Reflections on a week of conference experiences

Last week was a bit of a whirlwind: IATEFL, followed by the Roundtable on Complex Systems Theory and ELT, both here in Manchester, and then the CultNet seminar in Durham at the end of the week. Apart from the many great conversations and meals (I think I have been to more restaurants in Manchester in the last week than the last 10 years put together!), it was a week that challenged and stretched me, although I have to admit to being very fed up with listening to myself talk about Exploratory Practice by the end of it.

I could probably write several pages reflecting on the experiences, but rather than bore you all, I’d like to focus on just a couple of things that I am taking with me into my own work and that I need to continue reflecting on.

The first relates to having to prepare several presentations on a similar theme at the same time, particularly the presentation which formed part of the Learner Autonomy SIG day at IATEFL, and the one for the Roundtable on Complexity Theory and ELT. The first was to my mind fairly straightforward: I explained Exploratory Practice,  talked about what the learners and I had done during the course, and then drew it together with a few thoughts at the end. The complexity one was in a different league – I had very little idea of how to approach it or how to make my work relevant to the aims of the day. I had several conversations with Juup, but found it difficult to get a hold on my line of reasoning. In fact, I was still changing things the day before, trying to find that coherent line of argument (aided by both Juup and Achilleas). And yet, that presentation was by far the most rewarding in terms of my own thinking. It pushed me in directions that I know I would not have explored to the same extent without the pressure of having to explain my thoughts to others. However, it also left me with the nagging feeling that there were some inherent contradictions between what I was saying in the IATEFL presentation and the Roundtable one, and although there was a lot of interest in my IATEFL presentation, I somehow felt that I had short-changed people, that there was something important missing. It is those uncertainties and doubts that I now need to explore and try and pinpoint why I felt that way.

The second concerns something that I have been puzzling about for some time now and that was brought into focus by Miriam Firth’s presentation at CultNet. Miriam was using the term ‘intercultural communication’ to explain her data and she very clearly explained how she was using that term. However, there were many questions and comments related to her use of the term and whether what she was describing really was intercultural communication or something different. In general, people, and I include myself because my thoughts throughout were very similar, returned to their own default understanding of the term rather than the one Miriam had given. One of the things that I have battled with in the classroom, and which has come up several times in my conversations with Richard in relation to his use of Exploratory Practice in the Researching Multilingually project, is the use of the term ‘puzzle’ in Exploratory Practice and the common understanding of that word as something which needs to be solved. It can of course be used in other ways; the verb has different connotations and EP also talks about ‘puzzlement’. Richard has gone with the term ‘curiosities’, but I have resisted using that in the classroom as it seems a more complex word for learners to grasp. However, my own and others’ response to Miriam’s presentation made me realise that however much I explain what I mean by ‘puzzle’ to my students, they too are likely to go with their own default understanding, or the first meaning they get when they look it up in their dictionaries. Also,  if I have to explain what I mean by puzzle anyway, I might as well explain curiosity. Maybe there are lessons here for all of us in how we use common words and terms in our research and the work we need to do to get people on the same page as us.

A great benefit of conferences and meetings like CultNet is the opportunity to meet new people and catch up with old friends. It also helps strengthen relationships with those who share some connection to Manchester but are not physically present with us. So, I hope there will be three new additions to our online community soon: Elisa from Spain, who is hoping to spend some time with us in the autumn, and Judith and Melissa from Durham who are both supervised by Richard. Watch out for their profiles!


  • Lada Smirnova

    Susan, enjoyed yours. So, Manchester’s restaurants gave you one more chance for Exploratory Practice, uh? Re meanings, I see how hard it is at times. To tell the truth, terms, from the activity theory in particular, are my nightmare these days and I’m so happy that I have some more months before I start in September to come up with more or less clear definitions of those things we’re going to work with. Or, will use the Winnie the Pooh’s strategy!

  • Richard Fay

    Regarding words and meanings, my sister-in-law says to me “don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean”! There are some interesting quotes in Winnie the Pooh and other popular works, e.g.:

    “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like “What about lunch?”
    ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

    “Speak English!’ said the Eaglet. ‘I don’t know the meaning of half those long words, and I don’t believe you do either!”
    ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

    “Look after the senses and the sounds will look after themselves”
    ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

    And lots more. As practitioners and as scholars and as practitioner-researchers, we need to communicate our meanings to others and language can sometimes be tricky in this regard as Miri found out at CultNet 🙂

    • Zhuomin Huang

      Just love the quotes, Richard! 😀 The one from Winnie-the-Pooh is so cute!!

    • Susan Dawson

      Interesting quotes, Richard 🙂

      I get what they are saying about using straightforward language, but what if Winnie the Pooh when he says “What about lunch?” means something different from what is commonly understood by lunch? That would mean a temporary (I assume) breakdown in communication with Piglet, Tigger & co. until they had all clarified what Pooh really meant by lunch. If, for whatever reason they found it difficult to understand Pooh’s meaning, or couldn’t bring themselves to accept his understanding of lunch, then what would happen? Perhaps they’d all go their separate ways and do their own version of ‘lunch’, at least until they managed to come to a common understanding. That might happen quickly, slowly or possibly not at all.

      So what I’m musing on I suppose, is how useful is the word ‘puzzle’ if it might lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication? Would ‘curiosity’, because its a less common word for language learners, enable me to more helpfully explain the concept of puzzlement, puzzling and working for understanding? Just wondering …

      • Richard Fay

        🙂 Indeed. When I was a kid growing up in Manchester, “lunch” meant mid-morning snack at school, “dinner” meant midday cooked meal at school, “tea” meant cooked meal at home in the evening ….

        … and many years later, when I was working as a lexicographer for COBUILD, working in particular on their dictionary of prefixes, I was given be- to work on (e.g. bespectacled, bejewelled) and my editor laughed and laughed when my definition for “be-nighted” dwelt upon being still in the mountains as night falls … I had never come across the meaning of benighted as not yet having seen the light, being backward, primitive etc (a meaning which I think is probably more common in upper class discourse than what I was socialised into).

        Words are slippery but somehow we do manage quite often to generate a sense of plausibly shared meaning, no? and also a sense of whether a word (and what we hope is a reasonably shared meaning) is fit for current explanatory purpose …. can we expect more than that?

        • Susan Dawson

          Not heard that meaning of ‘lunch’ before, but dinner and tea were certainly the same in my family!

          I agree with what you’re saying, but I think it also takes time to come to those shared meanings and a 10 week course doesn’t give a huge amount of time – and actually we need to come to that shared meaning pretty early on in those 10 weeks. In the Rm-ly project, I think you are still working together on what ‘curiosity’ means for you all in the project context, and that’s fine as there is still time to work it out and its all part of the process anyway.

          BTW, Ana Salvi told me she has been using ‘curiosity’ in her EP work recently …

          • Richard Fay

            That’s very interesting re Ana’s shifting terminology 🙂 Any concrete evidence of this shift? is she using it in any recent presentations for example?

            • Susan Dawson

              She hasn’t given any presentations for some time. It was in response to talking to her about the work I was doing with you re Rm-ly and she just said that she was using curiosity too. She’ll be in Leeds so I can chat to her more about it. It was just a passing comment really and we didn’t go in to details.

  • Zhuomin Huang

    Great reflections, Susan. I enjoyed your arguments moving from puzzles to curiosities in the Cultnet meeting. Also, looking forward to having 3 new members, Elisa, Judith and Melissa in our community!