As the formal academic portion of the Unconference winds to a close, I wanted to take a few minutes to have a kind of wrap up chat with the participant who traveled the farthest to attend this conference, Lane Springer.
Jason: Lane, we’ve talked about a lot over the last two days. Of all the themes that have been discussed, is there one that has stood out as dominant? Like a thread weaving its way through the fabric of our discourse?
Lane: Yes, there has. I would say one of the themes that Kelsey’s paper touched on, specifically training Phd students for the tasks they will have to do once they get into the workforce…like teaching for instance. In Toronto, there is very little for training students to teach. Basically you have a bunch of people fighting for TA opportunities in order to get the training you’ll need for the job, but there is no formal training on how to actually do it. You’re just thrown in…sink or swim. There is only one collective training program across the university that teaches you things like building a syllabus, but the program is offered too infrequently. I’d been on campus for a year before I even heard about it. You definitely have to take your own initiative. At least in my experience, that is. No one in the department has guided me here. It is a gap in our training as a Phd student.
Jason: So what about Kelsey’s paper really spoke to that lack?
Lane: He offered a good model of how pedagogical training could work in a Phd program. His was geared to the British system, but I think it could be applied to the North American model as well. And this is something we need to work on. Now, let me ask you the same in turn: was there one thread that was shining among the others that you could implement in your Phd experience?
Jason: I think I was most surprised by the overall consensus surrounding the role of objectivity in the humanities in general, and in the field of history specifically. All the attendees seemed to agree—at least on a basic level—that complete objectivity is something of a myth.
Lane: Yeah, it’s like one of the participants said in a discussion yesterday: “The closest thing you can get to objectivity is being honest about your own subjectivity.” I actually liked what you said about being cautioned not to let your personal life as a person of faith impact your research.
Jason: Yeah, I do understand the need to approach historical subjects and objects with a great deal of care, and hopefully, on their own terms and not mine. That said, the idea that you can ever totally eliminate the vestiges of your story in the inquiry into the stories of another, seems to me to be a bit optimistic…and unrealistic. Were you at all surprised, given your experience in the field, that there seemed to be a consensus on this point?
Lane: I was surprised by that. I would have assumed the opposite because it seems to be the underlying idea behind how our history departments operate. I found it refreshing to hear other people in a similar place I’m in advocating for honesty in terms of where they’re coming from. Bringing that type of honesty is, I think, a great way to approach it.
Jason: Let’s take a bit of a different tack. Now that the formal paper discussions have concluded, and we’re done with kind of the fun of our open sessions, are there any obvious things that stand out in terms of gaps to you? Anything we didn’t cover that maybe we should moving forward?
Lane: We talked about so much…teaching, collaboration, methodology… You know, I don’t think we really talked about conferences did we?
Jason: Well, tangentially we did. More, from what I remember, in terms of the impact they have on the environment… But not really shaping them differently otherwise.
Lane: Well, one idea we didn’t get to from the open session topics list is the question of why we actually read our papers out loud at conferences. I went to a conference in Glasgow 3 weeks ago and read straight from my paper and the previous conference before that I did the same thing because that’s what I was told you do at conferences.
Jason: How effective do you think you were on these occasions?
Lane: I don’t think…well, I think they took some good things away…but I could have been much more effective if I had done it a different way. When I was presenting, I actually thought I could be more more effective if I was doing it in a different way. I think there needs to be a shift with up and coming researchers. I don’t connect when people read their papers, so why would I expect them to connect with mine? I guess I did it because that’s the way I was taught to do it. I see a few people who just talk, maybe looking down at their notes every once in a while, and it was so effective. More like a discussion than someone just reading information at you. It was nice. What do you think? Am I alone in this?
Jason: I think for me, two problems stand out. First, we put all of this time into coming up with great research, and then we package it in the worst possible way. It’s like buying a gold ring and giving it to someone in a paper sack. The second thing is the problem of redundancy. When we have journals to publish written research, why do we create events where in fact we simply read aloud the exact same content? Personally, I would be interested to see papers at conferences take on more of an expressive character… Keep the basic research idea, but put time into connecting with and persuading the audience that what you have to say has the potential to change how they think about a given topic.
Lane: It’s really such a different way of presenting information…you almost should think of it as presenting your information to a class. That doesn’t mean it won’t be formal, but it doesn’t need to be as rigid. How about you Jason—is there anything you wish would have been discussed that wasn’t addressed?
Jason: To be honest, I was pretty impressed with the amount of ground we covered. It was fast and furious for two days straight. To have added anything to that would have been tricky…
Lane: Well then are there any critical issues that could have been ironed out a little more?
Jason: Yeah…I think we all agreed that a certain degree of ‘morality’ should be central to the task of an historian…but I don’t get the sense that any of us knew what to do about that. Or how to instill this? Along these lines, it seems, looking back, that one of the key ideas of this conference had to do with the historian not as producer, but as person. So, instead of evaluating an historian based on output or impact to use the REF buzzword, we should think about their effectiveness on a more holistic scale. I got the sense that everyone agreed with this…but by the end of the conference, we were back to brainstorming more humane ways of measuring production. I just have to wonder if the idea of the consumer/producer dialectic is simply too ingrained into what we do for a radical reevaluation. But, I did think it was a good start to imagine a different role.
Maybe one last question, Lane. What is something you think you might do differently coming away from this Unconference that maybe you hadn’t really considered before?
Lane: Let me think… I really liked Carys’s idea about not forgetting why we got in this field in the first place—because we’re passionate about it. I want to try to remember that when speaking to people about the things I’m studying and presenting my work in professional contexts. I think that idea can be the undercurrent of your work; making it interesting…making it something that people will want to engage with. She’s right in saying that it’s almost hidden when you go into a Phd program. You get your work done…you do this and that. I think it’s important to keep in mind where you were coming from in the beginning. Back at you!
Jason: Hmmm….I am interested in finding ways to speak out more. Even if I don’t have a polished, conference-ready talk that is guaranteed to tick all the boxes, I like the idea of putting ideas out there. If nothing else, engaging unfinished ideas with other trained thinkers is really helpful in clarifying what I think. I’m even thinking of the value of this kind of discourse on the public level. I think a lot of people would like to hear quality thinkers working through tricky issues using common language…laughing…teasing, but in the end sticking with the topic until its parameters become a bit less hazy.
Lane: Yeah, keeping these discussions moving forward is the important thing. Hopefully we can find ways to do that.
Jason: Thanks for the chat Lane. Good stuff!