It is the start of another academic year and for various reasons a moment in time that I always find unsettling. For a brief while we live in a period of great anticipation for the days ahead, coupled with scurrying activity to ensure that all is ready for coming teaching commitments, new students and a renewal of research activity, but amidst all this we exist in days which seem to be spent in isolation amongst the echoing space of empty university offices.
Part of the reason for this is the burgeoning conference season that erupts each September drawing academics from the UK to venues in various parts of Europe, to showcase their own work and hopefully to listen and learn from other researchers who are engaged in similar activity. Anyone who has read David Lodge’s excellent and highly entertaining campus novel Small World will have a fairly clear picture of the type of jamboree to which I refer. Lodge, himself a well-respected academic as well as an astute observer of human nature through his cleverly constructed novels, acquired a healthy cynicism about the “academic lifestyle” and its self-proclaimed pretensions of importance. In recent weeks colleagues, and some of my students, have been attending these international conferences in locations including Portugal and Crete in what has become an annual ritual to launch the academic year.
Sometimes these conferences provide an opportunity to hear new ideas and to engage in debates with colleagues who are working hard to move the agenda for children forward, though in my experience it is often necessary to go searching for the sessions where this might just be possible. Often the papers presented are simply recycling ideas and act more like a comfort blanket for those seeking reassurance that their work has some intrinsic value that might continue to justify their continued employment. As you might tell from my tone, I am at present far less enthusiastic about the large international conferences than I might have been earlier in my career.
However, last week, amidst frantic activity with colleagues from Ireland and here in Northampton, to finish writing a research report that was finally despatched on Friday evening, I took a day out to fulfil a promise to a good colleague from Cambridge University to attend one day of a conference in Bath. Being some 150 miles from home, it was just about manageable to drive to Bath, engage with colleagues as promised and then return home in one day. The conference, organised by the British Association for International and Comparative Education (BAICE) promoted a session to discuss some of the ethical and socio-political challenges of working with teachers and children in poorer communities around the world. There were papers presented by academics from universities working in countries in Africa and Asia alongside those from workers in Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and charities with a permanent presence on the ground working in communities to address challenges associated with health, social care and educational issues. Many of the situations faced by these colleagues place the work which I do in collaboration with associates in India firmly into perspective. A discussion about working in the ebola ravaged regions of Africa or in other war torn areas of that great continent makes one realise that the minor frustrations I occasionally feel in my work in South India are somewhat trivial.
The conference session that I attended, and hopefully to which I made a minor contribution, was both stimulating and thought provoking. I heard things that made me in turn angry, hopeful and thankful that there are organisations committed to improving the lives of others even when this places their own lives at great risk. Driving home I reflected on the value of this day, and also on various aspects of its organisation and innovations that added significantly to the experience. Often, after a conference it is possible to revisit the ideas discussed by reading the papers produced by those who have made the extra effort to contribute a written account to enhance the dialogue of the sessions. However, this usually means waiting some time and in many cases the papers, for a variety of reasons, never appear. The convenors of the session in Bath had come up with an excellent solution to this issue by recruiting a talented colleague who throughout the sessions was producing the picture at the head of this blog posting. Around the session theme of Politics of Disability and Education: Perspectives from the Global South, she had illustrated ideas discussed during and after each presentation, thus providing an immediate aide-memoire of the workshop.
Since returning home I have looked at this superb précis of the session on several occasions and have found it stimulating ideas and reminding me of some of the issues that we discussed. The struggles faced by disabled students in South Africa, so ably articulated by two colleagues from that country, the obstacles to achieving anything like universal education in Mali and Senegal with its many difficulties associated with health and social structures, and the gulf between policy and practice in an emerging education provision for the poorer communities in India are all illustrated in this work of art. Now that the term has begun I have printed a copy of this picture and have it close to hand as a reminder of why many of us entered the teaching profession in our callow youth. Hopefully as we get older it may still be possible to kindle the light that gave us direction during those formative years and to avoid the petty distractions that can easily divert us from this course.
What messages (if any) do you take from the picture? I would be interested to hear.