A tilted keynote

Fred Astaire, "Royal Wedding," (1951)


A few weeks back I spent some time catching up on my blog reading, and was happy to see that Alan Levine was writing about the need to flip more than classrooms.   Indeed.  People all around the internet  have been talking for awhile about flipped classrooms and the need to make teaching less teacher-centric and more student/learner-centric.  Educators like Salman Khan of  Khan Academy have been practicing this idea for years.

But as Alan reminds us, one of the major places where flipping needs to happen is professional conferences. He writes:

“the best interactions [at conferences] happen in the breaks and the evening socials, the stuff that is not part of the agenda….” and not at the events where there are “lecterns, screens full o’ powerpoint, partially full of passive [or under caffeinated] participants [who might be]  reading email or facebooking.”

His comments resonated with me as I prepared to do a keynote presentation for SWALLT at ASU.  Maybe resonated isn’t the word.  Maybe the words were “stopped me dead in my tracks and made me rethink the whole idea of doing a keynote.”  Yeah, that would be more like it.

The time was getting short and I knew that  if I were truly going to flip the keynote, I would have to have prepared everything in advance, distributed it to all of the participants, and then hoped they would have read it prior to the event.  Ugh.  And yet, I didn’t want to stand and talk at people for an hour either.

The title of the talk was “language learning in liminal spaces,” that is, the extraordinarily innovative things that language students are doing as part of their learning in our schools, learning that is not as visible  as it could or should be. What would happen if we made that learning more visible to others?  What would happen if we could assess the value of our language programs not by the number of bottoms in seats or majors per department, but by what the students were able to DO with the skills they learned in a language? Would talking about learning outcomes perhaps be more effective than talking about learning outputs?   I knew that within the audience there were extraordinary stories and amazing ideas to share… it seemed ridiculous to have me monopolize time by yabbering when they could be sharing with each other.

Enter the happy medium.  Instead of flipping the keynote, I tilted it. I spoke for 20 minutes, gave the group a series of questions, asked them to work in small groups, and then had them report back at the end.  People shared ideas, commiserated over common woes and concerns, brainstormed.

Here were the questions:

  • Think of an example of one successful, innovative learning practice on your campus
  • What is its intended learning outcome
  • How could you make that practice (and the learning it elicits) more visible on your campus?

Here is an example of at outcome from one group:

If I am asked to do a talk again, I will not be going back to the speaker-centric keynote model.  And I hope in some small way what I did here at ASU can be an example for others.  The talking head needs to be replaced with more interaction, ideas, conversation, and debate.

That’s why we go to conferences, after all…to meet other people, to share and to learn.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!


  1. Trip Kirkpatrick · April 2, 2012 Reply

    Fantastic! Wish I had been there, except for the Arizona part. Sounds like it was also a good way to make manifest the title of the talk, bringing the liminal space into the conference. Still sad that I wasn’t able to enact the underconference idea at IALLT 2011.

  2. Alan Levine · April 2, 2012 Reply

    Flip, tilt, all good; I’m more interested in the rethinking of how time is structured at events. I’m not really sure if the preso pre reading is truly viable.

    Mostly, I’m sad I was not at home while you were in Phoenix!

    • Barbara · April 2, 2012 Reply

      Awww, that’s so kind cogdog. Fear not, I am hoping to get it together and see you at FacAcad.

      The pre preso thing worked. It took only session early on for people to realize, oh, wait, they really mean it…we have to talk… and then it flowed.

      Agreed about rethinking how time is structured at these things. Maybe all conferences should be in the evening with beer/tapas/wine. Think of how creative we could get 🙂

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