ECER 2013: Creativity and innovation – Under the watchful eye of a sub-machine gun?

This year’s European Conference on Educational Research (ECER) took place at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul, Turkey, between the 10th and 13th of September. Each year ECER has a specific theme. While this year’s theme was announced as Creativity and Innovation in Educational Research, ‘innovation’ tended to dominate the official blurb in a simplistic reproduction of the view that “innovation …may contribute to maneconomic prosperity as well as to social and individual wellbeing and may, therefore, be an essential factor for creating a more competitive and dynamic European society”. Oh, dear. All the old stuff about competition. Plus the now commonplace conflation of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ into neo-liberal ‘entrepreneurship’! The idea that Educational research is “able to consider the needs of society and the economy while not overlooking the impact this may have on individuals, communities and society” (my emphasis) was tagged on nervously, almost as a footnote. It didn’t really auger very well.

As it transpired, a certain air of nervousness – even a pretty complete failure of nerve, in my opinion  – troubled this year’s ECER. We were in Turkey, in (Res)Istanbul, after all – a couple of miles from Taksim Square where protests which began  in May of this year against development encroaching into one of Istanbul’s remaining green spaces quickly became generalised against the authoritarianism of the Erdoğan government and spread throughout Turkey. The protests were viciously suppressed and, lest we forget, one of the iconic images was of a young woman academic – yes, one of us – on her lunch break being pepper sprayed by the riot police. Remember her? We need to. But ECER didn’t. The official apparatus studiously maintained  a nervous quiet about Taksim.

While we were there, a protest against the death of a demonstrator was met with the now routine tear gas (see here) and the back streets along the ferry terminals of the Bosporus were lined with buses full of those same riot policemen, but armed now with sub-machine guns (in case the pepper didn’t do the trick!?). Every day, as we walked out to the university from the centre of the city, we passed them – nervously, as you do anyone with a sub-machine gun. Some conference goers were even caught up in the tear gas and while their national TV stations were keen to pick up the story the ECER pantechnicon rumbled on in silence.

As delegates, a lot of us were very uneasy about being in Turkey in these political conditions in the first place and some had withdrawn prior to the conference. My feeling was that we should be there and that a unique opportunity existed for Europe’s education  research community to make links with the protesters and warmly offer them a platform to speak. That never happened . Some delegates made private contacts with Taksim Square – one Portuguese friend of mine pulled running shoes and a gasmask from her bag, winking –  others struggled unhappily under pressure of institutional ‘risk- assessments’ and Foreign office advice to keep away. ECER seemed to wish the whole thing would go away rather than queer its expensive conference pitch. But the missed point in the missed opportunity was a critical one. It was about creativity! About the political and social conditions necessary for it to thrive. About the real sources of creativity in collective improvisation, rather than  in profit induced and patented  invention. Taksim Square – like other recent protest movements – has been a hot bed of creativity in street pedagogy, boycott, social parody and insubordinate humour. The standing man protest is a wonderful example,

To her great credit, Professor Morwenna Griffiths, of Moray House School of Education at Edinburgh University, finally tackled the matter head on in her key note on the third day of ECER. At the very outset of her paper on Encouraging Imagination and Creativity in the Teaching Profession she made the necessary links through Hannah Arendt’s words – “in acting and speaking we show who we are” – and made a call for ‘deep democracy’ pledged to a capacious notion of ‘economy’ as understood in its “full (original) moral sense as referring to the well-being and flourishing of all the people”. Only in such a situation, she said, could creativity in education – or anywhere else for that matter – occur. Everyone knew where she was pointing, and the majority applauded this small, bold gesture by a public intellectual daring to exceed her keynote brief. For me, it reminded me why I persist as a network convener at ECER, reviewing papers each year and sitting through the entire proceedings of the ethnography strand. A Europe-wide research community has a potentially powerful voice and in acting and speaking might show who it is. Indeed. What was the epigraph to Forster’s Howard’s End’? “Only connect”? Yes, only connect. I seem to remember the rest of the quote was “live in fragments no longer”. Not easy with a pepper spray in your face, or while looking down barrel of a gun.

Geoff Bright 


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