Why academics should regularly attend conferences where we don't present our work. Pt 1

aa1tY3Q - ImgurIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics), one always presents new research at every conference one attends. (Or at the very least, one must be a co-author on a talk or poster).

Growing up as an ecological researcher, I've observed that there are two main reason for this ALWAYS needing to present at conferences:

1. Travel funding is, generally, ONLY available for giving a talk or a poster.
2. Conference presentations are an essential part of building an academic cv.

I'm unsure as to how much this culture of always presenting has been incorporated into #AuditCulture, but my impression is, not very much. Nevertheless, I've been reflecting on how those of us who view the university as a public good, might use conference attendance as a means of resisting the #MetricMadness of higher education administrators.

By this, I mean, attending conferences where we don't present our research, but simply listen and learn. This is unusual in STEM.

I began regularly attending conferences where I didn't present, when I started organizing conferences and workshops in my capacity as a research institute director. I was often too busy to present, because I was running around making sure that the logistics were in hand. I discovered that conference organizing is a unique sub-set of academic skills, that are somewhat different, though related to being a conference volunteer (minion), which I did lots of as a grad student.

As director of IRIS (Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability: 2006-11 & 2012-14), my conference organizing duties exploded, and I found myself really enjoying listening to and learning from many amazing speakers. While conference organizing is stressful, because I didn't have the additional stress of speaking, I found myself much better able to concentrate on other people's research.

Post-IRIS, I try to attend at least one conference a year where I'm not speaking. In 2014, I drove my Faculty of Education colleague, Prof. Steve Alsop to the Science for the People Conference at UMass Amherst, where he presented. At the time, I was experimenting with how to incorporate social media into my teaching. I used the conference as practice for learning to use the Storify software, which allows people to link tweets into a narrative. I made this storify about the #sftp14 conference tweets (I've since, gotten much faster at this).

So far, in 2015, I've attended three great conferences where I was not a presenter of any kind.

1.  The #HigherEdCamp Unconference, organized by Dina Moati of Sheridan College, Mississauga, was about higher education pedagogy, including appropriate use of technology and social media in teaching and learning (on another occasion, Twitter brought me this great presentation by Jodie Rummer).

In April 2015, I was interviewed by Lei, a graduate student visiting Canada and the USA from China. Lei is doing her doctorate on cultural differences in perspectives on teaching and research, between professors in China and Canada. She interviewed me for her research because I have won YorkU's Senior University-Wide Teaching Award.  Lei and I got on very well, and I thought that she might make useful connections at the conference and invited her to accompany me. She tells me that, not only did she have great fun, but it helped her with her research.

2.  In May 2015, I attended the excellent Flying Blind conference, organized by Dr. James Turk and his colleagues at CJFE (Canadian Journalists for Free Expression). Dr. Turk is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Ryerson University's School of Journalism (Centre for Free Expression) and was previously executive director of CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers). The CAUT has been active in drawing attention to the many ways that the Harper conservative government has been muzzling scientists and cutting the  production of all kinds of data collection, such as the Long Form census.

At Flying Blind, I had a chance to catch up with Prof. Maggie Xenopolous from Trent University:

3.  The third conference that I attended in 2015 simply as a conference delegate, was held last week. The stimulating Public Engagement & the Politics of Evidence in an Age of Neoliberalism and Audit Culture at the University of Regina was organized by Prof. Marc Spooner. I greatly enjoyed hearing a roster of fabulous international speakers (yes, I made a storify) from education and various social sciences disciplines speaking about the open access movement, resisting Metric Madness and what decolonization means in terms of actions.

I was especially moved to hear Charlene Bearhead, the Education Lead for Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission talk about how the information gathered will be shared with youth, and broader Canadian publics, so that the stories of residential school survivors will not be forgotten, consigned to reports on shelves and unused archives. Here is Charlene in conversation with Piya Chattopadhyay on CBC's The Current.

At York University, I hear many students from faculties outside of Science and Engineering throwing around terms such as "colonialism" and the need to decolonize. However, I'm frequently disappointed when I ask them for succinct, un-waffly, accurate definitions and explanations of these concepts, as well as practical, tractable steps for decolonizing. So, I was delighted to hear many speakers who have written well-regarded books at the conference: I bought 7 books, many of them by the speakers and conference organizers, including Decolonizing Methodologies by Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith and Decolonizing Education by Dr. Marie Battiste.

Although none of these three conferences were directly related to my ecology research, they were related to my decades-long interest in pedagogy, social justice and the politics of science policy. While directing IRIS (York University's Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability), I did research in all of these areas (check my google scholar profile).

Unfortunately, the York University Vice-President of Research closed IRIS down, as of June 30th 2015, despite 3 external reviewers recommending otherwise. But, the research I and colleagues did there, lives on in various ways. Attending conferences outside of my traditional, narrowly focussed biology research field has allowed me to continue to learn about interdisciplinary topics.

These non-ecology conferences have provided academic connections that are enabling a group of IRIS-affiliated YorkU faculty, who believe in the inclusive pan-university interdisciplinary framework and platform that IRIS provided, to explore ways of maintaining the IRIS research model outside of the institutional limitations imposed by the current York University administration.

This is just one important reason for diversifying the conferences that we attend.