Culture Costume and Dress

5-7th May 2021 Birmingham UK

Academic Conferences: Why Can’t they be more like Comedy Shows?

February 24th, 2021

(written by a researcher and music fan who has spent far too much time alone in Lockdowns 0.1, 0.2 and 0.3) 

As a tutor, student and early career researcher studying towards a Ph.D., I often find myself questioning and challenging the many accepted academic conventions persist in academia. As a practice-based Ph.D. student studying the visual arts, with a professional background in theatre costume its often my natural position to challenge ‘why’ certain practices endure. My confirmation (mid-point review) on my Ph.D. evidencing my questioning of academic conventions.

As lecturers and academics there is a certain amount of ‘showman’ and ‘show-woman-ship’ required to stand in front of a crowd of people and talk in depth on a subject. MS Teams and Zoom don’t really allow for this level of performance and performativity to be evident or legible by the audience. 

Recently, in my teaching, like many lecturers and academics I have had to evolve new practices to deliver content online.  Currently, online, my entrance onto MS Teams, within my teaching evidencing a more “Zebedee-esque” ‘popping up,’ or a peculiar ‘emergence’ onto the screen with a panoply of student’s initials to greet me. 

So, I started to think if music would pump the crowd (students) prior to the session beginning? 

Having attended comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, and comedy events around the UK, I started to consider ‘how’ comedians enter the stage prior to their stint, and what devices they use to ‘prime’ and ‘pump’ their audience. ‘Extensive, scholarly and rigorous research’, well maybe a ‘ping around’ on Google (other search engines are available) revealed an article in The Guardian Newspaper in 2014, entitled ‘Stand-ups on their entrance music: ‘I play it loud to drown out the screaming in my head’  

The piece, noted that each of the comedians featured, adopted a different approach to their ‘entrance’ music, however each of them outlined how their choice of music was chosen with care; some reinforcing the themes of their show, some because of the anarchy the music represented, and others were playing themselves onto the stage- just to add to the anxiety of performing at the Fringe festival. 

Contemplating the comedians entrance track and my own rather un-assuming entrance onto the virtual screen in my teaching I started to muse on what track I might select to make my entrance on to MS Teams. Researching comedy entrance music online revealed that Spotify has a playlist entitled ‘Comedy Night Intro Tracks’

So I thought, great! This should be fun. I had a zip through and the track-list featured tracks including, Happy by Pharrell Williams, Get Lucky by DJ’s Incorporated, surely it should be the Daftpunk version?  I started to muse about the situations where as academics the entrance to a ‘stage’ is an obligatory part of event. 

Enter the academic conference… 

These erudite and often terrifying, but essential events, which as an ‘emerging researcher’ continue to terrify me, have a lot in common with the comedians set. The chair is the compere and there are 20 minutes within which to impress the audience, in the hope they won’t heckle. The task, to communicate our ideas, thoughts and research findings to an audience wanting to be, if not entertained, edified. Crucially, we have to evidence rigour, knowledge and expertise in a subject which manages to maintain the audience’s attention for 20 minutes plus questions. The format of the academic conference, is well-established but with the move to online and virtual events, is there an opportunity to challenge these conventions? 

The omnipresent fear that I experience before delivering a paper at a conference parallels the comedian, Natasia Demetriou’s terror prior to her entrance at a comedy show. To evidence this terror, at one conference, I had to wear a full- length skirt to hide my knees which were literally knocking together because of the terror I was experiencing. Demetriou quotes that her choice of ‘Roar’ by Katy Perry to make her entrance at the Fringe in 2014 was a strategy admitting that, ‘I’ll be so ridiculously terrified it’s nice to have something so loud because it drowns the noise of the screaming in my head’ echoes my experience at conferences. 

The idea of having an entrance track that, a) drowns out the ‘screaming in my head’, and b) masks the sound of my knees knocking together was appealing. 

So began the search…

Which song? As a long-time fan of dance and electronic music, I liked the idea of something upbeat and high energy, but I research historical dress and costume. The seeming disconnect between these worlds, the gentility of historical dress and costuming, and the sweaty, sticky experience of the dance tent seemed contradictory. 

Last year in 2020, I had the opportunity to present at Critical Costume which was supposed to be in Oslo, but like many events, it moved online. The speakers, were asked to film the presentation of our paper, creating a video which attendees would view, and then discuss in ‘working groups.’ As we were editing the presentation, my friend helping me edit asked if I wanted music…

In Culture, Costume and Dress, 2021, should my paper be accepted I am not sure if I will be brave enough to embrace the entrance track, and if I do, how will I select it, will it be a track to drown out the screaming in my head and the knocking of my knees?  

One thing I do know is that the conference format is overdue an overhaul- we have to be brave- step into the unknown. Speaking about my music and conference musings to some member of the convening panel, I asked the members what their entrance track might be? 

Dr. Sian Hindle: ‘Original’ by Leftfield 
Dr. Joanna Jarvis: ‘Sound the Trumpet’ Purcell and ‘Lady from the Sea’ by Seth Lakeman 
Dr. Poppy Wilde: ‘Jus a Rascal’ Dizzie Rascal
Dr. Sandra Costa: ‘The Final Countdown’ by Europe
Sophie Johnson: ‘The Greatest Showman’ from the Greatest Showman Film Soundtrack
Louise Chapman: ‘Go’, by the Chemical Brothers

I am not sure what their choices reveals about our team? I will leave you to ponder…

Other suggestions from researchers in the School of Media (BCU) include: ‘Simply the Best’ by Tina Turner, 
‘Future Drugs’ by The Armed, ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads, ‘Rock n’ Roll Star’ by Oasis
and ‘Crown on the Ground’ by Sleigh Bells.

What would your entrance track be?

— Louise Chapman