By Dashiell Dronyk, M.A. Candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
Last October I had the fortunate to give a presentation at the 17th Annual Graduate Symposium held by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute at the Royal Military College in Kingston. The Symposium is a conference where students present their research and compete for grants and the opportunity for publication with the CDA’s Vimy Papers series based on the quality of their presentations and subsequent question and answer sessions with the audience.
Speaking on the final panel at the Symposium, on Canadian National Security and Defence Priorities, I attended the entire proceedings and had the opportunity to take in all the presentations before giving my own talk on counter-radicalization policy. I placed second overall, behind the University of Ottawa’s Rob Burroughs (who gave an extremely engaging talk on the role of submarines in the modernization of the Royal Canadian Navy) and ahead of the University of Toronto’s Tannuva Akbar (who provided a compelling look at challenges of financial intelligence work). So, while I have an obvious bias to acknowledge given that the conference ended on a high for me personally, I maintain it would still have been an extremely rewarding experience had this not been the case. That is to say there are pretty great reasons to attend the conference that have nothing to do with the opportunity to win a prize or pad your CV.
First and foremost, the quality of the presentations was uniformly excellent. Some presenters may have been more natural public speakers, or may have had slicker PowerPoints but what everyone had in common was thorough research and a clear passion for their respective topics. Students, whose level of study ranged from undergraduate to doctoral, spoke with authority on their respective issues.
Second, there was impressive diversity on display in terms of the topics being presented. To be sure, many of the presenters had a focus on more traditional military issues, as one would expect at an event organized by the CDA Institute and sponsored by the Royal Military College and the Royal Canadian Military Institute. At the same time there were also presentations on topics such as border security, financial intelligence, public-private intelligence partnerships, the foreign fighter issue, the experiences of ISAF translators in Afghanistan, and the use of gendered narratives in the Canadian military. In other words the spectrum of perspectives given at the Symposium ranged from the orthodoxy of strategic studies to the critical standpoint of feminist theory.
Overall this meant that, as an audience member, you learned something new and interesting from every single presenter. For instance, the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies’ Al Sutherland provided evidence that many Afghan translators preferred working with Canadian soldiers who tended to be perceived as more aware of and sincere in their focus on intercultural sensitivities. This in turn reportedly provided Canada with a tactical advantage. This one stands out in my mind because it has implications for everything from future counterinsurgency operations to policies of community policing. In short, the Symposium is a great opportunity for students and scholars of security studies to discover connections between disparate areas of focus, and improve the breadth of their knowledge of the overall discipline.
In terms of benefits from participating in the Symposium as a presenter, I found the most important was the exercise of adapting to constraints of the public presentation format. Speakers had to convey extremely complex ideas within a strict fifteen minute time limit. They also had to hold the attention of an audience that included a large proportion of retired colonels and generals (including a former Chief of Defence Staff), as well as academics and serving CAF officers and bureaucrats. This means there is a strong incentive for presenters to hone in on the key messages of their work in order to be able to deliver a succinct, on-point and engaging presentation. Presenters are also had to know their work inside-out and be able to think on their feet to respond to what were usually well-informed and pointed questions following presentations. So, even just being invited to speak at the Symposium provides the opportunity to seriously practice your intellectual discipline and agility, both valuable skills in the academic and professional worlds.
Finally, the Symposium offered a unique networking opportunity for its guests. Canada has relatively few research institutions, let alone academic degree programs, dedicated to security issues compared to countries such as the United States. Representatives of many of the key centres in the Canadian national security community seem to converge at this event. My partner, a consummate people person, came with me to the Symposium and left with a stack of business cards from new contacts potentially interested in NPSIA’s upcoming Model NATO conference, which she is organizing. For people like me who get heart palpitations at the prospect of networking functions, the Symposium offers a relaxed and highly collegial setting to connect with security professionals, as well as like-minded students and scholars. Even the more prominent figures attending the conference displayed a genuine interest in the work and interests of students, as well as in relating their own experience and insights.
The point is that CDA Institute’s Graduate Symposium offers a welcoming, intellectually-enriching experience open to a diverse array of academic backgrounds and perspectives in the broad field of security studies. I had a great time at the conference this year and would highly encourage students from across Canada to start thinking about paper topics to submit in 2015.