feel like it a big waste of cash. In times when tuition is increasing, state funding going down I think that money is better spend elsewhere.

    1. Maha Bali Avatar

      Yeah I know ur stance AK regarding conferences near you. When I lived in Houston I paid my own registration to attend Educause regional because I did not have to pay travel/accommodation and only needed to take one day off from teaching – whereas when I am here in Cairo I would have needed funding to manage to go.

      Even then i am an associate professor and eligible for a bit of money to travel BUT because most confs in my field are edtech and best in US the total i would get funds for is 2 and they must be ones where i am presenting AND it means a lot of time off from work coz of the full days of travel both ways. Which of course brought up the issue of my kid coming w me or leaving her behind etc – a different issue than financial privilege but definitely finance makes it harder to decide to take her with me

  9. Janet Montgomery Avatar
    Janet Montgomery

    I agree. Just this morning I was thinking about my “career” as an adjunct here at Appalachian State University. One of the major drawbacks when a university system runs on adjunct teaching is that you have no money, support, or time for professional development. Not good for the adjunct, but also not good for the school system. Adjuncts also have little to no support for any ideas or projects, such as community outreach. Let’s not even talk about grants!

    1. Rebecca - @rjhogue Avatar
      Rebecca – @rjhogue

      Hi Janet, thanks for the comment. I have a whole other blog post coming soon to talk about the issues with grants – in my experience they all assume that the primary investigator is salaried and don’t allow you to pay the PI. My experience all being in social sciences/education … the best adjuncts can do in this situation is to band together to apply for you-pat-my-back-I’ll-pat-yours – where they agree to hire each other as part of grants … and even that is tricky …

      1. Maha Bali Avatar

        That’s a really important point, Janet. Clearly lack of eligibility of adjuncts for grants makes it harder to ever be eligible for tenure doesn’t it?

  10. CogDog Avatar

    The gulf between having conference travel paid for AND still earning your salary versus paying for it all out of pocket AND losing income… immense. Like denial, the effectiveness of privilege is its invisibility to the bearer.

    And chicken won’t help. I recently ran the numbers

    1. Rebecca - @rjhogue Avatar
      Rebecca – @rjhogue

      Thanks for the comment Alan and the link to your chicken post. I like how you provide three scenarios … in the end, if your employer doesn’t pay you are out of pocket. I think conferences should recognize this in some way, as you are clearly more committed to the conference if you are don’t it on your own dime!

      1. CogDog Avatar

        I don’t miss the responsibilities of my previous jobs in helping to run conferences; its a great feeling when the events turn out well, although how that feeling comes to be felt is a bit of elephant touching.

        This is what I learned from a previous exec– at a few hundred people, unless there are generous sponsors, conferences work hard to cover the costs. No organization should lose money on events unless there are other ways to compensate (grants, foundations). Every bit has someone’s hand in it- hotels, food, a/v, materials, internet. I was told that at maybe 1000 people conferences start to come out ahead, and when you get to 5000+ you are talking about making money, and for some organizations, that can fund other parts of their work – its not just about making money, but non profits need to think like a small business.

        So what happens if a conference says “We will double the registration costs to help fund people who cannot afford to come” might there be a bit of outcry — even if your trips are full funded, you have to justify and jump through hoops of approval.

        I know because they are colleagues and friends, how hard Scott Leslie and Brian Lamb worked to keep down the registration costs for Open Education conferences they planned in Vancouver.

        It must be a dilemma for membership organizations. In eras past a primary service they offered was the means to communicate with peers in your field- when I started there was really nobody in my organization (a large multicollege system) doing similar work in instructional technology, so organizations were pretty critical for connecting with peers. Well, social media and technology have made it so we can do this w/o organizations, so they need to find the benefits worth selling as a membership, and a primary one ends up being discounts on conference registration.

        Sometimes I conjure up Far Side images of dinosaurs smoking cigarettes right at the end of the Cretaceous Era.

    2. Maha Bali Avatar

      I remember reading that post, Alan. Boy, I need go blog about the response I got from our admins here when I withdrew my grant to go to et4online and asked them to pay tge virtual attendance (i am presenting 5 sessions!) and the response was “we pay for visibility and virtual doesn’t do that ” – r u serious? If i were any more visible i would be coming out of everyone’s ears! My boss and oir our dean were like, “we’ll show them!”

      But actually what is also really important in Alan’s post is that not all conferences are as useful or worth it. Every conference I attended beforehand in US/Uk in person i didn’t know ppl and networking was minimal (pre-twitter me). Now i attend only virtually and benefit so much from the networking. Then again – with social media and MOOCs we are in a perpetual unconference situation – just learning spontaneously all the time. Oops comment too long already

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