Conferences are, in some form or other, an inevitable part of an academic career. They provide a space in which we can present and discuss our work while also learning about other research and news from colleagues. They are a privileged opportunity to travel the world and see beyond the walls of our home university. While many conferences are focused exclusively on (non-pedagogical) research – though of course there are pedagogically-focused conferences – they can also inadvertently enrich our teaching practices.
The following are, in my opinion, the three best things about conferences and why this makes them good for teaching.
(1) They can remind you of why you became interested in your subject or research field in the first place. Academic life is a blend of many things, and if you have a lot of teaching or administrative responsibilities, your research can sometimes feel like a hobby: that thing you do when you have a couple of hours free one day. It is easy to lose track of what we are doing as academics, when the work seems relentless and unforgiving. Conferences are therefore an excellent way of re-sparking the excitement and joy of research. As noted in the tweet by Prof Stephen Reicher (St Andrews Uni, Scotland), we “have the privilege of being paid to find out about things that interest” us.
This rejuvenating aspect is, I think, one of the best things about conferences and it has numerous benefits for teaching. Not only does it help to bring our research interests back to the centre of our attention, this then also helps us to re-orient ourselves back to why we are here in the first place. It is this re-orientation that then enables us to stand alongside our students and to animate our interests in our subject. In short, it makes us sparky again.
(2) There will always be at least one presentation that will change how you think about something. It could be about the topic being discussed, or the way they present it, or a combination of both. At the conference I attended this summer (http://www.icca2018.org/ on Conversation Analysis), there were many inspiring presentations but there was one that I found particularly mind-blowing. It involved a presentation from within a virtual reality headset, demonstrating the possibilities of using digital worlds to analyse video that was recorded using 360° cameras. You can read more about this on a guest blog by the researchers Prof Paul McIlvenny and Dr Jacob Davidsen (Aalborg Uni, Denmark; see below) here: https://rolsi.net/2016/10/17/guest-blog-jacob-davidsen-and-paul-mcilvenny-on-experiments-with-big-video/). I hadn’t intended to see that presentation, and so it was a wonderfully serendipitous moment.
The good thing about this is that conference presentations always contain the potential to surprise us, and either challenge our assumptions or present a novel way of thinking about a topic. The impact of this on our teaching is that we might also be inspired to try something different; a new way of presenting an idea, perhaps (though take it easy with the singing: see footnote). We may learn more from those things that we least expect rather than those things we plan for. A little like the ‘hidden curriculum’ but with more spontaneity.
(3) They enable us to see the world from the perspective of a student. Sitting through conference presentations can be exhausting when they continue for three or more days (and it is often many hours of sitting. Anyone else keen to have standing- or a walking-presentations every now and again?). As academics and teachers, it is easy to forget what it is like to have to listen to other people instead of being the one doing the talking or having planned the learning session. In a conference, we briefly become the student again, listening to others’ presentations and trying to figure out what it is that we are being shown.
There is some complexity in this shift of teacher-learner role: as conference delegates we are all at different stages of our academic careers and are not a homogenous unit waiting to receive information from the speaker. We have previous knowledge and understanding that we bring to the conference, through which we accommodate and make sense of the presentations in relation to our own needs and motivations. Just like our own students. They each come to their education with different ideas, interests, capabilities and challenges. What they gain from our teaching is – as noted in point 2 above – not always what we intend it to be. We therefore not only gain a small insight into the physically and mentally demanding challenges of being a student, but also a reminder that our students are unique in their approaches to learning.
It is with all this in mind that I look forward to my final planned conference this year, which will indeed be a pedagogical one this time: NU (nätverk och utveckling) conference (http://nu2018.se/). Placed in the middle of a busy teaching term, it is perfect timing to add a little spark to my approach and to be reminded of what it is like on the other side.
Sally Wiggins, Didacticum, August 2018.
 Back in 2003, I saw a keynote presentation that involved a song about ‘social constructionism’, accompanied by guitar-playing and singing by the keynote speakers themselves. For many of the attendees, it was the one thing that we still remember from that conference. We didn’t necessarily learn anything more about social constructionism.