Attending Conferences as a Philosophical Outsider: One Graduate Student’s Experience

By Kevin Currie-Knight

Recently, I attended and presented research at a fairly big national conference. As a graduate student, one already feels somewhat like an outside at a conference attended mainly by faculty. But at this conference, I felt even more like an outsider as a classical liberal because anti-market and even anti-liberal (small “l”) positions were very frequently voiced both in presentations and conversations. The conference was in the area of “social foundations of education” where skepticism of markets and “neoliberalism” is a mainstay.

So there I was as a grad student at a big conference, more self-aware than usual. How can I ask challenging questions during presentations in an appropriate and productive way? How can I talk to others about my more classically liberal research interests without painting myself negatively to others (maybe even potential employers and colleagues)? Questions like these filled my head early on in the conference as I found myself feeling like a philosophical outsider. Ultimately, the conference was a really good experience, and I want to reflect on what I did, and what we all can do, to attend conferences productively as something of “an outsider.”

The first day of this several day conference was the hardest. I wasn’t expecting just how much hostility toward markets and liberalism would be in the air. I wanted to find a way to discuss these ideas with other scholars, but to do so in a productive and, for lack of a better word, non-threatening way. But, honestly, I struggled that first day to find a good way to do that and ended up staying relatively silent mostly speaking with folks during breaks between presentations on very general topics like the job market.

Fast forward to the second day. I knew it needed to be different, that I needed to be different, and I was determined. This was a big conference and I wanted to network with my colleagues as much as possible. First, I made sure to take really good notes on presentations; if anti-market views were being expressed and I had questions and reactions, it would be better to write them down. This way I could generate paper ideas and address these arguments in greater depth. Beyond taking good notes, I utilized downtime between talks to type out more in-depth reflections on presentations while my memory and thoughts were still fresh. This left me with more systematically approachable notes and thoughts after the conference.

Second, whenever I did have a question that I thought was pressing, I would often opt to talk with the presenter after the presentation was over after the question and answer period. When I did so, I made sure to ask only questions I thought could challenge the presenter in a way that she could use to make her argument stronger. (“In regards to your argument, a market advocate might say…. That might be an objection you can develop a counter-argument to for your paper…”) With this approach to questions, I could ask a question in a productive way without painting myself in a negative light or in a way to make the presenter defensive.

Once I got more comfortable doing this – several of my conversations with presenters turned into discussions over coffee and I began realizing something else that helped me feel less guarded about my classical liberalism: the progressive left and classical liberalism have a great deal in common. For instance, many of my colleagues voiced opposition to centralizing trends in education, government-imposed curriculum standards, and overly bureaucratic government. Here were some major points of agreement that could be used as a way to bring up questions of whether markets or government action might provide effective solutions.

I realized that my colleagues and I agreed on most of the symptoms (things that the current education system is doing wrong), agree a lot about the disease (why it is doing those things wrong), and our disagreement is mostly about the cure (markets v. government solutions). Thus, I was able to use our areas of agreement with colleagues as a way to have good discussion about our points of disagreement.

This worked very well and led to some very productive conversations, where all discussants learned and were challenged. I found this approach to discussion to work really well and James Stacey Taylor has a great post on how to keep arguments civil and productive by posturing a conversation in a conversational and non-aggressive way.

At the start of the conference, I was a bit skeptical that I’d be able to participate fully as a philosophical outsider: a classical liberal at a conference where markets and liberalism appeared in presentation and conversation as anathema to social justice and progress. By the end, though I had met some great colleagues, had valuable conversations, and written down some ideas I plan to work on in the future. I am looking forward to writing some of these in the next year possibly to present at the next annual conference.

By using the conference as a learning experience, discussing questions evoked by presentations in productive rather than combative ways, and focusing on points of agreement as springboards to areas of disagreement, I think classical liberals (or anyone attending a conference as a philosophical outsider) can productively navigate their way to a successful conference experience.

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Kevin Currie-Knight is a fourth year PhD student in University of Delaware’s Education department. He works for UD’s Center for Assessment of Teaching and Learning, where one of his roles is to assist graduate students and faculty with developing and maintaining academic e-portfolios. He can be reached at kevinck@udel.edu or kevincurrieknight@gmail.com.

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