The first #DLRN15 is over. It will be – as Mike Caulfield pronounced from the closing panel – one of those conferences that he (I) will “reflect on for months to come.” There may be some bigger, more important things to be said about #DLRN15 than what follows, but this is where I am with my thoughts one day after the conference ended.
I came to #DLRN15 in what feels like a transitional space. I am a (non-traditional) student, but one that has done a couple of things and met some people; one that is in the last months of her dissertation research; one that hopes to move into to a different professional voice relatively soon.
I also came to the conference with some expectations. More than any conference I have attended in #highered (or medicine, for that matter), #DLRN15 promised to be a ‘thing’ with ‘all the people.’ One of the other participants pulled me aside for confirmation – was this “the core community” he was seeing? “Yes,” I answered, “a core community on the fringe, but I think you are right nonetheless.”
To be invited to join such a gathering as a speaker felt like getting a golden ticket – not so much to Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory as to the war room. Maha Bali asked me during our Virtual Connecting Hangout why I expected any conference to be transformational. I answered (I think), but with further reflection, it’s not that I expected some sort of transformation to take place as much as I expected to come to this ‘thing’ with ‘all the people’ to sweat and metaphorically untuck my shirttails. I was (am) ready to work hard. I was (am) ready to wage some undefined yet seemingly eminent epic and impossible battle.
I came to #DLRN15 with expectations.
I was lucky enough to grab a spot in the pre-conference dinner, which was not so much a dinner as an evening-long work session in which we verbalized and (began to) solve the “stuck questions” of higher education. It was an exercise of thinking-by-doing with limited time and intimate partnership spaces. For me, it was perfect. It was the best conference-related experience I have ever had.
When the more conference structure emerged the next day, the pre-conference war room atmosphere dissipated, and I began to wonder what the conference was actually supposed to be about. As one panel member said, the conference strands (as they played out) did not seem to build to a solution-based conversation on the bigger question of how we can positively impact the trajectory higher education. Instead, I began hearing – particularly at the end of the first day — many of the same ideas I hear regularly in other spaces. An offsite friend asked me if it felt like friends reading their blog posts to one another, and the answer is yes, yes it did. Maybe because we were all tired, maybe because the situation is too dire, or maybe because not everyone reads everyone else’s blog posts, I felt like we wallowed a bit too much in things already said, and in a way that was US-centric, traditional institution-centric, and faculty/staff-centric. And when other (non-US, non-faculty/staff) voices were brave enough to nudge the trajectory of the conversation, they weren’t shot down, but somehow others came neatly behind and nudged it right back to the majority narrative.
It was during that session that I became a “them” instead of a “we.” However, even as a (non-traditional) student voice, touted as the center of our purpose and practice, I was neither confident nor decisive enough to ask other conference-goers politely, out loud, and in the physical space of the session if they might consider (a) stepping back and reframing what was openly called the “rant discussion” or (b) explaining to a student why it was necessary to have that conversation then, there, and in that way. I regret that I couldn’t be brave, like the administrator in the front of the room. From a (non-traditional) student perspective, that administrator was brave, measured, empathetic, and reasonable and I really hope I will be just like that someday.
One of the take-home themes from #DLRN15 was that best teaching and design ideas (as well as the probable Answers-with-a-capital-‘A’) will emerge from thinking, communication, and implementation that seeks to be accessible, adaptable, and flexible. It is a UDL-type approach (and in no way anti-intellectual, as one of my off-site tweeps suggested). However, even as we talked about busting binaries, we made so many of our own missteps into binaries that I considered turning it into a drinking game. Faculty versus administrator. Stream versus garden. Traditional versus non-traditional students. Also, given attempts to focus on non-traditional students and the number of non-traditional students in the room, I found it ironic how often we chose to question whether there were student voices in the room. When we found some student voices and asked them to speak in their student voice, they were the (self-defined) traditional students.
However – and this is probably the most important sentence of this post – each time someone fell into a binary, someone else would challenge it, and the binary would fall apart. It was a beautiful and inspirational thing to see. The people who attended this conference were trying – they were working hard, earnestly, and empathetically. They were also working together. I made mistakes too and I have counted them, those that I know of. If it had been easy – if people hadn’t struggled, if mistakes hadn’t been made – it would have been a sign that the bar had been set too low. Sure, I had crazy expectations, but I think everyone did. I think that’s why we tried so hard. As we discussed on the first day and in the context of (nontraditional) students, if we don’t expect big things of students, we cannot dream big solutions or help them accomplish big things. #DLNR15 wasn’t the war room I was hoping it to be, but it felt like it might be a staging area for that epic and impossible battle that seems to be on the horizon.
On a more personal note, I had a lot of learning moments – discipline-based and deeply personal. I met people who will be in the acknowledgment section of my dissertation. I even met a person who did something to change the acknowledgment section of my dissertation. I am truly grateful for the opportunities afforded to me and the work that the conference organizers and conference goes did.
From the voice of the (nontraditional) student, I hope we get to do this again, because it was the best, most trying, most personally exposing and challenging conference I have ever attended. Rock on, #DLRN15, with your messy self.