Reflections From the Liminal Space: Minding the Generational Gap at the 2014 Ottawa Conference

The Ottawa Conference 2014 just wrapped.  In case you don’t know, the Ottawa Conference was developed nearly 30 years ago by Ian Hart and Ron Harden as a means to introduce and develop approaches to assessing health professions learners (See here for more details on the history of this conference.) Every two years the “Ottawa” Conference meets in a different international venue.

Teresa Chan attended the conference this year and provides her perspective, which builds on previous posts (here and here) discussing her transition from med ed fellow to CE.

– Jonathan  (@sherbino)

By Teresa Chan (@TChanMD)

While listening to the plenary speakers at the 2014 Ottawa conference I was struck by how people can attend the same conference and have totally different experiences.

There I was, a humble member of the audience, standing at the back of the room with no space to sit. Trudie Roberts rose to give her keynote and spoke about the very hot topic of cheating in assessment.  She discussed its nature, its frequency, the literature on the topic, and how to detect it. No doubt, her speech was well prepared, informative, and interesting.

Then during the question period, unbeknownst to her, she read an electronically submitted question from me! I was very excited!

However, in her follow-up answers, it became very clear to me that we were not attending the same conference. In her subsequent answers, she declared that the voices of Generation Y were missing from the conference and concluded that if we were to have better conversations about issues such as cheating, the millennials would need to show up.

The generations she thought missing were present. We were just in the cheap seats.

The view from the Cheap Seats

The conference was a collection of heavy-hitters and articulate scholars that have been writing the papers and giving the talks that informs my own research.  Most of the time, I was torn between asking for autographs (of PDFs of their work) and striking up debate about areas in which I differed in opinion.  And yet… for the most part I was unable to speak to them.

And so, when Dr. Roberts asked about the ‘missing’ Generation Y participants, I was initially affronted.  She had asked my question, and then stated that my entire generation was missing from the Ottawa Conference discussions.  Were we missing? Or were we overlooked?

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There were a number of other young faculty members from the millennial generation around me, and we entertained ourselves in a meta-conversation about our absenteeism … via instant messaging, Facebook and text message.

Obviously, we were attending very different conferences. It’s no wonder that Dr. Roberts didn’t know I was there.

In Defence of my Generation

The following keynote had Glenn Regehr deliver a (controversial) argument about learners and teachers playing different games.  (In many ways, my millennial-ness probably shows because I immediately thought about the analogies to the recent pop-culture sensation – the Hunger Games.)

His keynote discussed the nature of the medical education system and what happens when the learners we teach start using the rules/structures we create in ways that we did not anticipate. Each successive generation has always thought and wrote about the shortcomings of  the next generation.  And yet, Dr. Regehr states: “It’s NOT a generational problem.”

Dr. Regehr’s speech questioned the nature of the ‘game’ that we set forth when we design curricula, administer tests, or create systems. He asked: “What if they aren’t playing our game?”  As stated very eloquently in the conference program “…perhaps the question we should be challenging ourselves with is not what educational strategies would ideally maximize the acquisition of goals, but rather how do we create willing partners in our students…  [W]hat do our grand educational strategies reduce to if they don’t play along?”

In contrast to Dr. Roberts’ argument, depending on the perspective, the cheating medical student or resident can be seen as:

a) Rebels fighting an unfair and antiquated system,

b) Upstart rabble-rousers hell bent on causing chaos

c) Slackers looking for the easy way out,

d) Brilliant Disruptors that can help you find out where your system is vulnerable and where it can be ‘hacked’,

e) All of the Above,

f) None of the above.

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As a milllenial that has actively written about this issue in the past and a freshly minted faculty member, I now find myself on the ‘other side.’  Being a faculty member makes it harder to see the student perspective.

From my liminal space, I have been advised to take note of my thoughts and quandaries while in  this period of transition. How will I engage learners as partners rather than stakeholders to placate? Or as rebels fighting an arcane and out-dated system, rather than dastardly cheaters that need to be caught? Or as emerging education leaders watching from the back row of the auditorium, rather than the plenary speaker waxing philosophical about an absentee generation?

An Invitation to Generations Before (Gen Xers and Baby Boomers)

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To the ICE members interested in engaging learners and junior faculty members, I invite you to reach out and engage us. Find us in the back of the auditorium, come up and sit with us, talk with us.

Let’s find a way to bridge the inter-generational gap between new and experienced educators.  Let’s grow together.

Featured image via wikimedia commons