A Festival of Ideas
by Dr Iain Mac Labhrainn, Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at NUI Galway
It was nice to see TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) receive such coverage in much of the press last week although one suspects that it is perhaps the celebrity attendees (via the “entertainment” part of the label) that may have lured the photographers at least. TED though is both a celebration of ideas and a binge of creativity, style and eloquence. Carefully selected speakers are each given just 18 minutes to describe their ‘big idea’ or reflect on a particularly resonant experience to a live audience on stage, surrounded by cameras and in the knowledge that it will be broadcast to the world via the website, YouTube and iTunes.
Despite the outrageously expensive ticket prices (thousands of Euros per head), the event is popular (and of course is highly expensive to run) and all the presentations are ultimately made available and released under a Creative Commons license that ensures that they can be used for a variety of purposes by educators across the world. Many university courses now embed some of these in their courses and many academic staff also find them inspiring, not just in terms of the content but also in providing to some extent, interesting examples of how to capture an audience’s rapt attention.
From my perspective, in some ways this is a vision of what at least part of a university’s mission can and should be about – not just creating and nurturing new ideas but sharing them and indeed celebrating the joy of learning, of research and of creativity with a wider public – a place where ideas are the currency and where different disciplinary traditions meet and knowledge is contested. Of course it’s not possible to really get at the detail and the subtlety of academic research and scholarship in 18 minutes, nor should we forget to remind others of how much hard graft is involved in research (and learning a particular discipline). Nor can all of our statisticians swallow swords, nor all of our neuroscientists be recovering from a stroke ! But despite the slings and arrows of outrageous budget cuts and administrative loading, we all have somewhere within our heart a love for our subject that drove us deep into the discipline in the first place and perhaps at least those who have the ability to share in this way can be encouraged to do so and for it to be seen and recognised as a valid contribution to the academy and not just sneered at as part of ‘dumbing down’ or a ‘culture of celebrity’.
Even to talk to one another within the university (“in-reach” perhaps, rather than ‘outreach’), breeching the disciplinary barriers and going beyond the “academic tribes and territories” would have great value, particularly at a time in which funders and policy-makers are increasingly distinguishing between subjects in terms of funding and perceived economic relevance. A simple but rewarding aspect of our local programmes in Academic Practice, for example, is the ‘field trip’ where participants walk across the campus and visit each other’s labs, classrooms and buildings, describing their teaching and research in accessible terms.
TED itself is also now nurturing local events across the globe that follow the same basic structure of short, powerful talks or performances to an invited or selected audience that encourages cross-fertilisation of ideas and perspectives. It would be remiss of me not to mention that TEDxGalway is already being planned for December.