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The beauty and burdens of an academic conference: Reflections from a faculty member

By DR. JOSEPH WANDERA

The greatest benefits derived from lecturers and students attending academic conferences are the opportunities to build one’s scholarly network and increase knowledge of new trends in your area of interest. Staff at the Faculty of Theology had the pleasure of attending some really great academic fora in the 2015-2016 academic year.  Some of the conferences took place in Kenya, while others were held abroad.

At the events, staff shared their research findings and volunteered to help on some aspects at the events. What we learnt – in addition to the topics presented at the fora – is that attending conferences and other academic events is a vital component of one’s professional development.

Conferences nurture your professional network

The following scholarly events are just but a sample of our involvement in academic fora in the previous academic calendar:

On December 14, 2015, staff at the faculty of theology attended a one-day consultation at Cambridge-Oxford Club in London, the United Kingdom, under the theme “Future of Religious Freedom Advocacy Consultation,”

Between February 11 and 12, 2016, we attended a conference organized by the Centre on Religion and Global Affairs, under the theme “Religion, Violence and Fragile States,” in Beirut, Lebanon.  

Between July 4 and 8, 2016, the faculty of theology offered leadership in conceptualizing, raising support and organizing an international conference on “Faiths and (in) security in Africa,” at St. Paul’s University, Kenya.   The conference, held at Jumuia Conference Centre and Country Home, attracted considerable attention from academics, practitioners and the media.

In the following week, a member of the faculty  attended a summer school at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, Germany, whose theme was “Christians and Muslims in Africa: Towards a Framework for the Study of Multi-Religious Settings.”

The ten-day event, was attended by outstanding scholars in the study of religion in Africa.  They included, Professors Birgit Meyer from Utrecht University, Professor Brian Larkin of New York State University, Professor Kai Kresse from Columbia State University, Professor Amidu Sann, from University of Lagos, Professor K. Asamoah-Gyadu of Trinity Theological College in Accra, among others.

The event provided an opportunity for learning from reputable scholars, sharing with them present projects and receiving extensive critical feedback to enhance research.  Good academics will go out of their way to make themselves accessible to colleagues and students, and easily get excited about supporting innovation from emerging scholars.

The researchers may point to you to some of the most recent publications in your field and suggest possible research funding for you to apply.  As your career and scholarship advances, you will learn that even though listening to formal academic presentations is extremely valuable, conversations over a cup of tea during break times can be even more fruitful. Do everything possible to cultivate such conversations. That five minute conversation with an empathic scholar could be life-transforming for your academic journey!

During these conferences you will also be able to meet youthful doctoral and post-doctoral students undertaking their researches on various topics. Listen and learn from their presentations and offer some suggestions.

Conferences build your knowledge base

During academic conferences scholars share cutting edge research in their fields of specialization. Their topics often focus on a particular question, within a specific locality.

Conferences expand your resources

Well-reputed researchers cultivate exceptional resources, and will readily share them with well-motivated colleagues.  During the conferences, you will have opportunities to buy new publications, learn of significant scholarly websites and be directed to researchers in your field in order to correspond with them.

Conferences offer your university a higher profile

One of the common inquiries you will receive at academic conferences is: “Which university are you working with?”  Therefore, conferences provide a huge opportunity for raising the global profile of your institution, which can lead to huge openings for research collaborations, funding and student exchange, among other benefits.

The July 4-8 conference hosted by the Faculty of Theology, held in Limuru, was a huge success.  It was given significant coverage in media outlets which included: Nation Media Group, through NTV and The Saturday Nation; KTN; KBC; The Platform magazine, The Star and K24.

An online campaign ran during the conference continues to draw significant attention, several weeks after the conference.

The opportunity for a trip to some exotic places and the possibilities of making long-term friendships is, of course, one of the many other benefits we cannot possibly exhaust. On the whole, attending a conference is a professionally rewarding experience that should be undertaken by all academics and fully supported by universities.

While organizing and attending conferences can be a time-consuming and emotionally-draining exercise, the events generally provide immense professional benefits.

 The writer is a Senior Lecturer at St. Paul’s University’s Faculty of Theology. He coordinates Staff and Post-graduate research seminars at the faculty and the Center for Christian-Muslim Relations in Eastleigh. (wandera@spu.ac.ke )

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