post conference reflections – on networking and “reporting back”

As always, after coming home from a conference I’m in a swirl of muddled ideas. I have some obligations to contact people and send things, and there’s some further follow up work to do. I’ve also inadvertently been thinking about the conference connections with research practice.

I’ve been thinking about the process of network-ing. A number of conference people, including me, are in the process of forming a new European arts education research network. This was actually our third meeting and we have another coming up in November. Because we don’t exist in any formal sense yet, we can’t get any funding, so we need to piggy-back on other occasions such as this event at Wildbath Kreuth. At the same time, we actually have to do something. Networks are based on activity not planning, so some people in our group are putting in quite a lot of work to develop an infrastructure and a preliminary project that will make the network a network. At the same time, each of us also has to initiate some kind of activity in our own countries, again without funding. Personal connections are clearly paramount in all of this and the “founding members” of the new network are inevitably going to look a bit like a snowball research sample. Not everyone who ought to be there will be, and from outside, it might be a bit hard to locate the reasons for the founding members being who they are!

I’ve also thought about the (generally dreadful) processes of working groups reporting back to plenary sessions. No matter how slick the drawings, or how detailed the notes, or how passionate the speaker, it seems that reporting back in an interesting way is a pretty scarcely distributed skill. I’m sure we’ve all sat through long sessions in which appointed reporters did their very best to sum up a rather rambling discussion in which various points of view are put. 

I saw one person at this conference report back in  a more elegant way. In his first report back he said – ”I’m going to say three things that I saw as the most important in the discussion” – he then gave a succinct two minutes about each point. The second time he spoke he said – “There were five words that summarised the discussions…. “ He then offered a theme such as “ the local” and spoke for a minute or so on each theme.

This person treated the notes of the discussion as if they were data. Rather than offer a summary of everything that was said, he moved “up” a level to find some major patterns – that is, he analysed what was said – and reported those patterns in a way that was both succinct and engaging. He applied some basic social science data analysis practice – that of pattern finding – to the task of reporting back. 

It now seems to me that reporting back is another of those hidden conference “skills” that could be talked about more. If it can be though of as analogous to what we already know how to do with data, then perhaps more of us can find ways to draw out the big pictures from our collegial conversations.

Perhaps there is a need for an equivalent to the Three Minute Thesis here. People could learn to report back, opting for major points and arguments, within a limited time period, rather than going for coverage and a rehash of everything that was said. We could also practice succinct reporting back rather than just going on and on and on and on… Zzzzzzz

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conference day four

Our last day in Wildbath Kreuth was only a half a day. Even then, over a third of the ninety participants had to leave early because of a train strike. Many people had tricky bus and taxi trips to try to connect with international flights leaving from cities other than Munich. However, about fifty of us remained till the end.

It’s also been raining and misty for two days and today there was even some snow.


As could be expected from a networking conference in which a lot of planning is done in small groups, the half day consisted mainly of reporting back – reporting back in each of three strands, and then reporting back to the whole group. I’ve mainly been in a strand which has been looking at ways to strengthen arts education in Europe. We’d identified three areas in which some progress might be made: partnerships between the formal and informal cultural education sectors; mobility for artists and young people; and professional learning and development for cultural sector workers and teachers. Ideas such as –

  • the formation of a European “Academy” where artists and cultural workers could access further education which might then be credited into higher education courses
  • conducting a pan-European literature review of literatures around partnerships, this requires significant translation of reports and papers currently published only in one language
  • development of a ‘clearing house’ of arts education research
  • building a wiki about interesting practice in arts education
  • exploring the potential for using existing EU mobility schemes for arts educators and commissioners.

These and other ideas are going into a report being written by two organisations – bkj a German youth cultural organisation, and CCE, an English based international arts charity – for a big German foundation, Stiftung Mercator. Stiftung Mercator’s mission is to strengthen cultural education, among other things. It is possible therefore that some of the ideas that we generated might actually lead to funded programmes in the future. So it was not just an idle talk-fest.

The question of difference and ‘the local’ has loomed large in this conference. Diversity is seen as a European strength, but also as a barrier to communication. Other differences, particularly related to research and how it is carried out, were also present. These differences were not ignored, but all of the working groups and strands seem to have found ways to acknowledge, articulate and respect them – and then get on with the shared agenda. As someone said at the end of the conference, perhaps this capacity to work with difference is really what Europe is about – a particularly prescient notion as the UK prepares to decide whether it wants to be part of the EU at all.



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conference day three

Four snapshots from the conference…

(1) One of the things we’ve been presented with at the conference is a heuristic for thinking about quality in arts education. This is a hot topic, with Arts Council England for example opting for a set of “quality principles” that can be used to both plan and evaluate programmes. What we saw was a working idea, so not yet finalised. It’s divided into three sections, inputs, process and outcomes. I think the idea behind it is that quality only exists if all three are working together.

So, the things that matter in input quality are to do with: money and resources; time for planning/research; qualifications/skills levels and suitability of practitioners and their rigour, discipline, professionalism and history/experience and so on. Process quality is to do with: methodology; the appropriateness of space and resources; the assessment practices; appropriateness of decision-making; trust; responsiveness to location… Output quality is related to the : impact on participants (new identities, changed relationships, sense of agency); documentation; quality of reflection; skills acquired; the art work or performances; social improvement and more.

Some of these things are clearly incommensurate and need further unpacking, but as a provocation, they certainly started me thinking. It was refreshing to be presented with something that was at least more than about outcomes or just about process.

(2) One of the group’s represented at the polylogue is INRAE, a group of arts education researchers that was established some years ago. I’m not part of this group so haven’t been party to all of their conversations. These have recently mainly centred around a crowd-sourced anthology subtitled “The Wisdom of the Many”. One of the early chapters offers a five part heuristic for thinking about arts education:

1. An art specific approach. This works within disciplines to produce skills, often to professional levels.
2. An economic approach which focuses on the arts as a means to producing creativity, and creative workers for the creative economy as well as the economy more generally.
3. A social approach which emphasises the capacity of the arts to assist social integration and wellbeing, as well as other health associated outcomes.
4. An educational approach which stresses “bildung” – the development of selves and an enriched biography as both arts producer/participant.
5. The political approach which emphasises citizenship and the promotion of particular social values. Global citizenship, regional heritage and nationalist sentiment all reside here.

(From Ernst Wagner, “Local-global concepts in arts education”p24-29 in Schonmann, S Ed 2015 International Yearbook for Research in Arts Education. Munster: Waxmann. )

Of course, many policies take up more than one of these. So it’s not uncommon to see the art specific approach combined with an economic and a political. However, I’m not sure I agree with the definition offered here under an art specific approach; I see arts outcomes as being much more than simply the production of professional or semi-professional skills.

Still, it’s good to have this typology laid out to respond to.


(3) Jazz. Matthias Schreifl’s Multiorchester. I must admit I’d never heard jazz played on two alpenhorns before. This was a fifteen strong group with members from all over Germany and Austria. Each of them plays about five instruments. They haven’t played together for 18 months because people aren’t prepared to actually pay for all of them, they usually play as a subset of five or six. Our conference did stump up for the full troupe, and we enjoyed the performance as much as they did.

(4) Some of the group are attempting to set up a process for monitoring the state of arts education across Europe.  The difficulties of trying to construct a comparative survey of arts education are numerous. Definitions of what counts as arts vary enormously from country to country, so it’s almost impossible to devise universal survey questions. The alternative is to ask a range of questions about the kinds of things that might constitute arts education. But even here, for instance, what is a subject, what counts as training for staff etc etc are very different in different places. And then, who would fill in such a survey? How many people actually know enough about their national situation to answer a comprehensive set of questions about arts education? Do you have several people as survey respondents, and if so who and who  decides on them? Debating this issue took up a couple of hours this morning!

Footnote: The Finland contingent were very sad to be missing the Eurovision semifinals tonight, with their entry a punk band of men with diagnosed learning difficulties. A double first for the competition and the product of an Helsinki music college.

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conference blog day two 

Today we grappled with difficult questions. But after breakfast of course, not straight away. 

Breakfast was a relatively modest affair. The conference centre clearly caters for a lot of diverse people, as foods with lactose, gluten, and nuts were all clearly labelled. As was anything to do with pork. Lactose free milk and cheese is not something you necessarily expect to see at your average conference breakfast table, but it seemed to be acceptable to those who like a bit of cheddar and bread first thing. 

 Then down to work. We first of all had to consider what kinds of structural arrangements would make for strong arts and cultural education. Did we have any concrete suggestions for ways in which arts and cultural education could be supported? My group first of all had to talk about national curriculums, or lack thereof, and the various ways in which arts and cultural education appeared in a range of European countries. Ben from Amsterdam told us about the autonomy that schools and teachers have to design their own curriculum. Lotte from Sweden told us that there was nothing called cultural education in her country, but there was something called  children’s culture. We found out that the Danish government has just instituted a scheme where young people aged from 15-25 can apply for grants of up to 1500 euros for projects they want to do, rather than participate in programmes someone else has designed for them. All very interesting. In the end I think we agreed that it was pretty hard to think of single or simple structural arrangements to support arts and cultures education, and perhaps the notion of a menu of structures might be more appropriate.
Lunch. A huge amount of salad in the dining area, open to the day’s sun.
The afternoon saw a walk to a mountain hut with coffee and cake, and everyone making a personal commitment to do something to advance arts and cultural education in their country. This was followed by another discussion group, this time about the vexed question of Europe.
 Was there “a” Europe? Did it have a common set of values? What were its current challenges? What might arts and cultural education have to offer? If the arts created empathy did that mean we were to be empathetic with the extreme, anti refugee right wing? If there was a European identity, how come noone felt they had one?  There was little agreement at my table, with the conversation starting with whether we meant the European Union, or Europe more generally. This was followed by lengthy debates about what the arts could do, whether it was instrumental to expect the arts to “do” anything at all, and whether these were world issues rather than simply those of Europe.
Then dinner. Another table groaning with salad and vegetables. Beer for some, water for the rest of us.
Finally the evening finished off with posters from participants showing some of the work being done across the continent. I attempted to show a video but could only get it to work streaming from on my iPad. Tiny screen, a token display indeed.
 As I write this before going to bed, it’s begun to rain. The clock sounds 10pm and I’m off to my monastic single bed.
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conference evening one

I’ve come to Bavaria to take part in something called a ‘Polylogue’. Like a dialogue but with many voices. It’s about arts and cultural education and/in/for Europe. Sponsored by three international foundations, 90 people from the fields of policy, research and professional practice have been brought together to discuss what arts and cultural education might do to support European sustainable development, understood in its broadest sense.

There’s an understanding that the European project is faltering. Laws and currency are insufficient to bring about a cosmopolitan democracy in which difference is a strength. Arts and cultural education are seen as crucial to the achievement of some kind of European future, what kind is of course up for debate. More of this later.
The conference is being held at Wildebad Kreuth, a former monastery, hunting lodge, aristocratic retreat. Now leased by Hans Seidel Stiftung, it hosts a range of events, including I gather some of a notoriously conservative political nature. The centre’s monastic heritage is retained in spartan rooms with no television, single beds and no ornamentation save a wooden cross above the bed. The views out of the windows are green and beautiful, as we are surrounded by the Bavarian Alps.
Our first evening was an introduction to the work of the various sponsoring organisations and their hopes for the event. The event is called “New Alliances” and the programme has timed opportunities for personal/organisational connections to be made. An “alliance” is an interesting linguistic shift away from a network, encapsulating the aspiration for action.
Some people already clearly know each other well. Others, like me, know a few people here but not a lot. Some are entirely new. How we get to find out enough about each other to become allies remains to be seen. Time slots alone will not be sufficient I fear.
The bar with beer is one option tonight. I’m tired and not fond of beer, very Un Australian of me I know, so I opt to go to my bare little cell and wrestle with the rather too hot doona, and an open window with bracing mountain air. I’m hoping that there are other occasions to meet new people.
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have I got “advice” for you… 

I want you to imagine that you are going to build a fence. You have a wide choice of potential materials and style. Well and good. But you haven’t build a fence before, so where do you go for some advice?  You can:

(1) go to someone who has built a fence – yes one – and who knows, they say, the perfect way you can get the fence built cheaply and efficiently
(2) talk to and read the stories of people who have built a fence and have learned some things in the process
(3) go to a skilled tradie who has built a lot of fences. You can visit their fences to see their work for yourself
(4) get a manual written by someone who knows a lot about fences and has also built a lot. They don’t just use their own fences as examples but refer to fences built by other people and fences built using a range of different materials and approaches.

Now (2-4) are all helpful, each one, by themselves. You might also very fruitfully combine them – so you could talk to some people who’ve built fences, talk to a tradie and buy a manual. 

You could choose however to only do (1) , that is, talk to someone who has built one fence for themselves. Now this is a potentially risky strategy.  The one-fence-maker’s version of how to build a fence might work really well for you. On the other hand it mightn’t. They were perhaps using different materials, or building a fence in a different style, or their fencing needs are just very different from yours.  You could, if you go with the one-fence-maker, end up with a costly and time wasting experiment. Or not. Of course, you might get lucky and/or you might have the all the knowledge you need to make up for what the one-fence-maker didn’t tell you.

Now, humour me. Please change the words building a fence to any of these – writing the thesis, writing a journal article, doing a doctorate, doing the viva, writing a research proposal, getting a job … Of course the fence analogy doesn’t really hold for these situations, because doctoral researchers for example aren’t doing their doctorate by themselves. They have supervisors/committees/gradschools. They aren’t just dependent on the advice they get online and from books. But I reckon that some of my fence-building  analogy is pertinent.

The web has proliferated advice about every aspect of doctoral education, academic writing and scholarly career development. In general, I think that’s a Very Good Thing. Learning and knowledge is shared. It is not kept in tiny journals, closed offices and people’s heads.

Some of this knowledge is offered free and some costs money. And there is both less helpful and more reliable advice and support around. But this is not a simple binary. It’s not that free=good, and for sale=bad. Not at all. There is the best to the worst advice and support in both free and for sale services.

This kind of advice “market” both interests and worries many of us. Julia Molinari wrote about dubious proof reading services not long ago in the Guardian, and Doctoral Writing SIG scholars Claire Aitchison and Susan Mowbray have been studying the doctoral support field, as have @ThesisWhisperer, Inger Mewburn and I.

And we’ve found some pretty interesting things – for instance I’ve recently seen:
* a book about how to write your PhD by someone who is only half way through their own,
* an advice service set up on the basis of n=1, I wrote my thesis this way so this is how you should write yours,
* a writing tips website that basically re-publishes other people’s advice as its own,
* a self published book that brings together bits and pieces from other people’s work and twitter chats, largely unacknowledged,
* a book on how to turn your thesis into a book but this is the author’s first book, they haven’t actually turned their thesis into a book at all, they just want to …

And so on. I can’t help but compare this kind of advice to: the carefully constructed posts and books by highly experienced scholars; the sharing of personal stories and experiences; and the pedagogical writings of those whose work is academic and researcher development or writing, language and linguistics.

I’m not arguing for some kind of peer review system here, or a bizarre quality kite mark scheme. Not at all. It is just a caveat emptor situation out there/in here. The fence analogy is probably the most helpful for anyone wanting to make sense of the proliferation of what’s on offer. You have to shop around and consult multiple sources.

So to that end, here’s a couple of questions that I think might be useful in making sense of advice.

First off – determine whether whether what you are looking at is sharing of experience or advice. 


Sharing experiences is generous, and a gift. Learning in public is brave, and readers need to recognise and value the offer of some vicarious education. The reader can take what they want, compare sets of experiences with one another, and see how their own experience checks out. Building up a sense of your own experience by engaging with other people’s is part of the way we live our lives and construct our repertoire of understanding and possible actions.

However if what’s on offer is advice, then I think something different is warranted. 


What’s their track record? what’s the basis on which they are offering advice to you? What has the writer done? Are they n=1? Or are they experienced writers, supervisors, researchers in the topic that they are addressing, academic developers, teachers of methods or writing? Can you read their work – are there samples available for you to see? Can you see what people they have worked with have done as a result of their support and advice? Do they have good references from people who’ve used them? Can you try something free before you buy?

So given this, what actually is my advice about the proliferation of advice? Should doctoral researchers and early career academics just leave it all alone? NO. Not at all. Take my view with a big pinch of salt of course, as I’m one of the people in the mix. But I’d carefully check what’s out there and then plunge in. I’m sure it’s much better to be informed than just squirrel away on your lonesome.

But I’d look at several sources of advice rather than just one or a few, take the books out of the library rather than buy them, find out what works for others, and then see what you think will work for you. And, as Howard Rheingold says, have your crap detectors at the ready.

And now, just for a laugh, a bit of vintage Australian comedy about the ultimate not-to-be-trusted salesmen, the Dodgy Brothers.

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what is an “original contribution”?

Many doctoral researchers worry about what ‘original’ in original contribution to knowledge means. They worry  whether their research will be seen as original enough. They worry which of the multiple ways in which original might be interpreted will be applied to their thesis.  

The notion of original seems to carry with it the idea of singularity – I’ve done something fresh and unique– combined with the notion of originary – I’ve started something new here – combined with the notion of authenticity – this is all my own work, I haven’t copied it from anywhere else. Now each of these terms, applied as assessment criteria, is actually pretty unhelpful when it comes to academic work. These categories of originality might make sense for thinking about painting the Mona Lisa, or even inventing Facebook, but they don’t get very far in relation to scholarship. Let me explain.

Singularity? Something unique? Not always the case in research …  there are often teams of researchers working separately and apart on exactly the same problem. And some of these teams even come up with theories or results that are pretty similar. There is also a firm place in some disciplines for replication studies and testing out existing results.

A solo PhD most often offers small variations in research in a field that is relatively well trodden. Nick Hopwood has recently reported his own PhD experience where, coming to the end of his research, he found a published thesis which addressed almost the same question as his own – right down to the wording! Every doctoral researcher’s nightmare. However, the context, sample and approach were different. Nick argues, and I agree, that even in the unlikely and unlucky situation where the doctoral researcher’s  question is the same as someone else’s, and both doctoral researchers draw on the same literatures, the end results are highly likely to be different. But even if they were completely identical, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if the two studies had been carried out completely independently (see all my own work).

Originary? Well no. Probably not. Very few people get to work on the undiscovered manuscript, a new invention, a new part of the universe. Many  people do get to look at things that no one has yet investigated, but these are generally still related to a broader concern – so for example an examination of national identity in one country’s television news programmes sits within broader fields of inquiry about television and national identity, about media and national identity and about national identity per se. The object of study might be different, but the contribution will be to a broader field.

But, even if not originary, PhD researchers do of course come up with some of their own interpretations and categorisations. These arise from their particular question, sample, methods and analytic/theoretical approach. It is in the thinking-for-myself process that their originality lies.

Authenticity – Well yes, and no. The PhD is all the doctoral researcher’s own work. It mustn’t be plagiarized. But almost every piece of research draws on other research – it uses other people’s work as building blocks, it is situated in and converses with its field as a challenge, a complementary addition, a re-framing. 

As a frequent PhD thesis examiner I of course look for authenticity – I am concerned to ensure that a thesis isn’t copied, and that it acknowledges other people’s work. And I look to see what it builds on, and what the text adds to an existing conversation. However, I’m generally looking for something much less daunting than a singular and originary contribution. 

I rather like David Lodge’s notion of originality. Lodge, writing about the novel, argues that originality is about making known things strange and unfamiliar.

What do we mean – it is a common term of praise – when we say that a book is “original”? Not, usually that the writer has invented something without precedent, but that she has made us ‘perceive’ what we already, in a conceptual sense, ‘know’, by deviating from the conventional, habituated ways of representing reality. Defamiliarisation, in short, is another word for “originality”. ( Lodge, 1992/2011, P 55)

Lodge suggests that originality means giving the reader interesting and different insights into something – an event, a social phenomenon, a text – that they might otherwise take for granted or see in a common sense way or interpret and/or explain using largely agreed language and ideas. This kind of defamiliarisation is something I expect to see in a thesis I’m examining. 

You see I’ve been asked to examine a PhD because I already have expertise in the field in which the PhD is based. I know the literatures. I know the debates. I’m already part of the scholarly conversation and community. That’s why I’m in the viva. So there is nothing more pleasurable for me, as an examiner, than to be presented with a thesis that makes something about the field unfamiliar – that is, the doctoral researcher offers some insightful analysis, some alternative ideas, brings some new literatures or methods and/or presents a cogent problematisation. I thought I knew the field, but here is some thinking and some research which is not simply more of the same. I’m prompted to rethink some of the things that I take for granted and/or add something interesting to what I already suspect or ‘know’.

As David Lodge argues, originality is taking the reader, and I’m suggesting the thesis reader/examiner too, somewhere which is simultaneously familiar and not. Original thinking and writing defamiliarises and in doing so, recovers a newness about the topic no matter how well trodden it is. An original contribution to knowledge offers the reader a chance to re-view and re-think the event/text/phenomena in question. That’s the kind of original contribution I’m interested in. 

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