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The delights of returning to in-person conferences: creative and intellectually-stimulating chats

Updated: Dec 1, 2022

Last week was my first in-person conference since February 2020 and involved a flight to a country I’d not visited before, so to say I was looking forward to it is certainly an understatement. I was excited for sure, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how much I enjoyed and got out of the experience - personally and professionally - from the sessions I delivered myself and from listening and learning from literally everyone I encountered.

The conference was organised by the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology (MCAST) and was focused on ‘Fuelling Creative Minds Through Applied Qualitative Research’. I was invited to give a keynote on the Five-Level QDA method and a MAXQDA workshop and was welcomed and hosted by Dr Ing Alex Rizzo, Dr Ronald Aquilina and Dr Rose Falzon.

I’m often heard saying how much I learn from those I teach and how much I value that this is the case. Early in my career this was a source of great stress as I felt an imposter, not sufficiently experienced or knowledgeable to believe I was good enough to be imparting useful information, and concerned I’d be asked questions I didn’t know the answers to. Luckily I was mentored by several people who helped me see things differently, and I was able to quickly embrace the dual learner-teacher role. Now I love a question I don’t know the answer to…because it gets me to question my assumptions, stretch my boundaries…to learn….bring it on!

This week at MCAST has brought home to me yet again what a privilege it is to do what I do, and to be invited into environments where these values are so clearly evident. I get to stand in front of researchers at different stages of their careers, working in different methodological and disciplinary contexts and across a wide range of substantive topics and talk to them about the things I’m most passionate about. And not only are they interested and engaged, but their questions and comments stimulate avenues for further thought and discussion. What more could you want?

What struck me most about this week was the atmosphere. It wasn’t just that there presentations from students and researchers across the career spectrum, from masters students recounting their first foray into qualitative research for their dissertations, to professors imparting wisdoms generated from decades in the field. That’s not so unusual. But the ease with which everyone took to the floor, the quality of the comments, questions and discussions, the compassion and constructiveness with which suggestions for developing a study were given and received. In the context of an explicit acknowledgment of differing philosophical and methodological, standpoints. This was refreshing and motivating.

I know from chatting to a few of the students that some of them were really nervous about presenting, but it hardly showed, and as I know myself, those nerves are always there to some degree, however many times you’ve stood in front of a sea of faces, to share your work. In fact they’re a good thing, they show you care, they get you ready for the performance that sharing your work and thoughts is. Virtual conferences were a god-send over the past few years, and the definitely have their place, not least for opening up access and allowing us to meet people we wouldn't have the opportunity to otherwise. I doubt I would have had these sorts of chats if this had been a virtual event though. There really isn't anything like chatting over coffee and cake for delving deep into discussions.

At my workshop about harnessing MAXQDA for literature reviews there were approaching 70 participants, most were already using the software but they were at different stages in their studies and with different levels of confidence with harnessing the software tools for their analytic needs. It’s always tricky speaking to varied audiences, pitching the teaching to suit different prior experiences to make sure everyone gets what they need from the session. Luckily I’ve been doing this for a while so hope to be able to strike that balance as much as possible. I tried out a slightly different way of going about things in this session and was glad that everyone seemed engaged and the questions and discussions were intellectually stimulating. What I love most is when someone says “you showed us how to do abc, but couldn’t we also do it xyz way, I think that would work better for my project because xxx”. Yes! This shows creativity and flexibility in thinking about how software can be harnessed for analytic tasks that reflects exactly my mindset and ways of discussing and teaching tools and methods concurrently. These ways of thinking and interacting are fostered by being in environments that encourage creative and critical teaching and learning and the MCAST conference had this in abundance. Love it.


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