Gathering in vulnerable times: conferences, care, and bringing each other along

This article was written by Roxani Krystalli (University of St Andrews)
This article was published on
Teaching session

Roxani Krystalli was the joint winner of the 2023 award for Early Career Excellence in Teaching International Studies. In this essay, Roxani draws from her article on teaching and learning reflexivity in world politics to share what she has learned from her students about gathering in vulnerable times.

My classrooms are saturated with poetry. I am not a poetry teacher, nor do I teach in a literature department. The label on my office door marks me as belonging in a School of International Relations, my academic background is primarily feminist and anthropological, and my curiosity renders me what Si Transken calls “a joyful undisciplined discipline-jumper.” I teach with - rather than ‘about’ - poetry because I welcome the questions it brings into the room.

My students welcome the poems with grace and impatience alike. They want to know what this poem is about, they seek reassurance that they got it. They insist on the ‘about’ question because much of their education has taught them (us!) to orient our curiosity that way: Find the point, highlight it, cite it, file it away in the repository of human knowledge. I reinforce this message when I give feedback on student work. “This essay would benefit from a more readily identifiable argument,” I write in the margins. Another generation of “In this essay, I will…” marches towards its graduation.

I teach with poetry as a counterweight to my own scribbles in the margins. A good poem, I tell my students, does not argue. It does not defend its reasons for existence by having or making a singular point. This does not render the poem pointless, but it does reorient our relationship with it away from seeking to extract a single use. A good poem leaves space for interpretation by making literal room on the page, as well as emotional, interpretive room for the reader’s experience to filter between the lines. A good poet tells a story in the poem, through the poem, giving the listener whatever she needs to imagine a world, or perhaps enough confidence to trust that she does not need to know everything in order to imagine. A good poem reminds us that we are not just creatures of language, but that we are embodied creatures who respond to rhythm and voice, and who are moved by what feels right on the tongue or sounds right to the ear. A good poem does not tell us how to live (and it may even bristle at the question), but it may nonetheless offer ways of living as invitations, like flares in the night. A flare reminds us that other vessels are floating alongside ours, and that noticing them is a matter of urgency.

In 2021, I became ill, faced with a life-threatening condition, the effects of which remain life-shaping and life-altering. Treatment for this condition requires that I take medication that suppresses my immune system. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, I became more porous to the world. I have experienced this permeability not only as an increased physical vulnerability to infection, but also as an emotional condition, as a feeling that the boundaries between me and the world are thinner than they used to be.

I tell the story of that illness more fully in my article on teaching and learning reflexivity in the world politics classroom. The paragraph above is lifted almost verbatim from that article. Like other narratives that harden through repetition, illness stories can become scripts, rolling off the tongue through recall, demanding little emotional investment in the retelling. There can be, I find, a freedom to scripts: the freedom to divest from the duty to retell, or to retell imaginatively anew each time, the freedom to orient our energy and feelings towards living.

In the article, I discuss what I learned from my students about the mutuality and reciprocity of care in the classroom. I insist that “care, like patriarchy, is easier to grasp when the writer is specific,” and recount the various ways students have continued to practice care towards me and each other in times of vulnerability. When I have shared these stories at academic workshops and conferences, they are often met with admiring disbelief. “These are exceptional students,” people say. Though I admire and am grateful for my students too, I am not convinced that caring relations and actions are indeed exceptional. I worry that exceptionalising them makes them unicorns to admire from a distance, rather than concrete practices that we can embrace to enable and sustain life.

If an exception sets an experience apart, what I wish to do here is to draw near. I am interested in gathering, a word with ‘together’ at its root. What can we, the scholars of international relations who come together at conferences, learn from my students’ caring approach to gathering in times of vulnerability?

Vulnerability is a quiet, lasting process, not a singular event. I turn again to etymology, with vulnerability deriving from the Latin word for wound. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us practices for living in a world in which the preservation of life requires a little extra care. As I write these words, COVID-19 is still with us—through its presence as a virus in circulation, through its afterlives in the bodies of people with long COVID and the memories of the bereaved, through its denial. My students have trained the same feminist sensibility that questions for whom the ‘post-conflict’ is really ‘post’ towards the declarations of this being the time of ‘post-COVID’ or ‘post-pandemic.’ For whom is the pandemic really ‘post’? And beyond this particular pathogen, this pandemic, this named threat, what are the other vulnerabilities that shape the lives of our communities?

The students I work with are not content to rely on the formal declarations of endings, nor on institutional statements that declare we will follow “official guidance” from the Scottish and UK governments to inform how we gather. Instead, acknowledging that communities can make up their own compacts for relations, my students and I make collective agreements about how and when (not) to show up, how to bring one another along. What if our professional associations did the same? My students and I know that ‘the university’ may have its ideas about when the pandemic ended, but we are the university too—just as we, the members of the British International Studies Association make up the association, rather than BISA being an abstract, disembodied entity elsewhere, always separate from us.

What could a caring compact for conferences look like? To answer that question, we must dispense with our desire for a return to ‘before,’ and instead reimagine a compact of togetherness that allows us to carry forward some of what we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic. The knowledge is there, and as scholars, we can choose to carry it forward with us and practice it in our relations, rather than relegating it as relevant exclusively to Pandemic Times, rendered exceptional through capitalisation.

In practice, that could look like reminding participants who are ill that it is okay—indeed, desirable—to miss sessions, and embracing more flexible policies towards last-minute non-participation. It could look like organisers learning from existing good practice in other fields that have documented how to make large events safer for people navigating illness and disability. It could look like making face masks available, along with signs reminding people to take one, especially in smaller conference rooms (indeed, as the wonderful PhD students I work with improvised and made happen at BISA 2023!). It could look like not relying on individual improvisation, but on anticipating needs and attempting to fulfil them, however partially, with care.

It could look like assessing conference rooms prior to the event with an eye towards ventilation and avoiding overcrowding, by imagining who may not be able to safely sit in close proximity to others. It could look like creating outdoor or better-ventilated options for socialising, and checking in with each other before making plans in big groups. It could look like continuing to investigate online and hybrid participation options at or alongside conferences. My reliance on what such a compact ‘could’ look like is not a tentative hedging; it is an acknowledgment that imagination begins with ‘could’. Teaching with poetry nudges me to think not in the militarized language of bullet points and firm prescriptions, but in the invitation of ‘what if?’, in thought that ends in a question mark.

Like many compacts, the ones between my students and me are imperfect, partial, and depend on good will, rather than sanctions, for their enforcement. We often find that these compacts, underpinned by care and by a desire to carry one another along, hold us in closer relations than official policies do. Caring relations and practices are full of tensions and contradictions. It is possible to make a case that the practices and relations I am describing here facilitate ‘access’ or are cornerstones of ‘equality, diversity, and inclusion,’ but those statements are only powerful if we shed the quotation marks, if we think and act together towards their meaningful practice. Otherwise, the terms hang over us like toothless buzzwords, highlighting the gap between what we study and who we are to each other.

There is so much about our gatherings as communities of scholars that exposes gaps – not the proverbial ‘gaps in the literature,’ but the gaps between the ethics we theoretically articulate and the ones we live. There is also so much that hurts in our communities—wounds and vulnerabilities born not only of illness and disability, but also of language barriers, financial barriers, visa barriers, barriers to seeing others’ lives as grievable. Often, under the weight of this paragraph and in the face of such a chorus of losses and exclusions, ‘we,’ the members of associations, the scholars and conference organisers, throw our hands in the air, fearing there is too much that hurts, that there is too little we can do. What if, rather than being paralysed by the fear of not doing everything, we continued to do a little something?

Towards the end of her poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” Elizabeth Alexander writes:

“Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,

and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)

is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?”

The final line of the poem begins with an “and,” reminding us that question did not fall from the sky, but is instead part of an ongoing conversation, linked to everything else that is alive in the world. When I share this poem with students, I invite them to consider why the poem ends when it does, with a question mark—and to imagine the next two stanzas that they would perhaps write. The poem ends where its recipient must begin. What if we started with “and?” What if we became of interest to each other?

Photo by Q Manivannan