By Joseph M. Murphy, Director of the Center for Innovative Pedagogy at Kenyon College
I traveled a lot last year, to a bunch of conferences which were new to me. For a long while now, I’ve stuck to my comfort zone of conferences I’ve attended before, where I’ll see people I already know and hear new developments on basically the things we always talk about. (Some people might call it a rut.) But various projects and collaborators expanded that circle last year, and I wanted to reflect on that experience before the memories get completely hazy.
In the interest of not burying the lede, here’s my thesis statement: going to new conferences is a good way to get out of your own “expert blind spot” on teaching and learning issues. It’s easy and comfortable and productive to stick to the learning venues that we already know – but there’s great value in entering new learning spaces and paying attention to these experiences. It forced me to consider how well my Center’s activities are reaching the people I want to reach. And I suspect it might be a reminder of what classes can be like for new students, or students new to our disciplines or subdisciplines.
One of the defining features of a conference is that you go there. It’s a gathering, and setting matters. The environment can work with or against your attempts to be hospitable, or both at the same time. (For the record, I think this is true for digital gatherings too.)
OpenEd18 had the deck stacked against it on this score. The conference app did not perform as well as the organizers expected. (Phrases like “janky hunk of junk” would be accurate.) The Niagara Conference Center is warren-y and hard to navigate, and the opening session was convened in a cavernous, grey, poorly lit, concrete exhibit hall. So my initial experiences were disorienting and alienating. I was immediately and physically reminded that I was out of my comfort zone. To their credit, the organizers were just as dissatisfied with the app as everyone else, and were pushing print copies of the conference agenda.
I want to compare this with my experience of the Lilly Conference on College Teaching. In a way, this is my “home conference.” I go every year; I recognize people and they recognize me. I’m comfortable there. The conference moved across the Miami University campus two years ago, and I’m just about over my opinion that things were better in the old space. What I really mean is that I have my bearings and the organization of the Student Center doesn’t confuse me like it did the first year, and probably the organizers have figured out a few tricks to make the experience smoother. Every year, though, I take a small cohort of my faculty to see what a teaching and learning conference is like, and every year I’m reminded that I should do a little more orientation to the spaces as well as the themes and highlights of the program. Sure it’s the conference organizers’ job, but as the person who invited my faculty, it’s my job too.
It strikes me that this is a lot like the built environment of the classroom and the LMS. Sometimes you’re stuck in a room that’s not ideal, or the technology fails you, and all you can do is express sympathy and go to the backup plan. (Or, if you’re like me, make up a backup plan on the spot.) When an environment is new to everyone, that can be a shared experience. I’m a little more concerned about the issues which we get used to – the “Moodle just works that way” and “oh yeah, there’s no bathroom on this floor” problems. How do we make sure a new member of our community learns these tips and tricks, the ones we don’t always cover in orientation and official documentation?
That’s a powerful word, “community.” It implies belonging and hospitality, but it necessarily introduces hierarchy. That hierarchy could be described in terms of philosophy and tacit knowledge – the in-group shares the philosophy (or some parts of it), and has the tacit knowledge, and the out-group doesn’t (or doesn’t yet). This was very clear to me last year. Take, for example, AACU’s 2018 Transforming STEM Higher Education conference. There were tremendous keynotes and sessions, lots of good ideas about expanding active learning and student success. But it was a conference about institutions more than classrooms, and overall the sessions were about things we do *to* or *for* students, not *with* them. I spent the entire conference seeking out student voice, and never finding it.
Coming only a few weeks after OpenEd18 (where there was lots of discussion of collaborating with students), the difference in philosophies was jarring. I saw my own worldview of education more at OpenEd, but it also felt like a much more specialized conference than I usually attend. There was a tremendous amount of tacit knowledge about open education in those rooms – about major projects and major players and existing research – and I frequently felt behind, like I’d showed up to class without doing the reading. It was exciting, but terrifically intimidating. I became the student who sits on his hands in a fair number of sessions, not wanting to ask a question which exposes my own ignorance.
Eventually, I started thinking about students in general education or interdisciplinary courses. Do they have similar experiences when they’re asked to try on new disciplinary modes of inquiry? I think they must, given the stories I hear from faculty members complaining about students who won’t come out of their “home” disciplines to try on another way of seeing the world. Even in upper-level courses in the major, a new method can be challenging and expectations (on both sides) about tacit knowledge can be wrong. It strikes me that exercises like ungraded pre-tests and reflective writing might be good at identifying some of these gaps, allowing us to recognize them and address them before everyone gets frustrated.
This issue came home to roost during a strategic planning exercise I was doing for my Center. A faculty member pointed out (in a very friendly critique) that sometimes they don’t come to events because our advertisements use too much jargon. If it’s not clear that the event is at least reasonably relevant, they’re not prepared to invest an hour to find out. From a faculty development perspective, this seems very important – these philosophical and tacit knowledge problems can affect us even when they’re not in the room. I expect the same is true for some under-enrolled courses, or holes in students’ experience of their majors. So my conference experience, of sitting in sessions feeling behind or not seen (or both) is something I need to bring to my daily work.
I want to close by thinking a little more about community. I remember being the intrepid lone explorer of big conferences like ALA and EDUCAUSE, enjoying the hubbub and the sampling of a hundred things and maybe I’d recognize someone and maybe not. As my professional networks have matured, now I enjoy smaller events, where I’m more able to find the people I know, and make connections with some people I don’t know yet. This was perhaps most clear to me at Domains19, a small event that was my second open education conference of the year. At first, I didn’t think I’d fit in at this event – Kenyon doesn’t have a Domain of One’s Own program and I had to be convinced that I had something to say to another specialized conference. But my colleagues convinced me, and within minutes of checking in at the hotel I was being greeted warmly by people I didn’t think I knew that well, and whom, if I’m honest, I’m a little in awe of. My impostor syndrome took a back seat and I felt at home.
This is the experience I think we want our students to have. We want them to find homes in our institutions and our departments and our disciplines. But there’s our expert blind spot again – precisely because these venues are “ours”, we can perceive them as more (or less) comfortable than our new students and new colleagues. In fact, we have the power to make them so, like Charles Dickens wrote about Old Fezziwig – “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.” Little matters of custom and inside knowledge have a big impact, just like those warm smiles from folks I mostly know through Twitter did.
Every semester (or trimester or quarter or year), we ask our students to mix things up. We have them choose new courses, with new faculty and new domains of knowledge and maybe new physical and electronic spaces and new colleagues. We may ask them to move their residences or work at new times of the day. Of course we know this is the way our institutions work, and we try to give students resources to navigate all this constant change. To us, this is just the rhythm of the year; for better or worse we learn to recognize its patterns. It’s new to our students, though; even those who have been around a while have never been a junior or a senior or a graduate student before.
My challenge, then, would be for us to go learn something in a venue we don’t already know, and in doing so, reflect intentionally on what we’re learning about learning. If this isn’t the right time to think about joining a new professional community, maybe a new hobby – a sport or a craft or a skill or an art or even a club – could be a reminder of what it can be like to be a learner in a new domain. As you notice what works and what doesn’t, ask how those lessons apply to your institutional spaces too.
And then the hard part – ask what you’re going to do about it.