08 July 2012

On a short conference paper

(As I start to write)  This time last week I had just presented a very short piece at the 4th International Threshold Concepts Conference in Dublin, on behalf of colleagues Peter Hadfield and Peter Wolstencroft, and myself. They were not able to attend. I'll post more about the conference when I've digested it a bit more. This is about the paper, and the experience of presenting it.

This page has the slides, synched to my talk, and a draft of the paper version which will be amended and put forward for the proceedings volume (subject to peer review, of course).

The first thing to strike you is probably that there is precious little resemblance between them. This is the first time I have been asked to submit a written draft of a whole paper before delivering it, and the experience has clearly underlined the enormous difference between the media. At another session, one of the presenters started by actually reading his paper--and although not technical, it was almost completely incomprehensible. Fortunately, he abandoned the tactic after five or six minutes, and the whole thing immediately came alive.

The call for papers originally went out at the end of 2011, and we duly prepared an abstract which represented some of our thinking at that time. Of course, once it was accepted, we largely turned our attention to other things, and only returned to it a month or so before the conference--by which time, of course, our reading in the area had deepened, and we had gathered more research material (the source material was all collected by ourselves and colleagues through the normal processes of running a course--student work, professional journals, records of teaching observations, material from class discussions, etc.) Some of the original ideas did not hold water, some were much stronger; and all had been changed by our discussions; neither of the final products bore much resemblance to the original abstract.

So, for example, the written paper has many more references to the social policy and organisational context of teaching in vocational education, which could be expressed concisely with a few references. But those do not work in a live presentation to a diverse international audience. Instead, the whole argument is addressed in one slide with a caption (10-11 minutes in), of a concept map of pressures and influences and responses within the sector--about which all one could say, and the only impression one could leave, was that it is all terribly complex but also consistent, a perfect storm of a need for control.

The verbal/visual presentation has of course to unfold in real time. And it was not helped by the incidental factor that on the second day the 20-minute limit was cut back to 15 minutes to allow for questions; it was a sensible decision but it could have been anticipated--there must after all be a vast amount of practical wisdom out there about running academic conferences. But perhaps it is not deemed important enough to record, report and share? Given the typical arrogance of academics, that would not surprise me.

The written version, on the other hand, permits cavalier leaps up and down the text, and re-reading and pursuit of references. It does not have to rely on first hearing as the definitive version, so it can handle complexities which a listener cannot process at one pass. (I'm sure all this has been exhaustively researched by others who have lots of other interesting points to make, but I really can't be bothered to pursue the trail. It's a downside of access to literature online, that it's not just a possibility, it's an obligation.)

More than that, I can't talk academic (academically?). Let me loose in a classroom or a tutorial in the coffee-shop, and I'm all analogies and metaphors, and anecdotes and illustrations. Every new jargon term is naturally linked with a (usually) apologetic (in two senses) illustration. Ask me to write, and I employ economically dense terminology because a reader has discretion over the time she devotes to the text which she encounters more or less all at once...

But, of course, the real-time presenter has more control over pace, and (although barely acknowledged in academic circles) dramatic effect. (Except when you lose 25% of your time a moment before you start...)

So the whole thing was a bit of a damp squib; all build-up, and no bang. So it goes.

And I did leave out at least one critical point. That was the principle of equifinality (written version) or "ending up in the same place from many different starting points" (verbal version). What the system seems to be trying to engineer out of the system is the possibility of students floundering, getting lost, disoriented, demoralised... Those are indeed psychological correlates of liminality, but they can also occur for many other reasons--they are not in themselves evidence of liminality, which is an ontological, not a psychological, condition. They also happen when courses are poorly designed, or students poorly matched to them, or teachers lack enthusiasm, or... And they can also arise when you try to squeeze out the possibility of liminality. So possibly the liminality argument is not falsifiable in Popper's terms. (No-one picked up on that.)

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