Is there anything new under the sun?

The sun, yesterday

The journey back from TLC is always a reflective one for me, not least because I’m sat in a airplane seat for a long time and I’d rather dwell on what I’ve been doing, rather than what I am going to have to do. This year is no different.

We talked in our podcast about what had particularly struck us from the Portland event, so I don’t want to go over that ground again. But I do want to work through one of the discussions that wove (weaved?) its way through different parts of the conference, namely the limits to what we can learn.

I feel that at some point I’ve become a bit of an old hand at TLC: I have a good circle of colleagues who I look forward to catching up with; I know how to make the most of the track system; I even like the random choice of cities we visit. But the main thing is that I feel confident about being able to identify and integrate new information into what I already know.

That’s something that’s taken time: I can still all too well recall my first foray into the world of learning & teaching, deeply anxious that I was saying nothing new, re-inventing wheels that were perfectly good. By good fortune, this work coincided with moving in Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SOTL) circles, which switched me on to broader questions of pedagogy and literature outside of my disciplinary field. Even just the experience of being paired up with an electronic engineer for my training programme as a new lecturer was revelatory in showing me that my questions and challenges where those of others too.

And then you get down to the actual work and your horizons close back in: I’ve not been to a general, cross-disciplinary L&T event outside of my institution for several years, and most of the ones before that were social science focused. I did my work, published some pieces, fell in with the ALPS crew and generally became a political science specialist.

All of this is a prelude to saying that it’s easy to forget that there’s a world out there, filled with thoughtful and intelligent people, some of whom have probably tackled similar issues before you. Just think back to when you started your PhD and you worried that someone would just publish what you were going to do. Almost certainly, they didn’t/haven’t yet, but lots of people published work that overlap with what you did/do. I had this too, most memorably when I gave a presentation on my work just after defending my work, and someone said it sounded a lot like a theory that I’d never heard of: when I’d got out of that room, I found it was almost exactly like my work. I’m still not sure if I find that reassuring, or distressing.

Any way, it’s good to be reminded of what’s out there. We had a good example at TLC, with a paper that discussed pedagogical design protocols for simulations, drawing on literature in SOTL, psychology and beyond. Again, what it proposed looked not so very different from what I have learnt myself through trial and error: I’ll freely put my hands up in saying that my engagement with those literatures is scant. I’m also reassured that the things I find particularly problematic as also problematic in those literatures too.

At one level then, I’ve learnt nothing new: there was no new insight that ensued. But on the other, I learnt a lot.

I learnt that there was an independent verification of my work, a triangulation of evidence that benefits everyone. I learnt that there was a whole lot of new sources for me to read and reflect upon. And I’ve had another great demonstration of why it’s good to talk to each other about our work.

Everyone has something to bring to the table in this. I’ve been around long enough to know that seniority or title is no predictor of insight. Over the years, I’ve had as many powerful ideas from people with little or no direct experience as I have from a ‘big name’. None of us have a monopoly on how things are or should be and we would all do well to remember that.

That means we need to do several things.

First, those who are further along their journey of discovery need to remember all of this (and yes, I include myself in that group) and be open and welcoming to everyone who comes to take part in the academic debate. We get nowhere by being closed down to new ideas.

Second, those who are starting out need to take succour from all of this and be willing to say what they think: the thing that might seem banal to you might be deeply useful to someone else. Even if you don’t open up a whole new path, it’s also good to remember others of what’s already out there: I’ve hung around enough IR scholars to know that you can almost endlessly revisit the classics and find some new nuance.

And thirdly, it means we need to keep having opportunities to talk to each other. TLC is rare in what it does and my professional life and practice would be much poorer without it, both when I first started coming and still today. I know that many readers don’t have the opportunity to attend, but you can still find other opportunities to discuss and debate and find out more.

Ultimately, we are a community of scholars and a community relies on our good and continuing communication with one another. Without it, we will fall apart, but with it we can advance and grow.