Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Presenting the decade of learning

Presenting at SDN June 26th 2012
Over the last two months I have been preparing and giving conference presentations based on my Masters research. Though the experience of giving my first two conference papers was more than a little daunting, it was also a largely enjoyable one which definitely helped me to refine my ideas, meet interesting people and think of new ways to take my research forward. This blog post will include links to the presentations I gave, a few reflections on the process and what I might do differently in future, and how the conferences have shaped my future research plans.

My Masters research explored organisational learning from and about public participation related to climate change over the decade 2000-2010 within the Sciencewise organisational network. To create this organisationally situated and longitudinal account I tried to follow transforming or stable frames (or visions) of participation, 'the public' and climate change. The idea being that these would show if learning had been instrumental - i.e. gaining new information within existing organisational structures and problem definitions - or transformative - i.e. resulting in a transformation of the frame of reference and the redefinition of the problem being tackled and objects being utilised. If you want more information about this research I have a paper on its way through the review process at the journal Environment & Planning A.

The first conference I presented at was the 11th Annual meeting of the Science and Democracy Network which was held at CNAM in Paris. I have written a more general post about the meeting here on the 3S Merton Stone blog. I was presenting on the second day of the meeting which gave me time to get used to my surroundings, get to know some of the other academics and settle my nerves. The SDN format is unusual in that there are no parallel sessions, so all delegates attend all of the presentations. I liked this as I was exposed to research from outside of my specialist area and because it was inevitably the presentations that I did not expect to be interesting which I most enjoyed. Though everyone at the conference was working with STS concepts and approaches, this mix of interests meant that the plenary discussions and questions to each panel were almost always wide-ranging and stimulating. So I had the prospect of presenting to a specialist STS audience - indeed the membership of SDN looks rather like an STS hall of fame - who were not all necessary engaged with or bothered about contemporary debates on public participation in science policy or theories of learning.

As it happened my panel on 'Science, technology and their publics' turned out to be very stimulating, with excellent presentations given by Sujatha Raman on the 'Making Science Public' project and Mads Gjefsen on the European Platform for CCS. My presentation, which you can see here, went without any obvious hitches. Ulrike Felt was a fantastic chair, fostering one of the best plenary discussions of the meeting. I was encouraged to more closely define my key concepts of learning and reflexivity, and to think carefully about what they might look like 'in the field' and how I could set about exploring them in future research. The most challenging question, as I had expected, came from Sheila Jasanoff, who challenged us all to think how we as STS scholars engaging with policy-makers and other actors related to public participation can seek to challenge the status quo and ask the questions that others are not asking, rather than simply ending up helping to fulfil the aims of these policy bodies. I didn't have a full answer to such a far reaching question, but I think my approach of trying to look at the broader institutional contexts and longer time scales of developments around public participation goes some way to addressing these issues.

A few weeks later I again presented my Masters research - note the identical title - at the Science in Public conference at UCL in London, but this time to a more interdisciplinary audience all of whom were specifically concerned with the publics of science. As you can see from my presentation here it is very similar to the version given at SDN, with some improvements and some changes made to make it appropriate for a different audience. Again I really enjoyed my panel session which was ably chaired by Simon Lock and included presentations from Meg Turville-Heitz on land use conflicts in Wisconsin and Lorna Ryan on the disappearance of the citizen in the European Research Area. Instead of having a plenary discussion we took questions straight after each presentation; this time my questions concerned the behaviour change agenda and the UK Government context, and again I was pushed to think about methodological questions related to research into learning.

So I have enjoyed the first few dips of my toes into the world of academic conference presentations. I'm certainly convinced that conference presentations are an important and stimulating part of academic life. I think in future I would try to write different presentations for each conference, so that the talks were more tailored for each audience and to submit more material to scrutiny by my peers. The geographer Stuart Elden has written about the trade-offs to be made between writing new lectures from scratch or recycling old material with a new angle for the specific audience. He also asks whether it is appropriate to share material from talks online when you intend to give a very similar talk elsewhere (as I have done here). This time I was lucky that there was no overlap in the audiences for my two talks, and I found the process of writing each talk quite time-consuming - though I am hoping that these things get easier the more experience you have, so perhaps next time I'll be able to put material together more quickly. I don't think there are necessarily any ethical issues with replicating talks - at least in circumstances where there will be no formally published volume following the conference - but I think it would probably look better on my CV and my online presence if I made an effort to present a broader range of my work in future.

My experiences have also taught me that it is probably worth putting in the effort to go to all of a conference rather than just going for the day, or even the session, that you are presenting in. Attending all 3 days of SDN I really benefitted from following certain themes which ran through the different plenary discussions and had many more opportunities to get to know some pretty senior academics - not to mention enjoying a few lovely days in Paris. Whereas I only attended the second day of Science in Public because it was at the end of a busy week, and I wasn't sure if I would be able to face too much of London in the Olympic run-up. Having heard about all of the sessions that I missed - including James Wilsdon's keynote lecture - and having missed out on the opportunity to really get to know anybody from the conference I now wish that I had made the effort to attend the whole thing.

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