Over the last few months, a few friends and I have been meeting online semi-regularly to watch pre-recorded conference panels or academic talks. While this originally began as a system of mutual accountability around a seminar series, it’s since mutated into an actually enjoyable part of my downtime.
After years of struggle, the academic conference experience suddenly has room for joy again. It’s been a damn revelation to me!
Initially I found my enthusiasm confusing. It’s one thing to group-watch a film or a TV series and enjoy it, but doing the same with academic talks is, frankly, a bit weird. By popular consensus, this shouldn’t merit the same level of excitement and fun. And yet here we are: drinking, chatting, pausing to trash talk amongst ourselves, and taking 3 hours to get through a 20 minute paper.
After a while I realised that I was not only absorbing more information during these online co-watch experiences, but I also wasn’t experiencing the same levels of fatigue that I normally do during or after attending in-person or online academic presentations. This is partially explained by the pre-recorded material affording the possibility of pausing, rewinding, or skipping ahead as needed. Being publicly available, these are also more economically viable and some (but not all) have worked to address accessibility needs. But there’s more to this.
I’d argue that, in this setting, a lot of it comes from the fact that I don’t have to constantly brace myself or self-censor. I never have to force myself all the way through presentations that are racist, sexist, ableist, or queerphobic. I don’t have to evaluate how to publicly point out such issues while seeking solidarity in a space where solidarity isn’t always visible. I do not have to think about the consequences of walking out of a presentation; I can just nope out and know that would be honoured among this group of friends.
I’ve attended conferences, both alone and with friends, and while I am familiar with the standard conference as an opportunity to meet people and learn new things, it is still a space in which I feel pressured to moderate myself to what is deemed “professional” by constantly moving standards. I dress carefully, I speak more formally, I am careful to moderate how I might be perceived. In effect, I occupy a space not built to sustain me, and that I can even do so marks me as privileged in a variety of ways.
Academic spaces tax many of us constantly for simple presence, let alone for the moment where we disrupt the (oppressive) status quo overtly. While it’s always better to not stand alone in these spaces, that often means that groups of us share the costs of standing together. Solidarity is valuable, but it is not the same as feeling welcome, particularly when the larger space itself is hostile to us (albeit in different ways depending on our institutional power and identities).
To come from the constantly taxing academic space into these online havens, that are not only sustaining but actively encouraging, is like a massive weight lifted. Our co-watch group feels like such a disruption of what inhabiting these academic spaces is often like, because for the first time it doesn’t position us on the outskirts constantly having to weigh the costs of being in the room at all. Since these are people I trust to not be oppressive, and to be actively seeking out ways to combat oppression, I can relax in a way I never truly can in any public academic space.
It’s not a surprise that removing barriers would make academic work enjoyable, though I am surprised that this removal means that I seek this engagement in my off time not despite but because of joy and their educational potential. Many of us have long known that survival means building private spaces with like-minded people to sustain ourselves. But these spaces are usually private; they are not the primary experience of conferences, public talks, or invited panels. They are the supportive margins, not the centre of the academic experience. Online access has changed this for me.
I can ask questions and receive answers, or we could seek answers together in a way that conference spaces often curtail in their position as hiring marts/ research shopping. We wander on tangents without having to stay on topic because the end goal is intellectual growth in whatever way works best. My co-watch group wants discussions and fun and exploration, and doesn’t see questions outside the scope of the paper as derailing.
At no point prior to this had I processed how radical it might feel to have enough space to love learning again.
Many of us come from different fields, and offer information that may parallel, add to, or undercut what is being discussed. Those of us who are non-specialists can engage with specialist knowledge in a supported way (sometimes while drinking). Our conversations are often not only genuinely useful, but also actively fun.
Before this, it hadn’t occurred to me that what we were doing was radical: the gossiping, the laughing, the dismissal of a paper that was harmful without waiting to “see if it gets better.” We felt no pressure to explain why something was hurtful, because we already understood. With the energy this saved us, we had the room to be passionate about a field that drew us in.
I’ve long known that I pay a series of prices, some economic and some not, to exist in academic spaces, but I’ve never before had the chance to know a world in which these costs are no longer present. I’ve never known what it is like to have reserves left over. I have never understood what it might be to be energised by panel discussions rather than exhausted by them.
I increasingly wonder what it might mean to choose online co-watch groups indefinitely: to choose the sheer radical possibility of learning with happiness over the academic spaces that build hurdles around any engagement. There’s something in the sheer possibility of that.
An academic and freelance journalist by day, Samira Nadkarni spends far too much of her time having feelings and yelling on the internet. Although she sometimes writes reviews for the SFF magazine, Strange Horizons, the majority of her energy is spent reading, binge-watching terrible TV, and being stared down by her cat. You can find her on twitter @SamiraNadkarni!