Conference top tips

ESCAS-CESS 2017 Conference report

Posted on Updated on

opening ceremony
Opening ceremony of ESCAS-CESS 2017, held at the beautiful new campus of the American University of Central Asia

The first joint conference of the European Society for Central Asian Studies (ESCAS) and the Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) was, it is fair to say, a roaring success.

Held at the stunning new purpose-built campus of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, ESCAS-CESS was the largest international conference of Central Eurasian regional studies scholars ever to be held in the region.

I organized a panel and convened a roundtable, contributing to the eight sessions dedicated to education during the course of the conference. You can see the program here.

Panel: The shifting landscapes of post-Soviet higher education

Together with presenters Dmitry Semyonov* and Daria Platonova of the Higher School of Economics (HSE) in Russia, Martha C. Merrill of Kent University in the US and Sari Eriksson of the University of Helsinki in Finland, we discussed our research on the forces that have driven changes in the size, the shape, and the governance arrangements of higher education systems in Central Asia and the wider post-Soviet space.

We collectively aimed to advance our understanding of how change happens in higher education and the implications these changes have had in particular post-Soviet settings.

The panel was adeptly chaired by Zumrad Kataeva of HSE in Russia and some excellent discussion points were raised by Bohdan Krawchenko, Director of the University of Central Asia.

My paper analysed how change in higher education since 1991 in Central Asian countries has been conceptualized, responding to a gap in the understanding of how theories of change are applied to higher education.

The paper was based on a document analysis of 34 purposively selected peer-reviewed English language academic journal articles published between 1991 and 2017. Articles were identified through the use of words such as ‘change’, ‘development’, ‘post-Soviet’, ‘reform’, ‘transformation’ and ‘transition’ in the title, abstract, keywords, or introduction.

As I study shifts and continuities in higher education through the theoretical lens of institutional change, I analysed the articles using a typology of modes of change I adapted from Streeck and Thelen**. This delineates both the process of change (as being on a scale between incremental and abrupt) and the outcome of change (as being on a scale between continuity and discontinuity).

Below is the visual I used to show how I mapped the articles on to the typology. During the presentation, I went through each of the quadrants in more detail to explain the rationale for placing the articles there and give some indication of the content / viewpoint that you might expect to find in each.

Typology with mappings.png

Roundtable: From Soviet to European to Global? Future Directions for Higher
Education in Central Eurasia

Over the last 25 years, the broad narrative of higher education reform in Central Eurasia has been a shift away from a Soviet model towards a model aligning with many European policies. More recently, efforts at adopting global norms are emerging.

Of course, such a concise synopsis overlooks the many intricacies of change in the very different Central Eurasian states. Furthermore, it might suggest that such a Soviet-European-Global ‘transition’ is not only linear, but that it (inevitably) leads from one starting point to one shared destination.

AUCA conf
Taking a brief coffee break and enjoying the views at ESCAS-CESS 2017

Thus, the aim of the roundtable was to question these assumptions from multiple perspectives. Some of the questions we focussed on were:

Is it meaningful to compare higher education across Central Eurasia?

Is there a crisis in the academic profession?

Who and what is higher education for?

Joining me at the roundtable were Martha C. Merrill of Kent University in the US, Sari Eriksson of the University of Helsinki in Finland and Zumrad Kataeva of the Higher School of Economics in Russia.


It was an excellent conference: interdisciplinary, a mix of newer and more established researchers, new contacts and old friends, and a chance to try out some of my PhD research through my panel presentation.

Were you at ESCAS-CESS? How did you find it?


*Shortly after publishing this blogpost, I received the tragic news that Dmitry died on 17 August 2017 following a car crash. Dmitry was a great young researcher with a promising future and his death is simply terrible news. My condolences go out to his family, friends and colleagues at the Higher School of Economics.

**Streeck & K. Thelen (2005) Beyond continuity: Institutional change in advanced political economies



From the sublime to the ridiculous, and everything in between: Ten defining moments of Congress 2016

Posted on Updated on

The big news in the Canadian academic world at the moment is Congress 2016 (on Twitter: #congressh), taking place right now at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

Congress – or to name it in full, the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences – is the annual gathering of 75 Canadian scholarly associations, with around 8,000 researchers, practitioners, policy makers and the public converging on a university site for a week every year to:

…share findings, refine ideas, and build partnerships that will help shape the Canada of tomorrow. (source:

As you can imagine, it’s a huge undertaking for the organizers, the host university – and also for participants navigating their way around the many different associations (most people are connected with one or more society but in principle are able to attend sessions organized by other groups) as well as Congress-wide events.

This was my first experience at Congress, and specifically as a member of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education Conference (Twitter: #csshe2016). The CSSHE conference organisers did a fantastic job, so a big thank you to Kathleen Moore and Michelle Nilsen.

This post is an attempt to distill some of the ideas, conversations and experiences of the past few days. Here goes…

1. Listening and learning

2016-05-30 08.39.24
Social cartography in action

What a wealth of presentations at CSSHE! I learnt about nurturing professional identities, mental health support at Canadian universities, the implications of league tables for the structure of university systems, elite interviewing, the sociology of expectations, quality assurance, immigrant pathways, “alt-ac” (alternative academic) career prospects, the ethics of employing graduate research assistants and much, much more.

One session I found really stimulating was Vanessa Andreotti’s presentation of research undertaken as part of a cross-national ethical internationalism in higher education (EIHE) project. I loved how they’d used social cartography, a visual technique to represent multiple ways of seeing and knowing. I thought it was ingenious to use social cartography not just for the research but amongst the team to map out their own perspectives. This is a really innovative way of working with discomfort and dissonance.

2. Sharing what I’ve been doing

Me in action (my hands are very demonstrative!)

I gave two presentations at this conference, one (pictured) on connections between universities’ histories and their contemporary engagement with their local communities, the other with my supervisor on our recent research project investigating the public policy framework on international students in four countries.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about these projects, to share what’s been in my head these past months and see what others think about what I’ve got to say.


3. Becoming a better writer and thinker

Writing your “tiny text” aka abstract… your ten minutes start now…

Just before the CSSHE conference, there was a full day of sessions for graduate students covering important topics from teaching to publishing, and surviving your PhD along the way. George Veletsianos‘ use of memes made the somewhat more serious topic of crafting your research agenda that much more palatable!

This set of topics were substantiated by Congress-wide sessions on skills development, such as “How to write that journal article in seven days” – the room was understandably packed for that one. Here I would particularly highlight the wealth of contributions made by The Thesis Whisperer, also known as Dr Inger Mewburn. What a privilege to make a 3D connection after following her blog for so many years!

PS For those of you who were not at the journal article writing session, the title of this blog post is a tongue-in-cheek attempt at trying out one of Hartley’s “12 types of title” that Inger talked about. Category: definitely a bid for attention of some sort!

4. Random encounters

2016-05-30 11.39.49
Deanna Rexe skilfully employing historical images to illustrate interview methods

Of course, these meetings are not entirely random when you start off in a conference of other researchers… But within that frame, I talked to and swapped ideas with some fascinating folk. Critical race theory? Governance in Kazakhstan? Employing photos from the Calgary stampede to illustrate methods? Yes to all of them.

Best of all was the five minutes spent talking to the people sitting next to me at Inger Mewburn’s journal article session. I don’t know who they are or what they research, but they offered me a couple of incredibly useful insights for an article I’m working on at the moment that will help me substantially improve it.

5. Building virtual communities

Canadian humour on the #congressh Twitter stream

As well as the face-to-face encounters, there was a great buzz on the CSSHE and Congress Twitter hashtags. I believe we were even “Trending in Calgary” at one point (though I’m not sure what the competition is…).

As well as being able to share images and soundbites with colleagues not at the conference, it was exciting to see what other people were doing and thinking. And also indulge in some of the less serious commentary, as the picture accompanying this point shows…

6. Dreaming up hashtag projects

2016-05-29 22.08.03
A candidate image for the (already in existence) #refreshmentswillbeprovided hashtag

Speaking of Twitter, and inspired by Inger Mewburn’s #phdemotions project, we had a lot of fun thinking up new hashtags that might be popular. OK, I know hashtags aren’t going to save or change the world, but there is a little bit more to this than just photos of food.

Using and sharing hashtags is another way to bring people together, which for PhD students working by themselves and possibly not even on campus very much can be an easy and lighthearted way to connect with others and overcome feelings of isolation. And if you’re into ed tech research, it offers a mine of potential data to play with! See, I told you this wasn’t all (totally) irreverent…

7. The Mayor of Calgary’s purple shoes

2016-05-28 12.25.07_crop
Look carefully at that footwear

Being at the Congress of Social Sciences and Humanities meant not just sharing space with 8,000 other delegates but the chance to attend some cross-disciplinary lectures.

Hence the chance to hear Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary and something of a local legend. He is a great storyteller. And he wears purple shoes.


8. The vibe in Calgary

2016-05-27 18.51.43
Can you bear it, Calgary? Bear made of felt roses, Glenbow Museum.

Canadians are generally pretty friendly people, and the friendliest Canadians I’ve met (so far, at least) can be found in Calgary. The University’s volunteers stood out in rain and sun to help conference delegates; members of the public we spoke to downtown were similarly happy to assist. I even heard a bus driver apologise to a passenger that she couldn’t taken him where he needed to go!

I was also very taken by the University’s speedy and holistic response to supporting evacuees from the devastating fires further north in Fort McMurray. As well as housing 1,400 people (and countless pets) on campus, their sports department is organising courses for children, their food services team are packing lunches every day, and their nursing and social work faculty and students are providing support for physical and mental health needs. Oh and the vet students are getting some hands on experience with all those pets!

9. Marvelling at the campus

2016-05-31 16.48.14
Looking up, or: how to present concrete in novel ways

I do love a good 20th century modernist/brutalist building, especially if there’s exposed concrete or Soviet-esque public art (see David Trilling’s photos or my own from Kyrgyzstan) involved… So I very much enjoyed indulging my passion for buildings at the University of Calgary.

PS Before anyone from Calgary writes in to complain, I should point out that they also have some delicious new builds on campus as well.

PPS This might well be where my next hashtag project is headed…

10. Touching at the edges of something bigger

Back from the ridiculous to the sublime with this last point.

Every now and then, during a presentation, in a conversation or at a lecture, there was a spark of something touching on some of the sector’s big questions: What is higher education for? What is our role in societies? Where do we go from here?

Rightly, nobody was offering easy answers – these are huge philosophical and practical questions – but it was exciting to sense the atmosphere and think that we have all, in our very different ways, taken on responsibility for breaking down those questions and looking for ways forward.

Reflections on Association for the Study of Nationalities World Convention, New York, April 2016

Posted on Updated on

Me standing next to some impressive stats at the ASN conference!

During the past week I’ve been attending and presenting at the World Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN) in magnificent New York, and wanted to use this blog post to follow up and share some reflections from an excellent conference.

ASN is a large conference with two overarching sets of themes. Firstly, topic-based, covering nationalities, nationalism, ethnicity and migration. The second area is regional, with almost all events focussed on the Balkans, Eurasia, Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Turkey. The three day conference has over 600 panellists organized into around 150 panels/events, and there is also a film festival although I didn’t manage to get to any showings this time.

As you might appreciate, I focussed on panels with a Central Asia remit. I managed to get to nine panel sessions (plus my own!) and fit in some one-on-one meetings as well over a jam packed few days. The presentations were wide ranging, covering everything from an historical comparison of 19th century imperial education strategies used in the US on the Sioux and the Russians on the Kazakhs to being gay and religious in contemporary Kazakhstan.

What follows are some personal reflections on three individual presentations and two panels, as well as my top ten conference tips for presenters – all based on my observations from ASN (though naming no names where I’m suggesting improvements!).

Three notable presentations

Hélène Thibault: Impact of labour migration on matrimonial arrangements in Tajikistan

In an interesting and somewhat controversial presentation, Hélène Thibault of the Université de Montréal in Canada suggested that second marriages can be “emancipating” for Tajik women, particularly if their first experience of matrimony was unsuccessful. Marrying for a second time can be seen as a way to ensure economic security and ensure moral respectability. However, Thibault also argued that the growth in polygyny (her preferred term for Tajikistan as it refers to a man with multiple wives rather than polygamy in which either the man or the woman could have multiple spouses) could be described as “adultery reframed” – legitimising men undertaking multiple relationships rather than carrying out affairs in private.

Adrienne Edgar: Names and Naming in Ethnically Mixed Families in Soviet Central Asia

Well-known Soviet historian Adrienne Edgar spoke with great expression as part of a packed out panel on language, cultural production and national identity. To begin with, I thought her topic was going to be quite simplistic: how did families of mixed Russian and Central Asian heritage (the most common ethnic mixing) choose their babies’ names? But as she explained the results of this oral history project it became apparent that there was much more to a name: in Edgar’s words, naming was a “low cost but clear way to express identity and preferences”. How you named your child spoke volumes about how you imagined them fitting into the society around them (and indeed, how you as parents imagined that society to be).

Rico Isaacs: Exit, Voice, Loyalty…and Sanctions: Options and Strategies for Opposition Movements in Kazakhstan

In this presentation, Rico Isaacs outlined how he has applied Hirschman’s 1970 frame of Exit/Voice/Loyalty to understand the situation for the opposition in Kazakhstan. Here, exit means leaving the regime, system or country; voice means making your complaints known publicly or privately, and loyalty (to which Isaacs added sanctions) was noted as being a particularly valued concept in Central Asia. These stages aren’t linear and none, some or all may happen in varying degrees at different times. But the bottom line is that in 2016 Kazakhstan, the opposition is “moribund”, according to Isaacs, so the focus needs to shift to understanding where the spaces for dissent (if not outright opposition) can be found.

 Two fascinating panels

Panel: Normative Orders and Kazakhstani Practices: Outcomes of Contestation in a Post-Soviet Field

Zhaniya Turlubekova: Political Institutions in the Fight against Drug-Trafficking: How Kazakhstani Law Enforcement Fights Transnational Crime

Aslan Sataibekov: Gay and Religious: The Contexts of Post-Soviet Kazakhstan

Raikhan Satymbekova: Female Political Representation and Barriers that Women Face in Politics

Ainur Jyekyei: Why Kazakhstan Increased Its Greenhouse Gas Emissions, While Poland Decreased under the Kyoto Protocol from 2005-2012

This was one of the best panels I attended, made up of Master’s students from Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. Each of the presenters discussed the findings from their Master’s thesis and you can see from the titles above that they did not shy away from hard-hitting and important topics. All four presenters were incredibly well prepared, had good slides, kept to time, and gave thoughtful answers to the audience questions. Stand-out findings were from Zhaniya Turlubekova, who argued that modern Central Asian states are “too weak” to prosecute relatively new types of transnational crime such as drug trafficking, and from Aslan Sataibekov who managed to secure interviews with gay and religious Kazakhstanis even though the gay community aspires to remain secretive in order to minimise attention paid to them by government and society at large.

Panel: Teaching, Branding, Remembering

Leah Haus: Ideas, Institutions, and School Curricula: A Comparative Perspective

Hannah Moscovitz: Nation-Branding Through International Education: Exploring the Sub-National Context

Anna Kyriazi: The Education of National Minorities:  A Thematic Analysis of Claims, Arguments, and Justifications

Sabrina Sotiriu: Online/Offline Scottishness: Strategies, Values, Norms and Procedures

My other contender for favourite panel, this session used education as a way of exploring identities in comparative settings. None of the presenters were using the former Soviet states as case studies and this made it even more fascinating for me, a chance to rest my Central Asia hat and put on my comparative and education hats instead! I enjoyed the range of approaches to comparison, which covered historical approaches, discourse analysis, interviews and quantitative data. I also found the way each presenter interacted with the others – even though they didn’t know each other – and the quality of discussion after the talks to add a great deal of value to the session.

 Top ten conference tips for presenters

  1. Do be clear about what’s new and/or important in your study. You care a lot about your topic so you need to tell your audience why they should care too.
  2. At the beginning of your presentation, do outline what you’re going to talk about.
  3. Do be up front about any limitations in your study… otherwise someone will ask you about it and you will look defensive!
  4. If using slides, do limit how many you use so you don’t have to skip any because you ran out of time.
  5. Similarly, do limit how much information goes onto each slide and try to break up text with visuals or at the very least bullet points – you don’t want your audience trying desperately to read a large chunk of text and not listening to you.
  6. If presenting data, do cite your source(s).
  7. Do be honest if you can’t answer an audience member’s question – ideally, tell them what you do know about something similar instead.
  8. Do stick to the topic that got you accepted to the conference – if it’s really not possible then communicate with the conference organizers and fellow panel members about the alternative options. [Don’t announce a change of topic as you begin your presentation!]
  9. Do submit your paper by the deadline to give your panel discussant (assuming you have one) and co-presenters as much time as possible to read and think about what you have written.
  10. If the conference has a Twitter feed (ours was #nationalities2016) and you are OK with using Twitter, then upload a few tweets as the conference progresses. It’s a nice way to show your engagement and support fellow presenters.