Steal This Conference

A guest post from the Ray Hudson Posse.

If you were to ask a handful of early career scholars for their impressions of the recent British International Studies Association (BISA) conference in London they would probably say: “I wasn’t there”. The reason for the dearth in young attendees is that the conference (like all conferences) was prohibitively priced. Its four days costs a whopping £120 for early birds and £150 otherwise. For undergrads and postgrads the fee is £100 (early bird) and £130 (late). Membership to BISA is compulsory, which costs another £30 a year. It’s a hell of an entry fee into the Ivory Tower.

The way in which the structures of academia are chewing up and spitting out the next generation of scholars-with-no-future is most clearly expressed in the ‘conference trap’, characterised by a double-fuckery – those most in need of attending are precisely those most priced out. While for established academics conferences are little more than an opportunity to blow research budgets on a piss-up with the lads, for aspiring researchers these events are crucial to bolstering the CV and (*shudder*) networking. That is, they are crucial to obtaining a job that will provide them with the means – a proper wage, research budgets, time off teaching etcetera – needed to go to conferences! (And, also, to live).

But it is precisely early career scholars in fractional, contract or zero-hours employment that have limited/ no research budgets and therefore struggle to attend. It is precisely early career scholars that are underpaid and thus unable to pay out of their own pocket. These structural constraints tend to be ratcheted up if you’re a person of colour, not-male, working class, and/or from the global south. On the one hand we can’t afford to go; on the other hand we can’t afford not to go. We need a job to go; we need to go to get a job. Something has to give.

We went to BISA. We didn’t pay. We stole this conference. You can too. Here’s how.

Just walk in

Think of all the conferences you have paid through the teeth to attend. How often was your name badge actually checked when entering the building or the rooms where panels were held? How many times did you take your name badge off, or lose it, and have no trouble getting in? Your registration fee doesn’t go towards paying security guards to monitor your movements – conferences are some of the most laxly securitised spaces in our cities. Skip past the registration desk, saunter right through building, dance into the rooms, and generally no one will do a damn thing to stop you.

Make your own badge

Apart from a tote bag full of fraff and perhaps some piss-shit coffee, your registration provides you with a name badge. That’s it. And these aren’t barcode encoded, hologram printed badges. Instead, you usually get bog-standard plastic casing and some flimsy card with your name printed on it. These are easy to replicate and can be made at home for next to nothing. Once forged, your name badge will grant you unlimited access not only to this conference, but the one after, and the one after that.

Spot the difference: one of these badges cost £150, the other 50p

Spot the difference: one of these badges cost £150, the other 50p

Comrogues to the rescue!

If the conference has a semblance of policing, and if their badge system is more National Security than National Lampoons, do not give up hope. Get your friends – preferably permanent, tenured, well-paid faculty – to help you out. Walk with a large group of paid attendees to flummox security. Borrow your mate’s name badge. Ask buddies to report their badge ‘lost’ and get two for the price of one. If you happen to be a legit attendee, support those who can’t get in. Distract guards, open the fire-escape, double-up through the barriers.

Exploit all perks

Once you’re in, don’t be timid – take everything on offer. Load up on free lunches and hot beverages; bring tupperware and flasks to continue enjoying after the conference. Be first in the room for the wine reception and the last to leave. Take two glasses at a time; where possible, take the bottle. Share your exploits widely, especially with friends and strangers outside the conference walls.

Champagne tastes better when free

Champagne tastes better when free

Don’t get caught…

… but if you do, keep stum! Don’t reveal your name and politely leave. All questions are to be met with ‘no comment’. This might be tricky to get away with if you’re John Mearsheimer (but we all know he does it).

“Remember that misery”

Breach the ivory tower upon the trebuchet of autoreduction and smash the machines of the UniversityFactory with the mallet of wretchedness! Toe punt the fences that enclose scholarship and communise everything that lies beyond! eruditio sunt communia!



16 thoughts on “Steal This Conference

  1. Just as shoplifting does nothing to overthrow capitalism, so “stealing a conference” does nothing to change the practices that make conferences unaffordable. Nor is either worth boasting about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So we should just wait until these structures do change, eh? In the meantime, you and your peers will pull up that ladder behind you and, oh look, nothing does change.

    And shoplifting can be essential for survival, so screw you.


    • No, we should work actively to challenge the organisers of conferences to suppress costs and provide means-tested bursaries (which is actually where some of the charges for conferences generally go). As for pulling the ladder up, I actually work quite hard to help graduate students and early-career scholars access funding for research and conferences, and have blocked efforts at my institution to charge for admission to conferences. Incidentally, it is indeed “weasely” to hide behind a pseudonym when commenting so rudely.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow – Weasely, the tone of your comment is uncool, dude. I agree that conferences are really expensive, and hugely difficult to attend for those of us with caring commitments as well. But I’ve organised conferences and workshops myself and we have barely been able to cover costs. And as a feminist scholar for whom conferences are *the* key time when I can touch base with my feminist colleagues, I take exception to the notion that conferences are primarily a ‘jolly’ for ‘the lads’. But, yes, we do have a collective responsibility to do all we can to support emerging scholars, including in terms of financial support for conference attendance, for sure.



  4. I did indeed ‘blow my conference budget’ this year, by going to a conference in the US. I paid for BISA out of my own pocket and this is increasing the situation for all of us. I do agree, it is expensive, though, and I am not sure going for one afternoon which is all I could manage in the end was a good return for my money.

    Liked by 1 person

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  12. The conference that I have the most organizational experience (International Studies Association-Northeast) has a pricing structure for registration that significantly discounts for students ($35 early for ISA members, $50 early for non-members). I say this to make clear that I strongly support keeping prices as low as possible for students. At the same time, I find this post troubling. Here are some questions to ask:

    (1) is the BISA conference a revenue-generating enterprise or a ‘break even’ enterprise?
    (2) if the conference does generate revenue, where does that revenue go? Who and what does it support?

    Because unless the BISA conference generates revenue *and* that revenue primarily goes to organizational rent seeking, then we’re talking about pretty indefensible theft here.


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