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In the Moment: Notes from a Graduate Student Conference

Madeleine Pape

25 July, 2017

One of the benefits of being a graduate student is that you get to attend graduate student conferences. I’ve attended three such events in the past eighteen months, all within STS. The interdisciplinarity of STS is crucial in this political and ecological moment and is sparking interest in (and support for) the work of our graduate students. As an Australian sociologist still adapting to United States (US) academia, these conferences have helped me to value and position my work within a broader context (while providing a positive counter narrative to the Lego Grad Student tumblr, well known among US graduate students).

A case in point: “Science, Technology, and the Politics of Knowledge in Global Affairs,” held in March with support from Northwestern University’s Buffett Institute. The event provided graduate students with the benefits that come from a small conference: just eighteen  presenters, six faculty discussants, and keynote speaker Sheila Jasanoff. The rest of this post is given over to the three organizers – Savina Balasubramanian, Omri Tubi, and Kevin Baker – to share some further insights.

Backchannels: Kevin, what were the origins of this conference?

Kevin: To start at the very beginning, Savina, Omri and I are all members of Science in Human Culture (SHC) at Northwestern. It is a close-knit STS program that brings together faculty, postdocs, and graduate students from across the social sciences and humanities for talks, seminars, and to review works-in-progress. Beginning last academic year, the Buffett Institute at Northwestern has solicited conference proposals from graduate students to put together an interdisciplinary conference on a topic devoted to global political, economic, or social issues. Since there are a number of us in SHC working on the global politics of scientific expertise, Savina contacted Omri and I to develop a proposal. It went through a competitive review process and Buffett’s review committee selected ours for its second annual award.

Backchannels: Omri, can you talk about how you settled on a conference theme and title?

Omri: I think the three of us work on very different things but we also share at least some of the issues we're interested in, making it easier to come up with the theme, questions we were interested in, and a blurb that captured what we wanted the conference to be. We translated our research interests into a theme and title that we thought would speak to a diverse audience with similar concerns. This is not to say that it was easy, because we still needed to craft it, phrase it, and explain our idea to ourselves. But we did have the common ground to start from, a shared sense of what we wanted.

Backchannels: You ended up winning the Buffett Institute's graduate conference competition to fund the event. Savina, what would you say made yours a particularly strong proposal?

Savina: I believe the strength of our proposal lay in two interlinked factors: the timeliness and relevance of the topic, especially in the context of ongoing global conversations on science, "truth," and fact, and our assertion that global politics is, and has always been, a politics of knowledge. The conference gave participants and audience members an opportunity to explore the relationships among science, expertise, and global politics in a number of domains, including global health, scientific discovery and exploration, labor movements, climate science, the regulation of global finance, and "big data." We couldn’t have predicted just how timely and relevant the conference would be when we applied for the grant in April 2016, and we were thrilled to pioneer discussions on such topics in what some are calling a "post-truth" world.

Backchannels: Kevin, how did you navigate the task of selecting conference abstracts and sorting them into panels?

Kevin: It wasn't easy! We received nearly twice as many proposals as we had space for. We started off by each picking a paper that we definitely wanted to accept. From there, we each voted for the eighteen papers we wanted to to accept and took the papers with the highest number of votes. From there, setting up the panels was actually quite easy.  Since we had a focused theme and because we had already lined-up discussants, most of the panels fell into place.

Backchannels: I recall it being a thrill to hear the faculty discussants engage with each of the papers . Savina, what feedback did you hear from the faculty discussants?

Savina: The faculty discussants were very excited to be involved in the conference. All of them agreed to participate right away! I believe they were impressed with the inventiveness and timeliness of their panelists' papers and were excited to meet the next generations of scholars working on the global politics of knowledge. Above all, I think our discussants were glad to have had an opportunity to not only read and give feedback on the papers, but to also draw out the multiple theoretical threads linking various papers together to realize new theoretical agendas in STS. It was great to see faculty and students engage with each other over meals and during coffee breaks, and we were glad to make this possible for a new generation of STS scholars.

Backchannels: Omri, why should grad students consider organizing a conference at their own institution and what advice would you offer them?

Omri: I think a conference is important to organize because it gets in touch with your academic community, faculty and graduate students. You talk to a lot of people, you meet a lot of people. It also gives you a lot of experience in running such an event. I think that graduate students who want to do it should know that it's a lot of fun but also a lot of work. We started working on this exactly one year before the conference took place. Also, Savina, Kevin and I worked very well together so having a good team is also very, very important.  

To learn more about the conference, follow this link to the final conference program.

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Reports and commentary from meetings, workshops, and seminars of interest to the STS community, with images and other media.