23 October 2005

On conferences

Conferences are the traditional way for researchers and developers in many disciplines to exchange ideas; and, it has to be admitted, the international conference circuit is one of the perks of the job. I have only recently joined in, never previously having been able to get the funding to attend; so what, as an old-timer not seeking advancement or networking, do I make of conferences on teaching and learning in higher education?

Not a lot. I have left it a week to reflect at leisure on the last one. It was the second annual conference of an outfit I won't name. There were 650 participants and 280 papers in three days. I suspect that many institutions will not fund attendance unless their staff member is presenting, so the organisers must have been under great pressure to accept as many papers as possible. They crammed them into hour-long sessions with three papers each, in many cases; and multiply-authored papers got precedence. OK, my poster session will go on the c.v. for what it's worth, but to be frank many of the papers were not worth inclusion. I generalise, of course. I couldn't attend all of the sessions, and like any self-respecting conference member in an attractice and strange city I skipped some I could have attended; but accustomed as I am to marking work at Master's level, I had to admit that much of what I heard would not pass muster at even that level. Some of it was not worthy of undergraduate levels.

With some conspicuous exceptions, many papers followed the pattern of:
  • This is our background
  • This was our project
  • We did this, we did that
  • We evaluated it and
  • Guess what? It worked really well!
In other words, they were narratives. Each was backed up with references to obscure articles in journals people only read when they need to confer spurious authority on whatever idea they originally had, but almost totally devoid of critical analysis and proper theory. Theory is much maligned in a practically-based discipline, but it is the discourse which enables ideas to develop and be tested; but most presenters I heard ducked out of claiming any theoretical substance to their ideas.

Much of the discussion in the plenary and keynote sessions was about how important the "scholarship of teaching and learning" was and how neglected it is. There was no real debate about positions and ideas about it; there was no deconstruction of its assumptions, just a "motherhood and apple pie" endorsement. Participants wanted to promote it, and were evangelists, advocates and champions for it, but it was never clear what "it" was. The most-cited person was Lee Schulman, who proved to be a witty and engaging speaker, but offering little more than plonking platitudes about the desirability of this "scholarship".

If anyone reads this I'll probably get black-listed from future conferences. So what? But aren't they barking up the wrong tree? The issue is the craftsmanship of teaching (pardon the implicit sexism), not its scholarship. Scholarship is what you exercise on given accomplished facts, like Shakespeare's folios; it's more prestigious than craft (although not as prestigious as "research", of course). Moreover, "craft" is difficult to communicate, particularly in 20 minutes.

Much of my stuff is sloppy, if (I hope) stimulating. I don't pretend otherwise; but then I don't have to ask anyone else, nowadays, if I can spend £1k to travel half-way round the world for a three-day jolly.

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