AIMAC 2017

I’m sitting in my Beijing hotel room, after a much needed swim, contemplating heading out into the smoggy, polluted, 34 degree heat of the city.  I’m doing a food tour tonight at 7pm – a wise move as the night time is much nicer than the afternoon – but I know I can’t laze around for a whole day.

There’s no reason for me to write up a report on my AIMAC 2017 experience, it’s not like I have to justify the funds received by UTS *grumble grumble*. But for a long time I saw this conference as the symbolic end to my time in academia, a good bye to the ideas of theory and the networks I’d built over the past 4 years.

Two years ago I sweated it out in 36 degree heat (with much less air conditioning than here) at AIMAC 2015.  You can read about my experiences here, here, here, here and here. (Gee I wrote a lot!)  AIMAC 2015 was a transformative experience for me, in the sense it not only introduced me to a community of academics and friends, but also exposed me to broader academic ideas and behaviours (the good and the bad.)

In some ways AIMAC 2017 could not compete, I am not as ‘young and impressionable’ academically as I was then.  The rude, hierarchical nature of the industry doesn’t surprise me, but is still just as offensive.  I had a groups of ready made friends, especially my current boss from Deakin and those I did the 2015 doctoral symposium with, so I was never without someone to talk to.

This conference for me was really about communicating my research, or a part of it, gauging a reaction and seeing where it might fit in the broader arts management constructs.  After day one I was in some ways a little flat, it didn’t excite me as I’d hoped.  I saw three leadership presentations and they were all very traditional and positivist in nature, which meant I was going to ruffle a few feathers.  It was nice, however, being able to provide advice and guidance to new researchers.  I remembered how I felt coming in two years earlier, so I made a point of offering all the support I could to those at their first academic conference.

Day two and I presented my paper.  I don’t think I presented as well as I would have liked, but it was still good.  Happily the audience loved it and I got a lot of really excellent feedback for the rest of the conference.  Importantly the facilitator, who was the editor of a journal, said he “looked forward to me book” (so do I!) and encouraged me to write up the theories of my work and potentially submit to his journal.  Also, a number of the scientific committee mentioned they had heard good things (even if they didn’t attend the paper) and had read the full submission, suggesting I was on the radar in some way.  I got excellent questions, one from a member of the scientific committee that suggested she agreed with my findings, and all in all I felt really proud.  It made me very focussed on four things: 1. not giving up about publication, 2. potentially, somehow, getting  international research opportunities to do a cross cultural analysis,  3. coming to AIMAC 2019 (which is in VENICE!) and 4. writing a really provocative paper or article on arts leadership theory and it’s need for critical expansion.

I was buoyed by that morning and the conference kicked up a notch for me then.  I saw some really good papers, particularly those that were a call to action about theoretical change. I learned the term “set jetting” as in visiting movie sets as tourism, and discussed post-series depression about the end of Harry Potter. I also met three Melbourne academics (of course) I hadn’t met before who immediately suggested they had work for me and threw business cards my way.  One was from Deakin and the others from Uni Melb, at MBS, which really interests me.

I have a feeling that my future work life might be varied and interesting. A number of opportunities, both academic and non-academic seem to be coming my way. This is exciting.  But it also highlights the role conferences like AIMAC have in building careers, and again raises issues of the economics of academia (as it is not cheap to do these things.)

While I’m not writing a travel post about Beijing on my other blog, or I haven’t planned to, I’ll mention that this has been so far a really easy experience.  I’m in a very nice hotel on the Peking University Campus, within walking distance to all we needed for the conference. All the food has been provided, and has been good to very good, and the hotel pool has been a godsend. Transport, taxis and metro, are great and relatively cheap. If only the weather/pollutions wasn’t so horrendous.

Anne and I did skip one late afternoon session to play hooky and wander through the Nanluogu Xiang, or Drum lane, one of the historical hutong areas. I might dispute it’s historical veracity as I’m pretty sure it was all rebuilt and more Disney than authentic.  But it was fun to be out in the city, get a street made jianbing for dinner and buy knick knacks.  As a group the conference also went to the 798 art district which was great, but I think we needed a day, not 2 hours.  But it’s a design store lovers paradise.

This afternoon I’m heading into Tiananmen Square to wander around, might do an audio tour I have about 1930s Peking, and then I start the eating adventure.  Tomorrow after a late checkout I’m spending my afternoon at the Summer Palace before heading to the airport and home.  (To repack for Europe on Monday!)


The economics of research

I just received an email from our Graduate Research School.  I had applied for, and been approved for, funding to support my attendance at a conference in China in a few weeks.  The funding wont cover the whole trip, mainly my airfare, but it was a reasonable level of support.  I consider this conference my potential academic swan-song.

It turns out, which I probably should have known, that you cannot receive funding if you are in the examination period. This means I will not receive the support that I had expected and budgeted for.  This isn’t a criticism of the Uni/Faculty, I should have realised, by reading the fine print, that this would be the case and based my application to attend an international conference on a realistic financial picture. I have finally got the time and the content to really showcase the outcomes of my research but ironically I lose the support I had relied on to go because I’m too far into my degree (it’s 2 weeks away so I can hardly withdraw now.)

All this has me thinking about the economics of undertaking a research degree. Other than my scholarship (which covered 2.5 years of a 4 year degree) I haven’t had any financial support from the government or University. I’m very grateful for this support, don’t get me wrong. Unlike many, I did a Masters by coursework that cost under $10,000 (significantly less), but most of the courses I see know in arts management are well in excess of $30,000.  My PhD technically cost me $300 per year (UTS admin fees.) I’ve personally paid to attend two conferences prior to this, one international and one interstate. It was through those events that I managed to secure contacts here in Melbourne that lead to a research assistant gig.

During the past 4 years, however, I was not supposed to work more than 8 hours a week.  I was fortunate enough to have a casual teaching position which gave me $10,000 a year (which I worked out equated to $5 per hour given the workload) , 2-day a week part time job for 6 months that paid less than what I earned when I went to Uni the first time (and that was the early 90s) and a RA contract that I’m still working on even though the money stopped in February.

Yet I’m in a very fortunate position.  I’ve had a secure career outside the arts/academia for a number of years and this has provided me with a buffer.  I’m also married to someone who works a corporate job. We are very privileged.  It is that privilege that has allowed me to spend 4 years doing this.

But now that my PhD is almost over (let’s not discuss results and revisions as I’m currently in a state of peak anxiety) I’m contemplating my future – vocationally, academically and financially.  The Uni that I have been engaged with here in Melbourne has expressed the idea I should apply for a post-doc.  Leaving aside the question as to whether this is something I want to do (and I’m not sure I do), it means I need to spend at least 12 months attempting to get solid publications out of my thesis in the hope I can then obtain a grant for a post-doc place.  That’s 12 months of work with no salary or wage of any kind and no guarantee of a job at the end of it. I’m not academically strong, I’ve worked damn hard to get this far, but I don’t see myself as having the stamina to aim for an academic career long term.

To build an academic career you need to publish.  You need to go to conferences.  You need to work outside your PhD (unless independently wealthy).  But even for someone as secure as myself this is a huge financial ask. For those who do not come from the same social-economic background as myself it is basically untenable (and I know the people in my cohort, so I know how narrow the economic background is.)

Being in the arts makes this even more challenging.  In this excellent article Becca Varcoe discusses the privilege of “doing what you love” and the impact economics has on the make up of arts organisations.  I know that gaining a PhD  in the arts has probably decreased my earning potential, not opened the door to a whole new career like it might if I’d been in business or technology. But at the same time the arts has to STOP EMPLOYING PEOPLE LIKE ME as the last thing it needs it another middle-class, white, middle-aged, Gorman wearing, statement jewellery buying person with a higher degree.

The system is just wrong. And the impact it has is broad.  Not only does academia suffer, students suffer for lack of good teachers, the arts suffers as it doesn’t reflect the community in which it operates, those in the system suffer economically and, increasingly, psychologically.

I don’t have the answers, other than to stop cutting higher education and a complete economic overhaul to reduce precarity of employment (a strong creative sector union option for those not in secure employment would be nice.)

I’ll just go back to writing my journal article that one day might secure me a job…..