Is the conference alive or dead?

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In the opening episode of Netflix’s new campus-based comedy “The Chair,” Professor Elliot Rentz is shown standing in front of a chalkboard in a nearly empty amphitheater. The epitome of the academic cliché, the longtime scholar of American literature is old, white, bald, bespectacled, and wears a blazer and tie that appear to have been taken straight from the 1980s. Painfully reading a stack of notes from the thickness of a short story, the scene simultaneously encapsulates every student’s worst nightmare and, it seems, every university governing body’s understanding of what contemporary conference looks like.

Around the world, the dawn of COVID-19 has challenged traditional teaching methods. Face-to-face lectures were traded for Zoom or pre-recorded lectures, tutorial discussions replaced by blog posts and Q&A sessions. But as the number of vaccines increases and relative normality begins to pick up in the rest of society, in universities, it’s a whole different story.

Anyone who follows the news of higher education in Australia knows the question: Does the conference have a place in the modern university? But COVID-19 has breathed new life into this decades-long discussion. We are reminded of this by headlines that appear with the regularity of a clock: “Murdoch University has face-to-face courses for 2021”; “Conferences Don’t Work: University of the Sunshine Coast Shifts to New Model of Learning”; “Curtin University plans to drop classes and in-person exams.”

Against the rhetoric of the governing bodies, obscured and obscured by the vested interests of modernization and technocratic morals, we find ourselves asking a Schrödingerian question: is the conference alive or dead?

Invariably, how one judges the value of the conference depends on how one defines the term. For example, many assume that the course is equivalent to an education transfer model. In this guise, the conference is simply a forum for academics to talk to students for a period of time, listing facts and quotes to be memorized. In other words, it’s the tertiary equivalent of pouring concrete into the empty skulls of students, and hoping that something fills in the gaps that were there before.

This mode of education has come under scrutiny, perhaps the most notable example coming from the work of Paolo Freire. The pedagogy of the oppressed (a text that I, without irony, learned during a conference). In this text, Freire proposes that “education suffers from the evil of storytelling”. The speaker speaks of “contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality which generated them and could give them meaning”. I have no doubt that you will still find speakers who use this conference model. In fact, you’re probably even more likely to find them when they’re meant to pre-record lectures for online broadcast. But in the face-to-face forum, they are few. With this in mind, it’s important to overrule the false premise that the price hasn’t changed since the 20th began.e century, and reconsider what the term ‘conference’ really means in the context of 2021.

During a conversation with several academics from the Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences, a common thread seemed to emerge: today’s lecture is a much more dynamic and varied entity than we often think. Dr Stewart Jackson, director of the School of Government and International Relations, noted the interactive nature of the lectures, communicating that his own lectures are often “filled with [him] trotting down the aisles of the boardroom, asking questions, eliciting answers, and generally trying to increase interaction. Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Rick Benitez also acknowledged that the best lectures are discursive and unpredictable, driven by the interests of those present at the time. Finally, Dr. Benjamin Brown of Ancient History and Classics noted that the amphitheater, like any other theater, is a performative space designed for engagement; “a pole of authority around which a dialogue can begin to form and merge.”

But if a lecture is interactive, dialogical, and driven by student interests and engagement, how is it different from what would otherwise be considered a tutorial or seminar?

One feature that separates the conference from these two things is the length. As a longer exchange, the conference provides an opportunity to deepen a series of interconnected ideas, creating an image from the different pieces of the puzzle along the way. In a conversation with Associate Professor Melanie White of UNSW, Dr Nick Apoifis put it this way: “The conference is a mechanism for telling a story (…) it’s like a little piece of news. ”

The analogy with the news is interesting, in part because many conference reviews will suggest that you can get all the knowledge you need from books or websites only. But while I’m not one to object to the transformative value of a book, the ability to talk about a book, put it in context, and discuss the ideas and movements that have been shaped by it. this one, is an experience that cannot be matched by something quite like the conference. While I cannot speak for disciplines outside of the arts, social sciences, and law, what makes the conference valuable is not that it simply communicates content, but that it develops a neat narrative. from that content – placing it in a world that is both familiar and new.

But beyond the simple pedagogy, the conference is a place of socialization. The reality is that the vast majority of university students today have to work a lot more than they did twenty or thirty years ago. As a result, the time on campus to build relationships and create memories is often limited. So conversations that start in the auditorium and extend outside are invaluable in developing a sense of connection with others in college. As cheesy as it sounds, when I think back to my early years at the University of Sydney, some of my fondest memories include heated discussions about the value of political theory, or questions about a novel that bubbled through. the amphitheater and exploded once my friends and I got out. In contrast, online lectures reduce the learning experience to one more akin to staying in a monastic cell – looking at empty black blocks until the end of an hour or two, and you find yourself facing a blank computer screen, completely all by itself.

But the little free time common to many students today has of course been used to support the alternative position: “If a student has been working all day, the last thing he wants is to go to school. university for a two-hour course. . ‘ This position may, at first glance, be quite convincing. But, reality says the opposite.

When interviewed, students show a strong and persistent preference for face-to-face lessons, acknowledging the inauthentic nature of online learning. Additionally, the introduction of additional amenities, such as the Echo360, still hasn’t deterred students from attending classes in person. Naturally, students want a variety of things from their education. But from the perspective of a generation that is forced into significant debt for a college education, we expect better than the glorified Facetimes and YouTube videos. Considered the “tech generation,” our access to devices and the Internet leads many to assume that we are “out of touch”, that we would rather live with pixels than with other people. If anyone is out of touch here, it’s the people who haven’t set foot in an amphitheater in decades and still think they have a better idea of ​​what’s good for students today.

In many ways, the conference is a micro-iteration of the university’s claim to be a site of public knowledge. But grappling with an industry that views education as an underdeveloped real estate opportunity and measures success through efficiency, cost-cutting mechanisms, and revenue projections, it’s not the conference, but the university that died.


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