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By Cally Guerin

The European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) Special Interest Group for “Researcher Education and Careers” held its biennial conference on 30 Sept-2 Oct this year. The meeting took place at the University of Copenhagen, with Sophie Kobayashi (University of Copenhagen) and Søren Bengtsen (University of Aarhus) as wonderfully welcoming hosts for the event. The focus this time was: “Unpacking and exploring researcher communication: implications for inquiry into ECR experience.”

This relatively new SIG, coordinated by Kirsi Pyhältö, Montserrat Castelló and Anna Sala Bubaré, broke the traditional mould of conferences that focus on short presentations with little time for extended discussion between delegates. We started with a writing retreat in the beautiful old Østervold Observatory building situated in Copenhagen’s Botanical Gardens.

The organisers offered three models of writing retreats: a silent writing space; time structured writing with nominated goals; and collaborative writing with peer feedback (for existing projects). I was fortunate enough to join the second model, very encouragingly facilitated by Mirjam Godskesen of the University of Aalborg – we all kept to time and tapped away furiously…

Day 3 of the meeting opened with a keynote by Professor David Russell of Iowa State University, who spoke about “The Arc of a Career in the Universe of Research Genres: Emic and Etic Perspectives”. He challenged us to think carefully about genre and what this might mean for today’s research communication.

The next two days were structured to ensure we all actively participated in lively discussions on a range of topics related to the theme of researcher communication: writing research funding proposals, textbooks, thesis monographs, peer review, journal articles and professional writing. Several readings on each topic had been assigned well in advance, and participants nominated the two sessions they’d like to attend. We were asked to read three of the papers for each of our two sessions in advance of the meeting, upload our responses to a dedicated website, and respond to each other’s comments. This process meant that prior to coming together most participants had already started thinking seriously about the topics and we had some shared understandings of the research in the area. Key to the program was an attempt to develop concrete, doable research projects, complete with timelines and proposed outputs.

For me, the experience of this meeting was inspiring and energising. Devoting extended time to structured discussion kept our focus on the job in hand, rather than allowing us to wander off into related, interesting, but distracting areas of debate.

This EARLI Conference and the recent IDERN meeting provide more opportunities for fruitful discussion and tangible outcomes than most traditional academic conferences. Universities often won’t fund staff participation in conferences unless their staff are listed on the program as presenting their research. I’d love to see more academic conferences experimenting with formats that help participants engage in more productive ways – even if this means universities have to re-think funding arrangements to support attendance.

I often choose conference sessions that are based on a workshop or roundtable format that creates more space for conversation with peers. In my opinion, this is the main point of getting people with shared interests in one place at the same time. Not all of us are good at the networking that happens over meal breaks or at the bar in the conference hotel – it seems to me that conferences that give us all more structured opportunities to engage with each other in serious scholarly discussion and debate will do a great deal to advance knowledge in our disciplines.

Have you been part of different kinds of conference and meeting formats? It would be great to hear more about what works well, and how and why events were set up that way. I’d also like to invite comments from any readers who attended the EARLI SIG and have some other things to say about their experience.