Towards a learning culture; developing a culture that learns.

Written by Bee Bond

A review of the 2018 Annual ISSoTL Conference.

The ISSoTL (International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) Conference was held in Bergen, Norway from 24th – 27th October 2018. Whilst not a conference that focuses on language education specifically, the connection to the overarching goals of the Language Scholar are clear. The stated aim of the conference, with the theme ‘Towards a learning culture’ was to open ‘a space for discussions about the collegial, cultural, interprofessional and interpersonal dimensions of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning’. This resonates with many discussions currently underway both within the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies (through the Centre for Excellence in Language Teaching, or CELT) and the wider University and Higher Education in general. Moreover, as with many international conferences, language and communication were an important thread running throughout. Key concepts of scholarship, pedagogy and the need for ‘scientific’ rigor within both were all identified as holding very specific but differing meanings across the multiple languages spoken by conference attendees; language, the role it plays and the impact it can have in an increasingly internationalised higher education landscape was touched on in many of the sessions I attended. This understanding and acknowledgment of linguistic, cultural and contextual differences ensured a conference that was incredibly welcoming and inclusive of all, and that discussion around the kind of work people were doing was thoughtful and considered.

In fact, acting with thoughtfulness, and the consequences of not doing so, was one of the key themes of the conference. Elizabeth Minnich provided a powerful and thought-provoking Key Note Plenary on Thursday morning. Having authored philosophy books and papers such as ‘Transforming Knowledge’ and ‘Teaching Thinking’ it was easy to see why she was invited to speak at this conference. Her plenary drew from her new work, ‘The Evil of Banality: On the life and death importance of thinking‘, which she claimed was the culmination of 50 years of ‘field work philosophizing’. She related her own field to that of SoTL, arguing that in philosophy as in SoTL, you begin with no particular method in mind; you get puzzled a lot, often to the point of obsession, and you find ‘thinking friends’ to practice with. You practice with these friends as you work toward illuminations (or BFOs – blinding flashes of the obvious!), not proof. Throughout her plenary, Minnich highlighted the importance of thinking; suggesting that ‘being awake but not aware’ is where humans become ordinary or banal and, following on from the work of her mentor Hannah Arendt, that this banality can be the root of collective evil. Thus, her argument is that by acting with awareness, by thinking, puzzling and questioning our practices, we ensure that we are not only human but are also humane.

Whilst the rest of the conference focused on much more practical areas of scholarship, this theme of questioning and thinking carefully about the work we do was a red thread running throughout the whole conference.

The other, slightly more light-hearted, but equally memorable session I am choosing to highlight here was a two-part workshop. This resonated with me in relation to way a Language Centre often needs to operate to persuade others to collaborate, and how powerful those collaborations can sometimes be in effecting change. ‘Guerrilla Leadership and Culture Change in Higher Education: An International Perspective’ was facilitated by Heather Smith, Claire Hamshire, Rachel Forsyth, Jessica Riddell and Paul Taylor. By running the first part as a ‘fringe’ event from a hotel bar, the tone was set for the argument that leadership in HE can work outside the norm. Paul Taylor (University of Leeds) suggested that leadership needs to draw from Paulo Freire’s ideas of social justice grounded in hope, whilst Heather Smith (University of Northern British Columbia and Dalhousie University) argued that to enact change in HE, leaders needed to ‘be more Che’! Thus, taking Che Guevarra and his guerrilla warfare tactics as inspiration, participants were encouraged to work in the wild zones, to become more agile and to organize differently. We worked together to create a Guerrilla Leadership Manifesto. Answering questions such as ‘Where are the contested territories?’; ‘Who are your allies?’ (STUDENTS!) ‘What are your strategies?’, we were encouraged to think differently about who might or might not be our ‘enemies’ in achieving desired outcomes (QA came out very well in this, much to the surprise of many!). The facilitators were clearly having a great time whilst running the two workshops, serving us coffee (!) out of a balaclava-clad tea-pot and all wearing combat t-shirts. Despite this, the message was clear: that leadership needs to ‘push back against profound insignificance’. In other words, it needs avoid becoming banal and unthinking.

Copyright: Taylor, P. @Paulfryorkshire 23 October 2018; Twitter.

For an overview of the breadth of topics covered, it is probably best to direct you to the conference website: . One aspect of the conference that stood out particularly was the wealth of open resources that were generously shared by all participants. Many of these are also available on the conference website.

The next ISSoTL conference (9-12 October 2019) will be held in the USA, in Atlanta; the theme is ‘SoTL without Borders. Engaged Practice for Social Change’. There is also a EuroSoTL conference from 13-14 June 2019. This is held in Bilbao and, for the first time, presentations can be given not only in English but also in Spanish with translators available. This highlights the diverse and rapidly growing international community of HE practitioners who have a deep interest in academic development and student education, and the determination of the ISSoTL organisation to work towards being as inclusive of all as possible. These conferences are a great place for novice presenters to find support and encouragement; they allow you to expand your horizons beyond disciplinary borders and find a wider context for your own scholarship. They are also incredibly welcoming, so are a great place to find some new, international ‘thinking friends’.

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Bee Bond
I have taught English for Academic Purposes in the Language Centre for 17 years. I have taught and managed  presessional programmes for both  undergraduate and post-graduate students, and led large...
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