How To Do A Conference That Doesn’t Suck: The Oxford Symposium In School-Based Family Counseling
The Oxford Symposium in School-Based Family Counseling is a week-long symposium that pulls off the rare feat of being rigorous, inspiring, & fun. It also doesn’t suck. We just wrapped another Symposium, this time all-virtual, and I’m reflecting on what makes it so special. The power and warmth and longevity of the Symposium makes me think about why so many other academic meetings I attend regularly suck, & what can happen when they don’t.
Starting with strengths: First, each session starts with a detailed & strengths-based intro crafted by SBFC organizers, who have ACTUALLY READ the presenters’ work. Next, presenters come from the practice, research, policy, and client/consumer communities, & nobody is put above anybody else. This simply doesn’t happen most of the time. The various research methods are here, quantitative and qualitative without any of the attendant dumb food fights we often see.
Multi-cultural for real: for example, when I attended in 2018, 7 countries were here in full force, and while the global south needs to be here more (Oxford isn’t cheap to get to), the SBFC organizers make a real effort: 40% of the presentations that year were given by BIPOC. In 2019, 5 countries were there, and 30% BIPOC.
Question/comment times: the norms at the Oxford Symposium encourage respondents to be strength-based in their comments, avoid sniping, & limit academics’ tendency to bloviate. Amazing to see.
Gender & who talks when: because moderators & respondents are pre-set, it’s less likely that geezer men will take over. That said, what is remarkable is how veterans (m & f) are valued.
New scholars are elevated as well: each year about 1/3rd of presenters are Asst. Profs, and they get to have a safe space to try out their work & get to list some international. experience on their CV. Some of these junior folks (the majority of them female profs as well) have become vital collaborators over the years for my own work, and along with other senior colleagues enjoy the informal mentoring opportunities that the week-long Symposium fosters.
No blow-off time: so many academic meetings often feel like junkets. The Oxford Symposium allows for free time in this amazing city, but it’s a week-long residential deal, and people eat and study together.
I have further thoughts on how this all happens for this yearly meeting, and how it could be done more often: the Symposium just finished its 20th year (link to all the other presentations for the 4-day event are here), so while this set-up took time, and the inestimable leadership of the founder Dr. Brian Gerrard (pictured below), it’s not something that should require a visionary like Brian to pull off.
The power of being invited. SBFC organizers put a lot of thought into who they invite, and when I was invited myself in 2015, I felt “seen” for my work in SSW & I wanted to be part of it. How often do you, as a practitioner, educator, and/or researcher, feel really “invited” to collaborate and share what you know?
The secret is to bring all the fields together and minimize turf battles. The Symposium is simply one of the most multi-disciplinary spaces I’ve ever presented in, and it’s treated as a given that we’ll have school social workers, school psychs, school counselors, pediatricians, family therapists, teacher educators, family law experts, psychiatrists, youth activists and philanthropists all together, because to this conference, we. SHOULD all be together. Finally, I think that the magic we have here at this Symposium isn’t magic at all, but a commitment to put our passion for school-based family counseling over guilds, egos, or our preferred methodology. I can’t wait to be at the next one.