By Jeppe Damberg,
January 10th, 2018
[aesop_content color=”#000000″ background=”#ffffff” component_width=”600px” columns=”1″ position=”none” imgrepeat=”no-repeat” disable_bgshading=”off” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]Conferences. UWCMs pride. The finest examples of just how well the school does student-led events. International Peace Conference attracts many brilliant speakers, TOK Conference claims many external participants and YES Conference sparks discussion, sometimes action, on the pressing issues of sustainability and global warming. What do they all have in common? What is the reason for their success? Well, their frameworks definitely mirror one another.
A conference is bound to have an opening ceremony. The organising team will be introduced, a band will play and a speaker or two will talk for roughly 30 minutes on stage. The opening ceremony will usually, with the exception of this year’s YES-conference, take place at an external venue. After the opening ceremony, there will be workshops. These workshops will differ in quality depending on the passion of the students leading them. Their time is roughly around one and a half to two hours and a conference may have a day or two of just workshops. Then, it all finishes with a closing ceremony that follows the structure of an opening ceremony. By now, it may seem like our conferences have become very predictable, and this is because they have. But why is this and what are the effects?
Every year when new conference teams are picked, a lot of responsibility and a valuable tradition is passed down to a fresh group of students. With all conferences wishing to do better than the previous organising team and better than the competition, it seems that they settle for the safe bet: the ceremony-workshop-ceremony structure. As conferences have progressed over the years, we have seen the attendance fall, especially on the days of the workshops. Dwindling attendance may very likely be because we have seen it all before; indeed most students know exactly what will happen even before the conferences announce their new theme and logo. This pressure to be the best conference complemented by the responsibility of carrying on a tradition ultimately limits creativity and prevents what conferences really need: a reinvention.
This may seem like a somewhat arrogant statement, but really all that hold students and staff back from overhauling or criticising a conference is their claim to tradition. I say let us not reduce organising teams to caretakers, but instead encourage them to reinvent the framework. Who says that a conference has to be three days? Why do we not remove workshops if most people skip them? ToK Conference is proposing something called “queries” instead of workshops, which seems to offer more flexibility in terms of content, but we are yet to see if it will encourage students to actually bring in more creativity and break out of the workshop framework. If not,
perhaps a discussion of what we as a community want conferences to be needs to occur. I believe it is needed if we wish to prevent participation levels from dwindling.
Another effect of preserving the same conferences every year is that it prevents other student initiatives of the same calibre. Currently, the already established conferences basically have a reserved space in our school calendar each year, so it is difficult, nearly impossible, to give way to a new event. In that case, I would argue that most of the student initiative and creativity concerning conferences, occurred years ago when the events first began. This reality also gives rise to another argument; who says we cannot acknowledge that a conference had a good run and then shut it down? The end of a conference seems inevitable if we wish to give the opportunity for other events to form.
We love our conferences, and for that reason it is our responsibility to ensure their success. However, that does not mean sticking to the same frameworks every year. In relying on structures that guarantee a smooth conference, we limit creativity and initiative. Instead, let us encourage the conferences to reinvent themselves, or simply shut one or two down to make way for other ideas.
Jeppe Damberg was a student at United World College Maastricht 2016-2018. He founded the Flying Dutchman in 2017.