by Georgia Katakou
May 7th, 2018
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Every interaction we have had with a another UWC has, more or less, resulted in the same conclusions. We agree that every college has their own defining characteristic and, overwhelmingly, that UWC Maastricht is known for its conferences. It is what brings external participants to our school and their quality, level of participation and engagement have set our conference mentality as an example for other UWCs.
However, within the UWCM community the ideal of the conference has suffered this year. While there has been little critique of them in the past, conferences are now being scrutinized by their various stakeholders. Students argue that the conferences’ frameworks have become heavily repetitive, that their abundance makes them a chore to attend and creates a shortage of time, and that they can no longer relate to the themes of those, often abstract, events. Another criticism is that conferences are merely “discussion weekends”, when we meet as a community and validate each other. On a staff level, many see conferences as time consuming, especially as we struggle to meet the IB teaching hours, particularly evident in the feedback given by the Council of International Schools earlier this year which raised concerns over the lack of teaching hours.
And so, the idea of two-year conferences began to take form. The concept is simple: instead of having all the conferences in one year, have every one each two, following the, arguably successful, model of culture weeks. The two-year model tackles multiple issues raised. Firstly, it frees up time to create new initiatives. Many new events were proposed this year but there was simply no time for them in the ever busy schedule and thus, by freeing up the conference weekends, new and exciting projects could come to rise. Another issue addressed is that the conference selection in the beginning of each year “sucks in all the creative people” and does not allow them to build their own projects instead of focusing on the, already heavily structured, conferences. Some conference teams thus perceive their conference as “a respectable institution” which place on the calendar is a claim to tradition. rather than something they have to earn. That perception in itself is rather flawed, since it assumes that all the people that are not in conferences are not active or creative, something that is obviously untrue but still promotes a false sense of hierarchy. What could also be an underlying cause of the proposal is that by having every conference every two years then the budget the school would provide would be halved, but that is merely a speculation based on how conferences struggled to find funding and had to repeatedly turn to the school for guidance and support outside their allocated budget. Lastly, this model would obviously increase creativity, by allowing a fresh team to completely reinvent the structure of the event and produce something of quality without the time pressure that conference teams experience now.
And yet, one can imagine other reasons behind this possible move towards the new model. Perhaps it is born out of the desire to change the face of UWC Maastricht from the “Conference UWC” to the “whole-school model UWC.” In the school plan, at UWC Congress in Duino, in daily discussions, it is evident that the leadership aims to focus on the idea that we are an entire school rather than just a boarding programme for the last two years of high school as being what makes us special. It is a selling point to families, to sponsors and, frankly, to the rest of the movement. By diffusing the regularity of conferences, they become less of a focus point in student and staff life and that could give prominence to a different UWC Maastricht identity. Perhaps the discussion is also fuelled by the difficulties that conferences have experienced and how they reflected on the school. Troubles with venues and funding, difficulty in inter-conference and school-conference communication and just an overwhelming feeling of cramming and even how certain conferences treat their externals, or complete lack thereof, may have created some hostility towards organizing teams. And truly, all of this does make for a compelling argument. That is why this discussion has been going on for quite some time now amongst staff, while the departing Student Council was introduced to it last year already.
However, it is worth examining the alternative paths. If the conferences are not “reinvented” then what could follow, is supposedly, their removal from the school calendar or even cancellation of few of them. In my opinion, this raises some questions when it comes to the degree of “staff-triarchy” that we experience here. The new model has been in discussion for quite some time now and it has not massively reached the student community. While the Student Council has been involved, they do not compensate for the entire student body and they arguably failed to pass down the information to the majority of the students. The fact that the proposal has reached student ears solely because of rumours reinforces the idea of “us versus them” that we have been trying to combat consistently as a community. Alternatively, a transparent selection committee, “conference ombudsmen” of shorts, could be created to choose which events are assigned scheduled time and school resources and which don’t. The idea of a selection committee comes with its own limitations, including, but not limited to, the danger of more competition and hyper-regularizing student creativity.
Conferences are extremely commendable events. And yes, there are issues with them, but it is unrealistic to expect to solve those simply by virtue of giving more time to the organizing team, placing a more present supervision over their heads and hoping everything will be fixed. Rather, I would like to propose two other points, that have undoubtedly already been mentioned in the long debate that has happened without much student participation.
Improve team selections: Referring back to “Why We Need Quotas”, an opinion by a fellow editor, it is clear that the organizing teams of certain events are extremely homogeneous. Whether one agrees with the idea of quota or not, particular groups of students are not represented in organizing teams. ELL students are often not included because of their inability to pitch themselves in English so early in the year, but also individuals that have much to offer but don’t fit the typical personality of the conference are excluded.
Introducing weekly inter-conference meetings: While this may put more strain on the team members, conferences can exchange tips, discuss venues and speakers and promote better relations while ensuring that the events do not get repetitive.
On a personal note, conferences have been immensely beneficial to my experience in UWC and I find them extremely compatible with our values as a community. Giving constructive feedback on how we can reinvigorate our events while giving space to new ones is essential to moving forward. We hold our conferences to a high standard and while change is vital, it should come naturally and from a good place. It is worth asking ourselves whether this effort for change is fueled by the desire to reinvigorate and improve student-led initiatives or it is born out of a need to promote a narrowly defined definition of a “changemaker”. It is also worth considering how our own personal bias can affect our impression of each conference and whether we are neglecting to give credit along with our criticisms.