State Conference 2016: Construction Sites and ‘Constructed’ Conferences
Walter Benjamin, the great German cultural critic, who died in 1940 attempting to cross the Pyrenees into Spain while fleeing the Nazis, would have felt quite at home at the 2016 VATE Conference. He loved construction sites. In fact, in ‘One Way Street’, a collection of philosophical fragments, aphoristic ruminations and poetic reflections on modern life seen through the urban environment, he wrote about the ‘Construction Site’ and, through it, the imagination of the child. He wrote:
[c]hildren are particularly fond of haunting any site where things are being visibly worked upon. They are irresistibly drawn by the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry. In waste products, they recognise the face that the world of things turns directly and solely to them. In using these things, they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artefact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds in a new, intuitive relationship. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.
I thought of this as an apt analogy for the VATE Conference. Benjamin would have loved the detritus of the Deakin site ( is there any university campus in Victoria that is not in a state of physical becoming?) which, for the most part, delegates managed to navigate with a mixture of gritty determination, patience, with good grace with, of course, a little help from our equally patient and gracious yellow-vested helpers. And just like Benjamin’s child, each delegate had to ‘construct’ their own conference, not exactly out of ‘detritus’ but from the diverse rich intellectual offerings that have been a characteristic of every VATE Conference for the past nearly thirty years. Each delegate created their ‘own small world of things’ (speakers, panels, workshops, masterclasses) within ‘the greater one’ of the overall Conference program.
So it is with the conference edition of Idiom. We can only offer a ‘snapshot’ of what was on offer, and we thank all the contributors of the twenty items we’ve published who have made that snapshot possible.
We would also like to thank those delegates who offered ‘feedback’ on the conference, especially those who indicated what they would like to see in the construction of the program of future VATE conferences. Texts for the mixed ability classroom. Creative writing and imaginative thinking. Blogging. English drawing on the pedagogies of the performing and visual arts to create more engaged and empathetic students. Critiques of the political/managerial values that dominate education at present. A deeper understanding of what we mean by ‘differentiation’. Technology, technology, technology! The role of the teacher in the coming age. What does professional knowledge mean for the English teacher? Academic panels discussing such matters as: literacy standards and PISA results; diversity and teaching diversity; the differences between spoon feeding and scaffolding; and questions such as, are we dumbing down our kids by dumbing down the curriculum, and is NAPLAN useful or a distraction?
Finally, we have introduced a section, ‘From the Archives’, which we hope to make a regular feature of future Idioms. Recently I have been reading past Idioms as part of a project several of us at VATE are working on – a history of the development of the original VCE English Study Design. In doing so I have been reminded of the role VATE played in preparing the ground for curriculum reform and change, including through Idiom. As Barry Carozzi, a former VATE President said of Idiom in the Jubilee edition, ‘Idiom became a vehicle for teachers to discuss their innovative practice.’
And given the recent interest in the 50th anniversary of the Dartmouth seminar (the retrospective seminar at the Adelaide AATE/ALEA Conference 2016, the subsequent edition of English in Australia) it seems appropriate that we should begin ‘From the Archives’ with extracts from the Conference issue of Idiom, August 1970 (yes 1970!) entitled ‘Dartmouth and After’. The issue contained short conference addresses by Ian Hansen, Brian Sureties, Esta de Fossard, Laurie Alter, with responses from Lorna Hannan and Gerry Tickell (and in a subsequent Idiom, David Homer). It makes clear the creative and intellectual ferment stimulated by the Dartmouth seminar in English teaching in the UK and the USA, and the ways in which Australian teachers, through the auspices of VATE and AATE, were being drawn into international conversations about the Dartmouth ‘issues’. What is the ‘content’ of English? Cultural heritage and/or personal growth and/or popular culture? The role of purposeful talk in the classroom. Creative writing about personal experience. The value of drama teaching. How grammar might be taught? And possibly the most potent issue of all: how to give substance to John Dixon’s claim in Growth through English: ‘…. our subject is experience whenever language is needed to penetrate and bring it into new and satisfying order.’ A debate accompanied by considerable argument about the worth of such resource texts as Impact and Conflict, and the kinds of ‘experience’ they embodied.
Member VATE Council and Life Member
Co-convenor of VATE Publications and Communications Committee