I’ve got that head-fug that emerges after an intense conference or period of networking so I doubt what follows will be my most profound thoughts or reflections however I offer them into the mix because I’d welcome others thoughts while the #JSWEC hashtag remains busy. It’s a long one so if you’re short on time/patience then just read the italics for the gist of the ideas!
I enjoyed JSWEC this year, I enjoy it every year however I also felt a bit frustrated by it this year. I’ve been mulling over what that’s about and I think a lot of what I value about it (meeting and reconnecting with people; learning new stuff; being stretched in my thinking) isn’t necessarily best suited to a traditional conference format! I choose not to attend many conferences these days, so maybe I expect too much from those I do attend, I don’t know.
I have spent enough of my life involved with organising events and conferences to know that there was absolutely shed loads of work that went into arranging, designing and planning for JSWEC that can be overlooked once we land in the conference venue. I’d like to start by acknowledging the work of Jon Bolton, Shan Marshall, Tim Kelly and all those involved in bringing JSWEC together to the point people arrive. Very little of what I’m reflecting on in this blog post is directed at the conference itself, much more is aimed at those of us who attend and participate or choose not to.
The theme of #JSWEC 2015 was Social work education and research across boundaries and this pic, snapped yesterday, seemed like a bit of a useful visual metaphor! I guess I’m left wondering why these two people are elevated (on a roundabout as it happens) and whether their line of sight is so different that even being in close proximity is unlikely to enable them to change what they see or develop a shared perspective. These two figures sort of float, it’s unclear what (who) they are standing on/elevated above/underpinned by (the shoulders of giants; junior colleagues, service users and carers) and in front of everything is a clear rule that the direction of travel is off to the left. The atmosphere, as far as you can make it out from the photo, is one with an oppressive cloudy lid to it (enveloping the figures in a fog of pressure).
I found this roundabout, while perfectly functional and fit for purpose, a bit bizarre and sinister in equal measure; especially as someone on foot who went about it the wrong way each time, defying the arrow to cross in front and sneak up the side. In a way I found JSWEC this year perfectly functional (and in no way sinister) but I’m not convinced that our methods or participation is the best it could be. Just throwing that out there for consideration.
Service users and carer involvement
There were a number of sessions that featured the input of service users and carers at #JSWEC. The participation and co-production theme had 15 sessions in it, so it could just have been the sessions I attended, but I attended 17 papers/keynotes/workshops (including the one I was giving) and only in one of those did I hear the actual voice of those using services or carers coming through loud and clear.
I discussed this with a number of people and two main reasons were offered – one focused on the cost barrier for people who use services and are carers to attend (and I do not mean to imply a false assumption that people only hold one role) and the other the suggestion that the voices of service users and carers are so integral to the work of social work and social work education that they are embedded throughout everything and therefore are not/don’t need to be made explicit. One of the most powerful JSWEC 2014 sessions for me was Debs Gatenby who combined humour and experience in a truly engaging way. Comedians at conference are usually well received, maybe we could have a comedian stream next year!
Alternatives: give one of the keynote slots to a service user (individual or group) or a self advocacy organisation or an inclusive theatre group, preferably one in the middle of conference. Insist that 50% of papers from any institution include an explicit service user/carer focus. Require abstracts to state how the voice of service users/carers will be reflected/addressed in the presentation. Do not allow Professors (leaders and experts in our community) to present unless they are co-presenting with someone who uses services (or they include their voice somehow e.g. through film, diary, artwork). As a presenter ask how the voice of service users and carers feeds into your presentation, and if it doesn’t be clear as to why, address this at the start (it’s not necessarily a bad thing but we should be able to share our rationale).
Less words, more pictures: or the Harry effect
Harry’s presence adds so much to JSWEC, his live drawings are important visual cues and reminders as we reflect on the conference. Yet still we have slides and slides of words, nowhere near enough pictures for my visual brain.
Alternatives: offer a prize for the session that makes best use of images and visuals. Save 25% of session slots for papers that use visual media within them. It goes without saying (and all credit to Jon B for bringing Harry into the JSWEC fold in the first place) but have Harry at every conference, but then include a slot at the end or create an online gallery that features what he recorded. Maybe a delegate in each session could try and create their own visual notes to share more widely – I bought The Sketchnote Handbook years ago to help with this but haven’t got far with it myself!
One of the definite highlights of JSWEC for me this year was meeting Liz Beddoe and hearing from Deb Stanfield about her PhD work on Social work and social media in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s not that international work is necessarily particularly different, but the lens and culture and language and metaphor offered is subtly different and helped my thinking and stretched me in a way that I enjoyed.
— Deb Stanfield (@DebStanfieldSW) July 17, 2015
Similarly, Martin Webber‘s keynote about the SSCR funded Connecting People study was a truly great combination of a focus on, and passion for evidence, presented in a visually appealing way (prezi but without the need for travel sickness pills) introduced it’s applicability to Sierra Leone. It felt helpful to ask the question about how portable (or not) our interventions and ideas and theories are, and perhaps more importantly, what can we learn from elsewhere. Something that other sessions also touched on, noteably for me Edith Lewis’s session and the two sessions given by Trish Walsh, the first with Erna O’Connor on social workers migration into Ireland and the second on EOLC training courses.
Alternatives: while acknowledging the cost of attending for international delegates, could we feature sessions with online papers and discussions more? Could we run a late night/early morning session bringing international delegates to conference for those interested over dinner/breakfast. I might challenge myself, if I attend again, to crowdsource international contributions to what I’m discussing. Perhaps someone would like to cover my costs to be a roving reporter and visit international conferences and feed the learning back to JSWEC audience (I can but wish).
Speaking the unspeakable
Many will have heard my disappointment at having a quality, but tiny, audience of four for the JusticeforLB session. This isn’t about my ego, I’ve the thickest skin imaginable, but having put together a symposium that crossed boundaries with Tommy and Alex from My Life My Choice, Andy a journalist with Community Care, Hannah from Lancaster University and myself, it just feels like social work doesn’t really care about JusticeforLB/learning disabled people/those who challenge too much/talking about death. I’m thinking aloud, and will blog more on the Justice site about it but it was desperately disappointing. If you missed it and would like to know more please take 15mins to watch this film:
One of the people who attended our session was Tish Marrable and Tish offered the hypothesis that maybe social workers just aren’t keen on death and that the death of anyone (but a child in ‘care’ in particular) fills them with a fear that means it’s best to stay away from such a session. The next day I went along to a brilliant workshop on discussing death, offered by Tish and Denise Turner. This session had a better audience than ours (seven people) but what struck me was that those there seemed to really want to discuss death, and online discussions and reactions to grief and loss, but at a conference of over 250 people, an audience of seven is still tiny.
— Denise Turner (@DeniseT01) July 16, 2015
Maybe it’s cultural, maybe it’s not. Whichever, I guess I still think we should speak of unspeakable things, regardless of audience size and I’m grateful to JSWEC for providing a space for that.
Alternatives: make people uncomfortable and address the unspeakable. Have a ‘niche’ theme focus where different types of discussion can happen, where papers are sourced and time is given over for people to address these issues in more depth e.g. a death day (for those interested). Limit room size for obviously popular sessions (and share them in some other way) to force/coerce audiences into non-popular but useful sessions. Use some of the break times to create impromptu conversations and build on what’s been discussed in a session.
Where’s the critique, challenge or dissent?
I know, and we heard loud and clear, what pressure social work is under at JSWEC. Yes people are weary, and fatigued and looking for support, and connectivity, and hugs, and social and peer support. I get that, the most important point of most conferences seem to be the bringing together of people to touch base, step out of their own environments and reconnect and build resilience. That’s a given.
That said where was the critique or challenge or dissent? Usually at a conference there is a bit of a twitter back channel that allows for discussion and debate, but JSWEC while increasing its social media activity magnificently in recent years, seems to have lost a bit of the debate. People weren’t adding their thoughts or ideas so much as broadcasting what was said. That’s important to getting messages out, but if people don’t share their critique or contribution we just create echoes, rather than build a conversation.
There were some good conversations and discussions in the sessions I attended, and maybe these moved into debate at later opportunities, but it just felt like there was a lot of consensus building, rather than mind stretching. Maybe that is what the profession needs right now, but it scares me a little, that we create echo chambers, or we reinforce what we suspect. JSWEC feels like such an opportunity, I just wish we as participants/audience did better.
Alternatives: perhaps we could have more debate sessions (the debate at JSWEC 2014 was well received from memory). Maybe we could all ask more questions rather than giving answers/broadcasting on social media and in real life (I’m as guilty as anyone on this). Perhaps we could have a question/reflection graffiti wall where people share their thoughts at break times.
This post is far longer than I’d have liked but I hope it will spark some discussion and debate, either here in the comments or on twitter while #JSWEC is still being used. I’m painfully aware that I could just be someone, pretty much like one of those figures on the roundabout, looking in a different direction to everyone else. So please do say if you think I’m just waffling without context/understanding/adding anything. Thanks again to everyone at JSWEC 2015.