When a research metaphor isn’t just a metaphor: CRADLE & DER International Symposium 2018

How a metaphor in Helsinki became reality in Prato, Italy, and what I learnt from attending an international symposium on the impact of feedback in higher education.

During a presentation about getting published in academic journals, CRADLE’s David Boud likened becoming a researcher to joining a conversation. This was during the EARLI SIG1 Summer School at the University of Helsinki from 27-28 August, and he used the research-is-a-conversation metaphor to illustrate how important it is to select an appropriate journal for your papers.

The week after the Summer School in Helsinki I was lucky to be attending CRADLE and Monash University’s Digital Education Research (DER) joint International Symposium in Prato, Italy. Here I joined feedback researchers from across the world, who had been invited for a three-day symposium to discuss ‘The Impact of Feedback in Higher Education’.

Unlike Plato’s famous meeting, this symposium did not consist of a series of speeches. Rather than being simply an exchange of ideas, it was a collective sense-making and creation of ideas. It seemed that in Prato, claiming that research is a conversation was not just a metaphor but in fact a good description of the actual thing.

From left: David Boud, Rachelle Esterhazy and Margaret Bearman. Photo: Michael Henderson

A good example was the thorough and recurring discussions around definitions of feedback, which both seemed to sharpen the thinking of the participants and at the same time had the pragmatic purpose of delivering a working definition that could be used in an upcoming book. A cornucopia of conversations and nested conversations were orchestrated in a way that made disagreements fruitful and gave more space to observations and synthesis than frozen positions.

Framing academic research as a conversation is an intriguing metaphor, as it highlights that each thread of research and inquiry grows in a tradition and context defined by shared understandings and shared agendas. I am reminded of another research metaphor, which allows us to say that we are ‘driving the field forward’. This one seems to agree with the conversation metaphor that the collective effort of scholars is ensuring that their new insights are bringing the entire field to a new level. Although as a non-native English speaker I am not sure if that metaphor conceptualizes the research field as a vehicle or a herd of cattle.

Delegates seated at an L-shaped table, listening to Phillip Dawson standing at the corner and speaking.

Delegates at Prato. Photo: Lasse Jensen.

Now it’s been more than a month since I returned to my desk, my PhD project, and the more prosaic sides of research, and at times I am wondering if publish or perish, standing on the shoulders of giants, or another research-metaphor is a better fit for the story. For now, I think I’ll put my money on the conversation metaphor. I am grateful for the opportunity I got to see the conversation in action, and excited to do my best to become a participant.

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