Conference engagement: a personal view

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by Natasha Taylor

So, how will you engage with your own conference?’, asked a colleague, yesterday.

This last fortnight has been a whirlwind of printing, uploading and dealing with last-minute panics, all with the aim of making sure 500 people have a good conference experience next week.  But a conversation yesterday made me stop and think: what am I looking forward to?

Organising a conference can be all consuming. It is easy to get lost in the admin and barrage of deadlines. I’ve read every abstract, liaised with every presenter and toiled for hours (literally) to make sure that everything makes sense. I know the programme better than anyone else, and there is something in every session  that is genuinely of interest to me. So, how do I decide what to do and go to on the day?

For me, going to a conference is a rare opportunity to learn about something new. So, I try to choose sessions which are not obviously and directly related to my discipline/research topic, but appeal because they make me curious. What could I learn from other people’s worlds?

Based on this reasoning, I will go to at least one of the Make Space workshops. I’ll confess that I am a ‘maker’ at heart; I’m not artistically talented but I love learning new creative skills, especially in the company of other ‘enthusiastic novices’. There is enormous satisfaction to be had in being free to think about things in different ways – in my work there is not much scope for exploring images and sounds and the writing is always very academic – and some of my most satisfying learning experiences have come through making collages, drawing (awful) pictures, and building sculptures. So often, it is not the artefact produced at the end of the lesson that is important, but the learning process you go through to get there, and the conversations you have with others. These experiences have profoundly impacted on my teaching practice, and I constantly find myself finding ways of using activities, resources and assessments which encourage my students develop key academic skills and build confidence through creativity.

In putting together the programme, I have been lucky enough to enjoy fascinating conversations with the SIA staff who have kindly opened up the doors of their studio spaces for the conference. We can learn so much from the pedagogies of the creative arts and I find it almost impossible to chose between the workshops on offer. I can easily see how I might draw on the techniques used by Peter Kaye for helping students who struggle to use language, to define concepts and analyse things. Frazer Hudson’s work excites me because it reminds us to look outwards, to be aware of the world and to be open to see things differently (he has also found a way of using the workshop as part of his own research project and that is just brilliant). Liz Noble’s session on screen printing is as just as much about learning a process, in a very special room with special equipment, as it is about developing a learning community. Finally, Joanna Rucklidge’s workshop explores how you can use play and interaction to support creative thinking, helping students out of that ‘fear of getting things wrong’ mode. Spoilt for choice, I think I might join Frazer’s session because I can see so many applications for his approaches in my own work (that said, I am inextricably drawn to the idea of getting inky hands!).

When I step back and think about it, I have no control over how 500 people engage with the conference on the day. But I have made it my own mission to engage with it creatively; I’m going to step in to the realm of another discipline and learn from their pedagogies. I’m going to finish the day with ideas to try out in my own teaching. Most importantly, I’m going to enjoy it!