Contemplating conferences: An interview with Adisorn Juntrasook

What are conferences for, and how might we seek learning at them? In this interview, James Burford and Adisorn Juntrasook explore what insights the field of transformative and contemplative education might offer for re-thinking conferences.

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Jamie: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. As I was saying to you earlier, Emily and I have started this new blog with a curiosity about conferences. I know you have written and taught about transformative education, and worked with the contemplative education movement here in Thailand; I was wondering if you had any reflections on how conferences might be seen through the transformative and contemplative education lens?

Adisorn: Well, I have been to a number of contemplative education conferences (e.g. The International Symposium for Contemplative Practices, The Academy of Ethical and Contemplative Leadership, The National Contemplative Education Conference), so perhaps I can start with those. These conferences not only focus on contemplative education in their presentations, they also enact contemplative practices as a part of the conference itself. This often means creating space for participants to practice contemplation and have reflective time individually or in groups (for example, offering a quiet room for meditation, writing, or silent reflection). In my opinion, this is a way of being at a conference that can enable us to connect with others, and ourselves, on a more ‘human’ and personal level, rather than only at a professional level.

What I liked about these conferences was the way they seemed to blur the genre between the academic retreat and the conference. I say this because  in my experience the pace of retreats is slower than that of conferences, and retreats often offer quiet time for reflection, which seems to be unusual for academic conferences.

At these conferences there were academic presentations, hard-core ones even, but they were mixed with personal reflections from keynote speakers and so on. I remember one of the keynote speakers from my last conference in the US spoke directly to us about her personal life in a way that was interwoven with the theories she was using. This might be something that contemplative-informed conferences have in common with critical, feminist, queer or other alternative conferences perhaps, but this was a very science-based conference. For me, it was refreshing to see her standing there and talking to scientists, who perhaps did share an interest in contemplation, compassion, or other human values that are often ignored within academia.

JB: It is interesting you identify this because I often experience conferences as about forging personal connections – that are about life and work, and I often also reflect a lot on the work I am doing while I am there.

AJ: Yes – but that is often in leisure time, not as a part of the formal conference programme. We shouldn’t have to sneak out to make friends or take time for our own reflections; it can be a part of the programme.

JB: Why would organisers integrate contemplation into conferences?

AJ: Well, I think it is interesting to create opportunities for reflection, and to let people process what they have listened to, or learned from and about. I think it is actually very important. It is, for me, part of the process of intellectual growth. Growth shouldn’t just be about the rational, but also finding the connection between knowledge and your personal life, and I think that requires particular space within the conference, that is not just everyday working life. I think we tend to push these kinds of reflective agendas aside, because we think we can do it in our own time, or in the car as we are driving home. But we don’t do it. It seems we don’t take reflection as seriously as what we see as ‘real’ academic work.

JB: And what is ‘real’ academic work?

AJ: Writing, thinking, teaching, and researching, perhaps.

JB: So is it your hope that conferences will adapt, and include more spaces for reflection?

AJ: Yes – we need to emphasise that this is important. There are some people who do try and implement alternative approaches, methods and techniques, like pechakucha and so on. At The International Consortium for Educational Development (ICED) I’ve heard of performances, and I know you held a poetry workshop at the last  AIC (Academic Identities Conference 2016). I think these are useful. I know for myself, I usually feel rushed at conferences. I feel like time is so precious and limited, and that’s why we need to go to as many papers or events as possible. It becomes hectic, and it can lose meaning. Then we miss opportunities to really think deeply, or have a meaningful dialogue together. I think we also enter a space of disorientation – we feel uncomfortable about revealing our doubts, our vulnerabilities, our emotions within conferences – which is a pity, because there are not so many opportunities for academics to really meet each other. We need to spend more time learning about each others’ work and life, why she or he came up with this theory or idea. Instead, we tend to just finish with their 25-minute presentation, and hop over to another paper. I think this means we lose the opportunity to get to know each other in more meaningful kinds of ways.

JB: Have you ever tried to integrate these principles into the design of a conference or a symposium?

AJ: Yes – we did at Thailand’s Contemplative Education Conference. We allocated meditation time, reflective time, and time to do contemplative practices like arts and yoga. This was all a part of the programme itself. And people really enjoyed it. They said it was quite different from most conferences they had attended, some said they didn’t know it was possible to do this at a conference.

JB: Do you have any final thoughts for people who may wish to integrate contemplative approaches into their conference planning?

AJ: I suggest that contemplation and reflection can be fruitful practices to use at academic conferences, if they are given official time and space. But to do so, organisers themselves need to be practitioners who really understand the process and benefits. I don’t think that  just adding in extra space and time will make a big difference if the spirit of the conference remains the same. I think what is more important is rethinking our approach to academic conferences – how can we create enabling spaces for people to be contemplative and compassionate as well as critical and curious? The actual time and space for contemplation as part of the conference programme can come later. I understand it’s not always easy.

JB: Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Dr. Adisorn Juntrasook is Associate Dean at the Faculty of Learning Sciences and Education, Thammasat University. Prior to this position, he was a lecturer at the Contemplative Education Center, Mahidol University. Adisorn has professional backgrounds in theatre, expressive arts therapy, and education. His research interests include narrative and reflexive methodologies, contemplative and transformative education, academic identities and practices, and leadership for social change.

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at Thammasat University. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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