Why should a Master’s student go to EASST conference?

By Artemis Papadaki Anastasopoulou

Wondering and wandering at the Ecohub of Lancaster University, where interesting encounters took place. (Picture by Naoki Matsuyama)

Anna Tsing writes how indeterminate encounters shape who we are. We are all contaminated, as “purity is not an option”1 and multiple indeterminate encounters give us form and life. They are indeterminate because there is no direct control of their outcome; it is life in precarity at its finest. However, despite this absence of control, we can and, as I argue, should position ourselves in time-spaces where such encounters can happen – e.g. conferences, as I discuss in the following, along my experience of attending the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) Conference in Lancaster in summer 2018.

Exactly there, I not only had the chance to present some of my own work, but also got to experience multiple indeterminate encounters with people, topics, paper programmes, spaces and ideas. In the two following brief episodes, I touch not only on the meetings with people I would never had the chance to interact with otherwise, but also on the process of finding one’s own personal interests in the STS archipelago. Therefore, these are written accounts of encounters that deeply shaped my understanding of STS as discipline and of my own way of being in and out of the STS community.

Above all, I want to encourage Master’s students to go to such conferences, to position themselves in spaces in which such encounters can happen. In Lancaster, I could not fail to notice the low number of Master’s students within the conference crowd. “Why are there so few Master’s students attending this conference?” – that was a question which I kept coming back to whilst and after being there. Exploring and discussing this phenomenon with a colleague at post-doc level, he mentioned that he too did not attend conferences when being a Master’s student, simply because of not perceiving himself as part of the community. Giving a systematic answer to why Master’s students don’t attend conferences is beyond the given scope, but drawing on my own experience I briefly want to explore some reasons why I believe Master’s students should attend the EASST conference, and also touch upon the practical issues that might restrict them from doing so.

Beyond heroines and heroes

It’s 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 25th of July, and I am in front of Lancaster University’s Catholic Chapel, where a group of people are gathering for the ‘Meeting Soil’ excursion. The registration desk is not open yet, so no one is wearing name tags. As we head to the Ecohub garden and the permaculture grounds we are asked to communicate in small groups about who we are, why we are here, but also how we feel about being there. I was excited! What a great conference opener, encountering new people in a garden just to talk—first names only, not much academic talk, just talk.

Later in the afternoon, I am sitting in a panel discussion. In front of me are my own STS heroines and heroes, many of whom who I know only by reading their name tags. I was enthused. Having had read their work in my first semester, I felt like knowing them a little. The feeling was great, but I didn’t get to speak to them. On the other hand, I spoke to many other people whose work I had never read. I spoke with a person who is teaching design students, a librarian from Mexico and a PhD student who is doing fieldwork in India. At these conferences, there are many people whose work you have read in your studies, and they become important to you. I was looking forward to seeing them and listening to their talks; but I realised that the conference wasn’t only about this. It was also about all the other spontaneous meetings and encounters you would never otherwise have had. In particular, about all the people you wouldn’t have heard of or talked to otherwise.

On making decisions

The moment I got in my hands the conference programme I felt overwhelmed. SO MANY PANELS! Who should I see? The programme was 300 pages long and I needed to make decisions quickly, based on a very practical question; As I couldn’t go to all of them, I had to choose. This process of filtering invoked a reflection on my own interests, forced me to explore them and to ask myself: which panel will you go to now? Further, it helped me to reflect on my own research and what I feel connected too, but also assisted in seeing what other areas I am interested in. Hence, I left with a sense of security for what I want to pursue (at least in the near future) – the conference functioned as a filter through which I became more focused, grounded and content.

In the past, I have had many discussions with other students about our academic paths. STS offers so many interesting avenues of study that, when choosing a Master’s thesis topic or a PhD topic, it is easy to feel restricted by the need to pursue just one topic. There is a loss involved when you are interested in so many things but have to choose just one. At least, this is a feeling that I have had many times. For me, the conference offered a space where I could navigate my several interests and get the chance to explore them further. I got to hear talks and discuss them with people, see what they are currently working on, coming to understand if I could see myself researching these topics and approaches.

Of course, while there are many good reasons why Master’s students could benefit from conferences and their indeterminate encounters, there are also a number of obstacles potentially in the way of them being able to do so. These days, being granted a visa can be a problem faced by academics, Master’s students included. From personal experience, I know at least one person who couldn’t join the EASST conference due to visa issues. Finance can also be a considerable barrier, despite fee waivers being awarded to applicants. Are both Master’s and PhD student’s considered to be in the same category when fee reductions are considered? PhD students often get funds to go to such a conference whilst Master’s students don’t; so categorizing these groups as the same may disadvantage Masters students. However, such issues touch beyond the EASST conference and beyond the STS community as such.

Food-for-thought and collaborative survival

Taken together, these comments are offered as food-for-thought, for practices of inclusion within the STS community. The STS scholar and activist Max Liboiron writes about running a feminist environmental science lab, in which the values of equity (not equality) and humility are the center2. Could STS conferences turn into spaces of resistance? Could STS conferences become the mushroom of Ana Tsing’s book that gives us new imaginations for collaborative survival? Perhaps it is too much to ask from a small field of STS, but for now one thing is sure: Master’s students have much to benefit from attending such conferences, just as much as the field of STS has to benefit from such students being there: they help building the community, challenge the traditions and assist in creating new spaces for an ever-expanding field.

  1. Tsing AL. The Mushroom at the End of the World?: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press; 2017.
  2. Liboiron M. How to titrate like a feminist. https://civiclaboratory.nl/2019/05/26/how-to-titrate-like-a-feminist/. Accessed May 31, 2019.

This blog post was originally published in EASST review. However, the version at hand was overworked by the original author, featuring additional theoretically-based reflections.

Artemis Papadaki Anastasopoulou is a PhD student at Department of Science & Technology Studies at the University of Vienna. Her academic interest lies in the political dimensions of materiality with a focus on the case of plastics. Additionally, she cares about issues of inclusion and community building within STS and beyond.