Disrupting assumptions: Living with a cognitive mess

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Attending a professional conference can serve a variety of purposes; among them the opportunity to deepen one’s core knowledge in the field, attend paper presentations of research in progress, subject one’s own work to the scrutiny of informed peers,  and be inspired by conference speakers, often the field’s established scholars and thought leaders.   The novelty provided by a break in the daily routine, along with the chance to interact with like-minded colleagues promotes reflection and renewal.   As an added bonus, attending a high-caliber professional conference can unsettle, discomfit, and disconcert you.  Better it can interrupt any number of your most dearly held assumptions.  In other words, it can mess with your mind.

Recently, I attended the annual convention for University Council for Educational Administration in Pittsburgh.  Thankfully, the presenting to informed colleagues part took place on day one.  I made a small contribution to a paper and was grateful to get my two minutes of (nerve racking) fame  over with so soon, leaving me free to enjoy the rest of the sessions.   Paper sessions are a form of academic blitzkrieg where scholars have a scant 12 minutes to  present research in progress.  In short order one can ponder prevailing discourse analysis in policy, principals’ career trajectories in low-performing schools, heteronormativity in curriculum and hiring decisions, and social justice principal practice in successful ‘outlier’ schools.    It often helps to get out and walk.  In the late fall sunshine on a break between sessions, walking Pittsburgh’s downtown Strip District interrupted an unexamined assumption.  The city is lively and personable, not industrial or gritty.

Later in the conference, Dr. George Yancy, a philosopher and leading scholar on critical race theory, critical white studies, and the Black experience, justly upset more assumptions with his plain talk  on race in education.  The call and response rhythm of his broad-ranging and erudite presentation evoked murmurs of assent from members of the audience, both black and white.  I felt privy to a discourse normally kept private.  The last day of the conference entailed a working session on socially just curriculum for principal preparation programs.  Curriculum developers at UT Austin built on the work of Peggy McIntosh and others to craft in-class activities designed to demonstrate the color line to their students, aspiring leaders who will serve diverse schools.  In contrast to earlier “sit and get” sessions, we were soon assessing our own racial experiences through questionnaires and standing in rank order on a color line of privilege.  The visual impact left us silent for a long minute.  The debrief was by turns raw, honest, uncomfortable, illuminating and unsettling.  More than a week later, it’s hard to tidy up all that cognitive disruption.  For the moment, I’ve decided to live with the mess.

Read McIntosh’s seminal paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

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One Comment on “Disrupting assumptions: Living with a cognitive mess”

  1. […] academics while bringing back the lessons of the wider community to your home institution.  AMF contends that conferences are a bringer of cognitive disruption and dissonance, which is also a growth factor for scholarship and another truth of conferences.  […]


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