As I sit in one of those busy hotel cafés writing these lines, worrying that someone will spill their double decaf latte with a dash of hazelnut, over my laptop, I wonder. What is the point to a conference? Why seemingly normal academics will spend any time in hotels next to noisy honeymooners or loud party people who like to play their tunes at 03:00?
As we finished our first session the other day, in keeping with our own tradition, we overran, we sat and had a long discussion of the key points we got out of the session. The discussion was very interesting to talk to people who may do something similar to you, but so very different. “Comparing notes” has always been one of those processes in academia that promote understanding and enhance the way we learn.
The conference for any discipline is a mass gathering of professionals that do just that; exchange ideas and engage in discussions about the discipline and its practices away from all the other less academic endeavours of the profession.
Usually conferences carry a theme, our conference the theme this year is “Crime, Legitimacy and Reform”. I found it interesting, considering the sessions we are presenting, focus on subverting facets of an established penal institution into providing higher education classes and altering ever so slightly some of its founding principles. Reform? Perhaps, but definitely an attempt to address a profound disciplinary question what are prisons for? This is a question that considers if prison is a relevant institution for a 21st century society. Education in prisons is not a novel idea, but introducing HE education inside a carceral environment provides a new suggestion of what prisons might be for. Clearly this is something worth debating and this week we have been exploring some of the aspects of our work and research.
In a group discussion after one session, we identified the principle ideas of our approach to HE in prisons. The notions of mutual respect, equity for all and educational purpose are the things we identify as the most important. It was interesting to hear the responses from other delegates who seemed to have slightly different views about who ought to participate in such an educational initiative. Sessions such as these allows me to reflect also on what we do. One of the thoughts, I have had regarding the educational approach we have taken, is whether we “normalise” incarceration in a way that justifies/legitimises its hold as an established penal institution rather than challenging its authority (as @paulaabowles asks, quite graphically, is it better to be inside the tent and pissing outside than be outside the tent pissing in?!) Leaving colourful metaphors to one side, the question of what is the obligation/duty of a modern day criminologist regarding criminal justice institutions remains. In essence, should it be different from before; what Liebling calls; a critical friend towards all those institutions of control or not?
Finally the conference is where trends and ideas come to be tested, explored and debated. I remember being in one session back in 2000, when one colleague said; looking into the new century and predicting that the main concern for criminology will be youth crime and initiatives to control it. A year later, 9/11 made terrorism an emerging priority and the collective discussion shifted quite dramatically.
What are conferences for? A great deal of academic discourse…and an interaction that reaffirms why we care so deeply for our discipline