Thursday, 22 March 2012

A square peg in a round hole

I know I have blogged a lot about conferences, but it is indeed an eternal topic of academic life. I mostly go to conferences to which I am invited with all expenses paid. I can occasionally attend a conference I pay myself (or at least from my professional development allowance) but there must be a very good reason. For instance if it a very promising conference from a professional point of view. Or if there will be nice people there. Ideally, it should all concur: expenses paid, exciting topic and nice people. Good food is also a bonus. But you cannot have everything.

I accepted the invitation to this event for a couple of reasons (apart from all expenses paid). It was advertised as a workshop. For me, a workshop is a gathering of a maximum of 20 people who "work", as it were, talk, discuss, take scholarship further. I have attended several of these recently, and there is another one coming next month. But this one is not a workshop. It is a symposium. At a symposium, a small group of people talks to a large group of people. I assume the large group of people had to pay for listening to the small group of people. I must admit that time allocation is generous, and there is ample time for questions after the talks. But a Q&A session is not the same as a workshop discussion. So if I had hoped to get formative feedback on my talk - I haven't. Someone said they enjoyed it.

The reason I hoped to get formative feedback is that the workshop/symposium is interdisciplinary. Half of the people here, or maybe more than half, are developmental psychologists. I don't remember when I felt so much out of place. I once gave a keynote to a huge congress of psychoanalysts (on first-person narration in young adult fiction), but I didn't stay to hear their papers. I also gave a keynote to a huge congress on C S Lewis where the audience was amazed that someone could discuss the Narnia books as literature. For them, it was all holy scripture.

But here I am not giving a keynote and can disappear afterwards. And I am genuinely interested to learn what developmental psychologists know about books and children. They know a lot about children. They don't know much about books. They say "picturebook" and mean a scrapbook with images. They say "fantasy story" and mean anything that isn't fact or instruction. And I realise for umpteenth time that I am visually illiterate because I don't understand staple diagrams. I am also frustrated that someone is trying to present three different, unrelated projects in 45 minutes, reading carefully from their slides. This must be a different conference culture. I feel ignorant because I don't recognise one single reference. I don't know the terminology, although I am trying to guess, and to decipher the jungle of acronyms.I am uncomfortable with the wording "we used three conditions" meaning that children read three books. I don't see a book as a condition. But perhaps for a developmental psychologist, it is. Perhaps I am discipline-blind.

I cannot help asking myself: was my talk as incomprehensible to them as theirs are for me?

To be fair, I have learned a lot. Presumably more than I typically learn from a conference in my own area.

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