Rosie White, Karen Ross and James Leggott
This year’s MeCCSA Annual Conference was hosted by Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, 7th-9th January 2015. We started preparing for the event over a year in advance and one of our key concerns was that bad weather (snow, ice, hail, wind or other act of god) would disrupt travel to and from the conference and make transport to the evening venues problematic or even dangerous. Fortunately this was not the case and the weather was remarkably fine and sunny, albeit not warm – it was January in the North East, after all.
Around 250 people came, and stayed, and took an active part in discussions over coffee, over lunch, in seminar rooms, in plenaries and in the main foyer. For the planning team, on day one, it was hard to believe that the conference was actually taking place after its long gestation and all the trials and tribulations of planning. At times, there was a sense that we were having an out of body experience: the technology did not turn against us, catering turned up on time (and was good), the speakers were fantastic and, against all expectations, we did not have to engage in hand to hand combat with timetabling in order to ensure access to the rooms. The Northumbria Events team led by Shelley Brunsdon were wonderfully efficient on the day, as were our student ambassadors, all helping to make the event look seamless and professional and of course, making us look pretty good as well.
The opening plenary, ‘My Brilliant Career’, featured Professor Bob Franklin (Cardiff University), Professor Karen Boyle (University of Stirling) and Dr Ruth Sanz Sabido (Canterbury Christ Church University) talking about their experiences of the profession and reflecting upon the current situation post REF and pre-election (see features in this issue). As we had hoped, the speakers were thoughtful, engaging and frank. There was a distinctly autobiographical slant to this first session; in keeping with the conference theme, the debate reflected on generations of academics and provoked further discussion in subsequent panels, continuing outside the conference.
Delegates were then confronted with an almost impossible choice between six parallel panels in the two subsequent sessions on Wednesday afternoon, all offering a smorgasbord of academic delights. Very helpfully, all the rooms were on the ground floor and our outstanding student ambassadors were on hand to guide people from the registration area, to the plenary lecture hall and then to the seminar rooms. The first afternoon closed with a wine reception in the main foyer, allowing delegates to stock up on canapés and essential fluids before venturing out into the chilly Newcastle evening. A brave few continued on to the conference comedy event in the City Tavern, ably hosted by Kate Fox, stand up poet and doyenne of Radio 4’s Saturday Live. There was even a competition to write a comic poem which was, rather embarrassingly, won by one of the conference organizers. No money changed hands – honest, guv’nor.
Thursday morning opened with a stunning plenary about the mediation of age and aging. Professor Dafna Lemish (University of Southern Illinois Carbondale) dazzled the gathered throng with frankly gob-smacking graphics which demonstrated how animation for children is stereotypically gendered even when representing objects. Professor Lynne Segal (Birkbeck, University of London) addressed the representation of aging from a gendered perspective, noting how contemporary media has yet to fully acknowledge or access the possibilities of an ageing demographic. The plenary fed directly into a subsequent panel session on ‘Media and Older Age’ where Tricia Jenkins, Deborah Jermyn and Claire Mortimer referenced Lynne Segal’s recent work in this field.
As is traditional, the MeCCSA Network groups met during Thursday’s lunch break to discuss business and make plans for the coming year. The Women’s Network meeting was particularly well attended and it was good to see academics from all generations contributing ideas and adding to the debate. Thursday afternoon began with an essential overview of ‘the EU funding maze’ from Professor Kirsten Drotner (University of Southern Denmark), before delegates had to make more difficult choices between equally appealing panels, while the MeCCSA AGM at the end of the day featured a presentation by Professor Chris Rojek (City University) on open access publishing.
The conference dinner held at the Copthorne Hotel was, if not quite the highlight of the conference, at least edible, with wine and conversation that flowed well in all directions. Your conference organizers left at a reasonable time, leaving a number of tired but happy delegates still musing over the day’s debates or possibly something else entirely.
A plenary on ‘Digital Futures’ began the third day of the conference and although Dr Donna Leishman (University of Dundee) unfortunately had to withdraw due to illness, the remaining speakers outlined a digital landscape that was by turns terrifying and fascinating. Professor Ian Brown (Oxford Internet Institute) made clear how difficult it is not to be potentially under constant electronic surveillance, offering insights into the current practices of the ‘Five Eyes’ security forces of the UK, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Dr Paulo Gerbaudo (Kings College London) gave a nuanced overview of shifts in contemporary internet activism, sceptical of the liberal potential of ‘cyberdemocracy’.
During the morning break on Friday there was a ‘happening’ performed by a local community group, Grand Gestures. The event did not appear in the programme as it was designed to be a surprise. Some delegates seemed a little nonplussed at the sight of a bunch of older people who suddenly began rattling cups and saucers, balancing piles of crockery and running off with the muffins. It was fitting that, during a conference about ‘generations’, that this group of pensioners with attitude were able to disrupt, unsettle and amuse their audience.
Many thanks to everyone who participated in MeCCSA2015, as speakers, delegates and supporters – we couldn’t have done it without you. Onwards, Canterbury Christ Church.
Conference photos courtesy of Karen Ross and Jessi O’Donnell