Conferences as a hotbed of radical thinking

I like academic conferences. I like meeting old friends and acquaintances, the making of new contacts, the banter and the chatter, the overheard conversations of people who forget where they are and who might be listening, the discovery of even more areas of academic endeavour that you’re not interested in and (less frequently) that you are interested in. I like being away from work, while still being at work, even if the ubiquity of wifi (which allows me to write this at the airport) means that work-work is still able to get hold of you if they must. I like that I can usually get at least a flavour of a place I’d not get to visit otherwise, to broaden my cultural horizons, even if that does only mean eating the local delicacy.

And I like all these things despite the fact that I rarely learn anything at conferences. It’s not that it doesn’t happen – as you’re about to read – but that much of the substantive content is either stuff you’ve heard before (if it’s the big name prof giving a plenary), stuff that’s potential, rather than actual (if it’s a grad student outlining the next steps of their doctoral work), or stuff that confirms what you always suspected (most of the rest).

To be clear, that’s not a problem. Indeed, I’d argue it’s precisely what makes a conference really useful.

The thing I love (rather than just like) about conferences is the space to think dangerous thoughts, to discuss radical ideas. That conversation in the hotel lobby with the colleague you’ve not seen for a while, the chance combination of ideas that suddenly resolve into a plan.

At this conference, I’ve had several of those moments and have written some of them up already here.But it was today, as I pounded the streets of Toronto, that something came together that made me all eager to share.

As I’ve written before, I’m introducing a Liberal Arts & Sciences degree at Surrey and will be involved in teaching some of the core modules. That includes research methods this autumn.

Now, I’ve not taught research methods before and I’ve not been taught research methods before (my alma mater was rather like that), so I’m working here on the topic’s reputation, which is awful.

But yesterday, I was listening to Cai Wilkinson from Deakin talk about her task-based learning approach that she uses in her area studies course. Essentially, this is a form of PBL, where students have weekly, pre-defined tasks to achieve, such as writing a press release, or producing a storyboard.

That struck as a more manageable form of PBL, which I really want to use, but which I’m anxious about using, never having had direct experience of it. But it was the sudden connection I made today with another half-thought that was so stimulating.

Some weeks ago, my son came back from school and asking if we were related. Obviously, as his biological, legal and everything-else father, I said yes. But he wanted to show me his test for related-ness which he’d been playing all day. This seemed to involve hitting my hands and ultimately confirmed that we were related (which was nice).

But his question about “are we related?” struck me an excellent example of a question we might pose to an interdisciplinary group of students learning about research methods. It can be taken at least as a biological question, or a legal one, or a social one, or a hand-hitting one. Each approach is couched in different assumptions and probes different elements and in the contrasting of those approaches we might create space for students to appreciate the conditionality of any one approach.

Nice idea, but I’ve lacked a way to operationalise this. Until today, where I could see a way to do that brought in Cai’s model.

I’m not going to talk about it here – not least because it still needs some work – but it all serves to underline my starting point.

How many times do we come away from a conference, charged with enthusiasm and creativity, only for it to wither in the face of the pile of stuff back at work? My present enthusiasm is unlikely to survive the red-eye back home, but that moment to dream a little, to break free from the bounds of my day-to-day routine is something that I will be able to return to long from now. Come October, when I sit down with my students and ask them if we’re related, a bit of my mind will think back to a brisk spring day in Toronto.

And that’s why I really like conferences.

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