Rethinking the study day model

How can we do academic conferences better?

Over the course of my PhD, I became deeply disappointed with conferences and study days. Those were always presented in the marketing as an opportunity to share and question ideas with peers. Yet the design was hardly conducive to that goal. It was either plenaries or parallel sessions, with a clear division of roles: speakers, listeners. Presenters had one single slot of about 40 minutes in the conference to share their research or ideas. They were invited to leave time for questions, but everybody went overtime, limiting interations to 10 minutes at best. Which typically consisted of a ‘question that is actually a remark suggesting an alternative reference’, clarification on a minor point of detail, and a theoretical challenge with hardly any time to reflect. How is that an opportunity to share ideas with peers?

I noted similar contradictions with the ‘milestone presentations’ I was invited to do, as part of Monash University’s PhD program. Here again, in theory, it was an opportunity to receive feedback – but in fact, seemed to serve mainly the purpose of confirming my academic capacity. I had to share documents in advance, give twenty minutes of presentation, then get feedback from faculty members, and give a short response. Document had to be formatted to standards: how misaligned with research as an emergent process. Practically, it meant a lot of time spent formally perfecting early stage prototypes. Nor was the presentation a proper dialogue, but professorial expert feedback. Again, not a great mode of interaction, especially for an extravert like me.

It’s unlikely that any of this can change: habits run deep. I soon gave up attempts to bring what I had learned in innovation and entrepreneurial circles to a university setting – the final drop was one memorably dysfunctional conversation with a mid-level administrator. Yet, in the margins of a conference, I remember discussing an alternative model, as a provocation, with a friendly peer.

I’m a bit of a design nerd, so, on that evening, I jotted down notes for this conference model. It has remained at the back of a drawer, in draft form, for years. I thought I might take it out, give it shape and share it. Much of it is inspired by the wonderful Liberating Structures model of Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless. The timings are slightly tight, with long pauses. This means, it’s possible to extend the length of activities and ‘eat into’ pauses a little. Pauses are also intended for introverts to relax.

I’d love to try it out one day, but not on my own. So, if anyone would like to pick it up? Please, I’d love to talk.  

Day 1: Fast prototyping

Prior to the conference, participants have been invited to prepare a presentation on either their whole research, or part of their research. They have been warned that the purpose of the day is to exchange ideas, tackle challenges, and review their presentation – so to prepare something that could be changed.

9:00 – 9:30: Coffee & tea

Sequence 1: introduction (9:30 – 10:30)

Goal: set the mood and principles for the day. Break the ice. People feel a sense of connection with other participants. People reflect on ‘what brought them here’ and set goals for themselves.

Five finger ice-breaker (9:30-9:55)

Participants are invited to lift their five fingers in turn, and form pairs based on ‘who has a finger that looks a little like yours’. Each round, they reflect and discuss a different question. 3’ / round.


  • What is the latest paper you read?  
  • What’s an author or thinker you keep returning to and why?
  • What’s an idea, or theory that you’re trying to destroy?
  • What would you like to achieve with your research? What’s the big vision?
  • As a researcher, what’s a thing you’re really good at?

General introduction (9h55-10h00)

  • Principles of the day – this is a conference optimized for deep exchange of ideas
  • Over the course of two days, you will present the same paper three times, in different formats, gathering feedback as you go.

Impromptu networking (10h00 – 10h30)

 Impromptu networkingis a way to quickly bring a group to focus on questions that matter to them.  

  • People are invited to form pairs, and answer the following question in turn: ‘What challenge are you hoping to overcome in this conference?’
  • Three rounds, followed by a general debrief. Participants are invited to share insights, maintaining confidentiality (e.g. share ideas or challenges, but not who articulated them).   

Coffee and Tea: 10h30-11h00

Sequence #2: Testing your pitch

Fast-pitching (11h00 – 11h45)

This section is inspired by the ‘Helping heuristics’ liberating structure.  

Participants form groups of 3, and rotate between three roles: speaker, listener, observer. 9 minutes / round

  • Round 1: Pitch your paper. The listener listens silently. (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)
  • Round 2: Pitch your paper. The listener can ask clarifying questions. (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)
  • Round 3: Pitch your paper. The listener can challenge or make suggestions  (Rotate roles, 3’ for each speaker)

Debrief – what happened

  • Observers: How did the pitches evolve? What else did you notice?
  • Listeners: How did it feel to ‘listen differently’? Did you have time to ask any question?
  • Speakers: How did it feel to have listeners’ attention? Did you modify the pitch?
  • All: What else did you notice?

Review your pitch (11h45 – 12h15)

Participants are given 30 minutes to review presentations, based on the morning’s experience.

Lunch: 12h15 – 1h00

Note, over lunch, participants can choose to socialize, or work on their presentations. Colour-coded stickers may be provided to indicate if participants want to ‘chat’ or ‘be quiet’.

Sequence #3: first presentation (1h00 – 2h15)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, candidates present their paper, to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, listeners share questions and comments for 10 minutes. Listeners can interact with each other. Candidates cannot respond.

Sequence #4: silent reflection (2h15 – 3h15)

Alone, candidates reflect on what they heard and review their presentation accordingly.

Sequence #5: second presentation (3h15 – 5h00)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, participants present their paper, to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. Participants then interact for 20 minutes with their audience, actively sharing challenges and uncertainties with the audience, and looking for ways to improve their approach, presentation or thinking.

Sequence #6: Closure (5h00-5h15)

Participants are invited to digest the day and review their presentation for the next day.

Note – it would be possible to hold this as a one-day conference, and close with a ‘what, so what, now what’ activity (detailed at the end of Day 2)  

Day 2

Coffee and tea (9h00 – 9h30)

Sequence #1: Fast pitching (9h30 – 10h15)

Participants are invited to form pairs, and do short presentation of their papers, in five successive rounds, with a different focus each round. Strictly 3’ for each person each round.

  • Round 1: focus on why the research matters
  • Round 2: focus on the methodology
  • Round 3: focus on the references
  • Round 4: focus on the data you used
  • Round 5: focus on what’s original about the research  

General debrief:

  • How was it? What did you learn? Did your thinking evolve?  

Sequence #2: Third breakout room presentation (10h15 – 12h15)

Participants form groups of three, in breakout rooms or separate corners of a main room.

In turn, participants present their paper to an audience of two peers. Time is strictly limited to 15 minutes. Participants then interact for 20 minutes with their audience, actively sharing challenges and uncertainties with the audience, and looking for ways to improve their approach, presentation or thinking.

Between each round, participants are invited to take a short 5’ break.

Sequence #3: work lunch (12h15 – 1h30)

Participants finalise their presentation over a light lunch.

Sequence #4: plenary (1h30 – 4h30)

Participants are split in groups of 8 presenters. An external audience may be invited to attend. They present a final, reviewed version of their paper, with strictly 20’/presenter, and no time for question.

A short 10 ‘ pause is given after the first four presenters.

Depending on attendance, the length of this section may vary, and groups of different sizes can be organised.  

Closure: (4h30 – 5h15)

Participants are invited to reflect on the process, and what can be applied from it, following the What, so what, now what liberating structure.

Participants are invited to discuss the following questions in turn. For each question, participants start with 1 minute to think about the question alone, then discuss in groups of 3-5 (depending on total numbers), for 6 minutes.  

  • What happened? What did you notice? What stood out or was new?
  • So what? Why is a process like the one we went through important? What can be learned from it?
  • Now what? After going through this process, what will you do differently?

Participants are then invited to share key insights and actions with the group.

The conference ends with a ritual round circle, where participants are invited to share their experience in one word.

Middle class migration: the unheard story

The typical Australia migration story is one of hardship overcome. Poor, working class people leave their home-country behind to find a better life in Australia: Greeks, Italians, Maltese share a similar storyline. The first years were difficult, but with hard-work, the situation got better, and now the children call Australia home, and can assert their position in society, thanks to the labours of their elders. Refugees, though their stories at home is more tragic, are not drastically different: Sudanese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, Serbians, Croatians, left conflict and war behind. Even the better off among them often lost their assets back home, and started from scratch. Minus the language barrier, cultural differences and various forms of racism, the ten-pound poms, Victorian gold-diggers, Irish settlers and original convicts share a similar narrative.

I don’t, and neither do most of my migrant friends in Melbourne today. We’re middle-class migrants, lifestyle migrants, love migrants, cosmopolitan migrants. Whether we came from Europe, China, Malaysia, Singapore or the US, we did not flee. There is always a reason to leave – we came for freedom, for love, or what we think will be a better life. But this is not a story of leaving hardship. If we want migrants to find a proper place in our imaginary fabric, those stories need to come together, and be heard.

Education is changing people

THNK taught me to think of education as a form of socio-emotional engineering in group context. The purpose is for each participant to transform. In other words, the goal of education is to change people. That change is more likely to come about through well-designed interaction among peers than through new knowledge, even weighing in the possible charism of an inspirational speaker, and the desire to emulate them.

Chinese syllable structure and meaning saturation

I had an important realisation about Chinese phonetics and its implications. In Chinese, each syllable has three combined characteristics – one initial consonant, or 声母, one final vowel, or 韵母, and a tone, or 声调. Together, they define one unit of meaning.

One consequence of this structure is largely unexplored, at least that I know of: Chinese has no nonsense words.

Let’s look at English for comparison. Let’s look at two phonetically close words, like ‘mutton’ and  ‘button’. The distinction between those is marked by one phonological trait of their initial consonant. But kids (or creative adults) can (and like to) make up nonsense words like ‘putton’ or ‘nutton’. Those words do not exist in the language, but they might. Chinese doesn’t have this. Every possible combination of sound within the Chinese phonetic system is associated to a meaning – in fact, often more than one. In other words, the linguistic soundscape of Chinese is saturated with meaning.

I would like to explore further what this means for Chinese creative patterns, but also Chinese people’s relationship to sounds. If the language has no nonsensical words, it entails that every sound production is expected to have meaning. This would have consequences in comprehension patterns. It also aligns with the meaning saturation of Chinese toponyms and names: family names have associated stories, and given names all have a ‘meaning’, as do brand names. What is it like, then, to live in a linguistic world where everything has meaning?

Corona thoughts: whose voices are being heard?

“In the digital era, whose voices are being heard?’ A few years ago, I posted a question on my Facebook wall, asking friends for advice on good historical writing about the Australian pre-federation period. One of the comments was from a cousin, who wrote – in French – ‘bon, tu arrêtes ton charabia, et tu parles français comme les gens civilisés’.

As a French migrant to Australia, the multilingual internet is a fact I remember every time I post on Twitter or Facebook. My friends and family do not speak English well. My Australian friends do not speak French.

It’s happened that I’ve read good articles in Le Monde or French blogs and wanted to share them, but they wouldn’t make sense to my Australia friends who do not speak French. And China – well, it’s a different beast yet. I have WeChat on my phone, and check Facebook on my computer. One device and platform per country. Sharing from one to the other is very unwieldy.

The internet offers a strange meeting of local and global. When Marco Polo Project was running its digital magazine, we had readers in over 1000 cities around the world. I have multiple blogs in multiple languages, and their audience is international. As Australia becomes increasingly multicultural and multilingual, how will we listen in to these non-English language conversations? How will we explore the new forms that evolve in certain countries?

Much of the internet is real time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to the Emerging Writers Festival. A literary reviewer from the UK, she had issues sleeping  in Australia – she felt obliged to take part in Twitter conversations, and listen in for urgent emails or calls for work on UK time. Others follow conversations in New York, 14 hours difference. Meanwhile, who knows what’s being discussed up north, in Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia.

In Covid-19 times, this becomes an issue. What do we know, us non-Chinese readers, about the Wuhan experience. And I’m not even talking of censorship, but direct testimonies of the people there, or medical reports, even research from China? What do we know of the deep conversations in Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan? Only what correspondents will share, in English. How can we develop a deep, global sense of the present crisis, in a linguistically fragmented Internet?

There is no clear solution – and this piece isn’t offering one. Only that we probably need to reflect more on language, writing and ideas. Language is the medium of any writing – well, of any articulated thoughts – and if we do not go beyond English, we will remain unaware of our own enormous blindspots. In times like these, a terrible missed opportunity.

How to bring together a digital community?

An old colleague of mine at Marco Polo Project reached out the other day for advice. He’s now tutoring at Melbourne University, in a subject with a lot of Chinese students. With the Covid-19 madness, a lot of them are stuck in China. He was looking for ways to improve their experience, and give them a sense of community through digital channels. It was a great way for me to think through questions that had been bubbling in my head for a while, and I thought I might share them in a blog post.

What I soon realised is, we’re prone to think in terms of ‘what’s the thing I should do’, when the better question would have a plural object, and focus not one the one thing, but the set of complementary actions that will work together as a system. So, I said, let’s think of the type of encounters and exchanges that happen in a campus experience, and how to replicate this online.

  1. It’s important to develop a loose sense of ‘emotional community’. We feel connected with our classmates simply because we’re in the same room and the same building at the same time for so long. So, I suggested he set up a dedicated channel on WeChat simply to build a sense of connection. A place to post selfies and photos of the classroom or campus, and encourage cheerful exchange of memes and joyful messages – what we called a ‘Dionysian channel’ for extraverted connection.
  2. Most LMS are their own circle of hell, but tutors or fellow students can remind you what the deadline is, reshare the readings, assignments or links. That’s important, it gives a sense of structure and safety. So, I suggested that should be reproduced online, but in a very different place from the first channel – one where, essentially, whatever comes first is what’s due next, and you can easily find past references in an archive, without scrolling through thousands of dancing unicorns.
  3. What brings a group together is not just that everybody feels part of the same community. The mesh of connections between people, and all the gossip and drama that comes with it, is just as important. Those lateral relationships develop in all sorts of ways – quick chats outside the room, group assignments, discussions in class, student clubs and cafeteria habits. To replicate this online, I suggested a ‘speed-dating’ system: once a week or so, during consultation hours for instance, students will be invited to make three video call of 15 minutes each with 5 minute intervals, with three people from their cohort assigned at random, and discuss a question related to the course. This to get new perspectives, possibly make new friends, or even give space for gossip.
  4. We form some of our most important friendships and lifelong bonds at university. There’s pre-filtering at play. We’ve chosen the same subject, matched our timetables, live in the same city. Statistically, we’re likely to find compatible people in our cohorts. And spending time with those people we ‘click’ with is extremely important. We do that spontaneously after a while, but assigned tasks and hours spent together anyway are an important way to deepen the relationship. One way to get this to happen is to increase peer-work – for instance, by increasing the rate of pair-work or small group work, and encouraging students to do it on video calls.
  5. A university campus is a chaotic place. On the way to class, you pass a young couple with pink hair and piercings, someone with glasses playing with a drone, a Marxist protest for animal rights, and a poster advertising the next medieval cosplay gathering. Not all of that may be for you, but it stretches your brain, so to speak. There’s the stuff you go to once, and never return to. And then there is the serendipitous encounter that sets your life in a new direction. So, I proposed that one way to do that was to create channels with themes – the future of medicine, cool piercings, sci-fi movies, etc – and invite interested to join as part of the first channel. Nothing compulsory, just a regular pop up among the flow of unicorns, to keep the brain stimulated.


I’ll be curious to see what other people are doing to keep communities together as Covid-19 reduces in-person social gathering. If any of this makes sense to you, or you’d like to share what you’re doing – please, leave a comment!

A paradox of language learning

Communicating in a foreign language is a difficult task. This is an emotional difficulty – fear of social embarrassment – and a cognitive difficulty – mental exhaustion. Both are largely tied to the high level of ambiguity that characterises exchanges between second language and native speakers.

To succeed, it is crucial for learners to build resilience in situations of high ambiguity. However, most language learning models focus on increasing fluency – how to understand and communicate better – rather than increasing the capacity to cope with ambiguous settings. In other words, education is focused on teaching students how to fail less often in their communicative and interpretive efforts; learning how to better deal with failure is only incidental.

What if we reverted this proposition, and designed language learning activities optimised for dealing with communicative failure, with particular attention to the emotional dimensions of the experience? This is what much of my work with Marco Polo Project was guided by!

Teaching concentration

I am reading a French book on Zhu Xi, compiler of Confucian knowledge and Chinese philosopher from the 12th century – a remarkable introduction to Chinese metaphysics. The fourth chapter, labelled ‘perfectionnement de soi’, focuses on education.

Speaking about meditation techniques borrowed from Buddhism and adapted to Confucianism, Zhu Xi writes: ‘To sit in calm is not about interrupting one’s reflection, unlike what happens in Zen sitting meditation. It is just about calmly collecting one’s heart and not letting it fly off to otiose ideas. The heart is then spontaneously in a state of serenity without any [disturbing] event, concentrated on its sole object.’ [This is my own second hand translation from the original Chinese via French]

I put down the book for a moment and pondered. I have been through years of schooling in France – and here in Australia. Not only did I receive solid knowledge, but I was also trained – rather well, I believe – in structuring and communicating ideas through language. Yet I cannot recall any specific training in the art of concentration. Looking back – how surprising! For I had to spend considerable amounts of time reading, memorising, analysing, and writing during those years of study. Yet the core competence to support this effort – the capacity to concentrate – was never part of the curriculum.

Here, I believe, lies the radical optimism of Confucianism: not only can people memorise facts and dates and not only can they derive knowledge from this information; more fundamental competences – attention, listening, concentration – can also be taught, irrespective of bloodlines or family background. If only western educators and institutions today could show the same level of optimism, and instead saw the systematic training of cognitive and emotional core strength as a full part of their mission!

Training decisiveness

Lack of decisiveness is our greatest plague. We can waste infinite amounts of time and energy pondering, wondering, wandering in the maze of our own minds. Only decisive action can liberate us from such idle vagueness.

A few days ago, I split my to do list into decision and action. This initiated a series of reflections on the art of making decision. I returned to Descartes. « Ma seconde maxime était d’être le plus ferme et le plus résolu en mes actions que je pourrais, et de ne suivre pas moins constamment les opinions les plus douteuses, lorsque je m’y serais une fois déterminé, que si elles eussent été très assurées. Imitant en ceci les voyageurs qui, se trouvant égarés en quelque forêt, ne doivent pas errer en tournoyant, tantôt d’un côté, tantôt d’un autre, ni encore moins s’arrêter en une place, mais marcher toujours le plus droit qu’ils peuvent vers un même côté, et ne le changer point pour de faibles raisons, encore que ce n’ait peut-être été au commencement que le hasard seul qui les ait déterminés à le choisir : car, par ce moyen, s’ils ne vont justement où ils désirent, ils arriveront au moins à la fin quelque part, où vraisemblablement ils seront mieux que dans le milieu d’une forêt… » If you find yourself lost in the middle of a forest, set on a course, and move forward. Don’t turn left and right for no good reason. Do not stand still. And eventually, you will get somewhere.

Can decisiveness be trained? Spiritual practice and martial arts will help. As will a certain approach to our every day decisions, the way we walk, cook, clean, sleep. As, also, will design thinking, and traditional methods, prayers, and oracles.

Here is one exercise I’m working on. I converted to cold showers, to reduce my own sensitivity to the cold. At first, I hesitated before getting wet – and so, took time, hovering at the back of the shower, getting one leg in, then the other, then an arm. Now, I turn on the water, breathe, and move forward into the cold jet.

Let’s see what comes out of it.


I just did a thing. I broke down my To Do list in two parts: decision/action. Life changing.

I’ve set up to do lists for years now – some online, some on paper. I like them. I like ticking off things as I complete them, I like taking plans out of my head to create space. I’ve read about and developed various productivity systems. Sort your tasks into ‘do now’, ‘do next’, ‘do later’. Make sure every task in the ‘to do’ list is phrased as an action. Break down complex tasks into parts if necessary.

But here’s a new system I came up with. I broke down my ‘to do list’ into two different columns. One column is labelled ‘This week: action’, and contains all the things I have to do during the week, written as imperatives – ‘contact such and such about X’, ‘write/finalise such and such text’, ‘do tax return’, etc. The other column is labelled ‘This week: decision & design’. Every item in that list is phrased as a question. ‘What should I write to such and such?’ ‘How can I efficiently do X?’, ‘What do I need for X?’.

It’s not just about sorting them out – it’s about thinking of decision and action distinctly, by using a different grammatical form. Not only do the questions stimulate me to think; I no longer experience these decisions as ‘things to do’. They no longer take up time in my head. Decisions may require careful research and consideration, but in essence they happen in a flash. Actions, in contrast, require time. Conflating decisions and actions only leads to confusion. Without prior decision, many actions are impossible – How can I write an email to John if I haven’t decided what I need to write, in what tone, and how long the email should be? This is how procrastination occurs: we set ourselves an impossible task, and escape into the world of Facebook streams, online video games, or long, painful draft. Whereas a decision can be made during a walk, a rest, after a session of Qi Gong. And the ensuing action, guided by a clear decision, can be completed in less time than we originally thought.

Importantly, this new system has helped me clarify the way that I work with my assistant. I’m an extravert working in introverted roles. Decision making alone is a particularly demanding task. I don’t need somebody to do things on my behalf, and save time. I need somebody to share the burden of making decisions, and preserve energy. This is what I’ve been doing implicitly for a few months now. I’m now set up to do it explicitly!