There Are Conferences … And Then There Are Conferences

Conference. As an ex-academic, the very word strikes a chill in my heart. Those agonising long hours (or rather weeks) of putting a paper together, together with all the visual aids and music (all intended to keep your audience vaguely conscious). Getting steadily more nervous as the time for your paper draws nearer – only to find that because your presentation was right at the end of the final day and as the previous delegates had overrun massively, only two or three of your stalwart acquaintances have elected to listen to what you have to say while all the others have disappeared in search of alcoholic refreshments – and then to find that halfway through the cleaner wanders in, looking completely bewildered to have stumbled upon the world of Eighteenth Century Venetian Sacred Vocal Music, and who then interrupts to enquire: ‘Mind if I hoover the floor now, love?’ Or the conference where you’re regarded as ‘the new kid in town’ and as it is tradition to give just one speaker (usually the person who’s rashly trying to infiltrate their protected ranks) a very hard time, you absolutely know it’s going to be you. And lo and behold, you deliver your paper unto your very hostile audience, before the ‘head of the clan’ embarks on a scathing dressing down of what they think you’ve written…. and then (yes, it gets worse) while you’re still in the stunned state of ‘I can’t believe this is happening’… and then, more indignantly, ‘did you even listen to anything I said?’, someone shoves a microphone in your hand and you are required to reply – diplomatically of course. Nightmare.

But however nerve-racking my past conference experiences have been, as an ex-academic I know that conferences are the Done Thing and Very Important For Keeping Yourself Informed And Up To Date About Your Field. So when I saw the Mountain Training Association (MTA) Winter Conference advertised, I knew that it was a must. And anyway it didn’t seem to be the type of conference I had experienced in the past. It was made up of a variety of workshops from which you could select two to attend over the weekend. No lengthy keynote address to have to sit through. No stress of having to deliver a paper. Just turn up, attend with the opportunity to refresh skills, to develop as a professional and to meet like-minded people. And it would mean treading the hallowed corridors of Glenmore Lodge once again, my alma mater for all my mountain training to date.

Old habits of a lifetime are hard to break, however, and I found myself getting more and more wound up before I drove over to Aviemore last Friday. Rationalising wasn’t helping. Nothing really helped except, perhaps, a very large bar of chocolate – and that only for a short time. However, as soon as the first workshop began, and I became immersed in the world of winter navigation, all doubts and fears faded.  We had a cracking session that had us switching between orienteering and larger scale maps. And while the conditions initially underboot were not those of deep winter, the weather at least obliged by providing a suitably low cloud base at times and then snow.  Plenty of time for discussion on strategy – and, in a very natural way, many other bits and pieces fed into the navigation picture, such as refreshing the idea of planning a route with avalanche awareness in mind and so on.

Fiacaill Ridge

On Sunday we woke up to a white world. My second workshop proved to be equally as captivating. One of the highlights was being able to share all manner of professional and personal experiences with others, to ask our instructor as many questions as the day was long and to be out there experiencing a winter day in terms of working with a group in winter conditions. As winter is a very different prospect to summer, we explored the idea that decision making throughout the day is very much a dynamic process that has to take into account the conditions that are presently being experienced. There was one word to describe the day and our instructor: inspirational.

Views, views, views. Meall a’ Bhuachaille in the background

Out of all the CPD sessions I have attended over my rather chequered career as an academic and very short lived stint as a teacher (music aside), these MTA workshops really stood out above the rest.  The reason is that these workshops were all run by instructors who do this stuff for real, they have a wealth of experience to draw upon, they know what it’s really like.  They spend their time working closely with many different people, each with their own particular agenda for coming to the mountains, so they understand the importance of communication and how this needs to be modified according to the audience. My CPD sessions (and here I’m not talking about conferences) in the past have been a somewhat mixed bag, ranging from being a) so far removed from the reality of my work to b) being completely irrelevant, and being delivered by people who 1) had no ability to communicate with anyone and/or 2) had so little experience of the job I was doing that they could in no way be taken seriously. From depressing motivational speakers to time management courses that over-ran, I had been left wondering what the ‘P’ of Continuing Professional Development really stands for. But this particular conference succeeded in making me appreciate the true value of CPD when it is carefully matched to the needs of the professional: to be honest, I had never really understood what all the CPD fuss was about before this weekend.

As I drove back home (on rather slippery, snowy roads), I reflected on the experience of the weekend.  The next time I see the word ‘conference’ I will no longer have to feel that chill striking my heart. Providing that ‘conference’ is preceded by ‘MTA’ that is.

[Note: Many thanks to the MTA for organising this most valuable conference, to the amazing instructors who delivered the workshops and also to Glenmore Lodge for the comfortable accommodation, great food – and, most importantly, that traditional tea and cake, always ready and waiting for us when we came off the hill.]slide7


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