This year's AERA conference in Canada offered more than spectacular crowd scenes and obscure debating groups. David Budge joined the stars of academe at their surreal gathering
Organisers of America's Great Teachers Seminar have chosen an unforgettable venue for this summer's event - the Kilauea Military Camp in Volcano, Hawaii.
But the gathering is unlikely to be any more surreal than last week's American Educational Research Association conference which drew more than 10,000 academics to Montreal.
The AERA week is possibly the only time of year when you can stumble bleary-eyed into the ballroom of a Sheraton hotel at 8.15am and find a group of researchers talking animatedly about Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration and his five forms of overexcitability.
Next door another group will be worrying about the "Precision of Warm's weighted likelihood estimation of ability for polytomous models in CAT". If that does not appeal you can always hop over to the Marriott and listen to something more accessible, like Betty Steffy on the Lil' Red Schoolhouse.
Vulgarians faced a special dilemma at this year's conference. Who would be better value? Curtis J Bonk or Randy Bennett? Moreover, difficult decisions of that kind had to be made every hour because the conference offered as many as 70 simultaneous sessions. To make matters even more complicated they were staged in four colossal hotels which contained enough deep-pile carpeting to cover all of Belgium and a chunk of France.
The 1999 conference was actually a more intimate affair than last year's jamboree in San Diego which attracted 11,700 delegates.
But the range of topics seemed even broader this year - everything from Arkansas employers' hiring policies to Bantu cosmology. Stars of academe were also visible but anyone at the back of the class needed a telescope. Howard "multiple intelligences" Gardner was one of the luminaries who addressed a room in the Sheraton that was literally as big as an aircraft hangar.
The AERA conference, however, offers more than spectacular crowd scenes, obscure debating groups, and even more obscure jokes (one woman academic was amused to be called a data reductionist constructivist). Although the meeting is a mine of esoterica there are always dozens of useful papers on maths and science, reading, race and gender issues, teaching techniques, professional development and IT. Many teacher-researchers seemed to revel in the conference experience, but not everyone finds it life-enhancing. Every year complaints abound about its size and the variable quality of the papers. It is said that some researchers return home with an overwhelming desire to sell insurance.
Other academics succumb to the pressures that such a conference generates. I shared a breakfast table with one researcher who had an attack of nerves on the morning of his presentation and had trouble pouring milk into his cereal bowl.
He was not the only careworn researcher. The Canadians were deeply concerned about the Ontario government's new back-to-basics plans. The Americans were most worried about the plight of high-poverty urban schools. Everyone was stressed by the most difficult task of all - getting in and out of the near-impregnable Hilton without a ball of string. But then the Columbine School nightmare began and such petty problems were put into perspective.
Researchers melted away to their hotel rooms to follow the unfolding drama on CNN, then gathered in huddles to try to make sense of what had happened.
The tragedy hit the Americans hard, especially those who have devoted their professional lives to research into violence prevention.
"Some of us can barely talk about it, even among ourselves," said Dr David Johnson, of the University of Minnesota, one of the leading researchers in this field. "It's just too painful. So many lives ruined ... forever."
No one had any ready solutions to offer, although everyone agreed with Georgia schools administrator Christine Daley who commented: "Surveillance cameras and metal-detectors don't teach right from wrong." All were forced to reconsider whether their work can really help to remedy the frightening problems confronting America's schools. It was therefore fitting that on the last day of the conference 40 researchers gathered in the Sheraton to ask: "Are we relevant to US education?" The answer that emerged was:
"Perhaps, but not as useful as we should be."
Some, however, would say even that exaggerates researchers' importance. As one Michigan state lawmaker observed: "Experts are a dime a dozen. Loyalty is what I want."
Some believe that the strategic plan for US education research that the National Research Council unveiled three weeks ago is better than any proposal that the AERA has devised. But the National Research Council wants to see universities concentrate on a few key questions rather than allowing "a thousand research flowers to bloom".
That may be too much of a culture shock for America's researchers to contemplate. However, there is potential for change. That became clear during a Tuesday afternoon session when Lorna Onafowora of North Carolina State University said something that no education researcher may have ever uttered before. "Please excuse me, but ah'm not a fancy talker."
When researchers begin to say such things, almost anything is possible.
THINGS THEY SAID
* "I am always amused when I am described as the George and Diane Weiss Professor because they are bitterly divorced and I am the only thing that holds them together."
Susan Fuhrman, of the University of Pennsylvania, responding to a colleague who had just introduced her to an AERA audience.
* "Don't give education statisticians undue homage. Remember that a statistician is a person who doesn't have the personality to become an accountant."
Denis Phillips, of Stanford University, providing succour for the mathematically challenged.
* "Based on the optimal challenge, or 'flow', theory of Csikszentmihalyi (Csikszentmihalyi amp; Larson, 1978; Csikszentmihalyi amp; Nakamura, 1989; Csikszentmihalyi et al.,1993), it was postulated ..."
Marcy A Blackburn, of Cameron University, and Raymond B Miller, of the University of Oklahoma, clarifying a point that had caused confusion.
... and the worst pun Mnemonic learning of animal names: some gnu findings - Title of paper by Russel N Carney et al, Southwest Missouri State University.