This last week saw members of the Hero Network travel to Richmond, Virginia in the USA to attend the Second Biennial Heroism Science Conference (October, 2018).
Myself (Kev), Dr. Elaine Kinsella, and Dr. Eric Igou made the trip. As an early career psychology researcher, I wanted to put together some reflections on my experience attending and presenting research at my first academic conference.
So, I guess the best place to start is with a few expressions of gratitude and the folk at top of that list have to be Elaine and Eric (and Dr. Jenny McMahon, who couldn’t make the trip this time) for their support as I was getting my project ready to present and for making sure I didn’t get into too much trouble on my travels (although ask me about my hotel sometime).
Next has to be Professors Scott Alisson and Al (George) Goethals from the University of Richmond, for organising and hosting the conference. They created a really open, collegial atmosphere and this tone carried through the entire event. All of the attendees were incredibly kind and supportive, which is really important to those of us at the early stages of our career. The questions and comments following each presentation were insightful and, even when the material under discussion was somewhat heavy, there was much humour and light.
Finally, the University of Limerick Psychology Department provided me with funding without which I would not have been able to present my work to this wonderful group and I’m incredibly grateful and lucky to have the support of my University in this way.
They say you should never meet your heroes…
Being at the early stages of a PhD means spending a lot of time reading and being inspired by others, digging into their papers and memorising parts of their work that can guide you as you lay out your own program of research. Now, I’m lucky that my supervisors are rockstars in this field (as was obvious during their presentations), but it’d be very easy to be intimidated by the calibre of researchers that were present, Professors like Zeno Franco, Scott Allison and Al Goethals, and Lawrence Walker. These are people that I have cited in almost everything I’ve written thus far in my PhD and I wanted to make sure that I represented my work well as I presented it to them. Fortunately, not only were each of these people kind and personable but the shared interest in hero research (and love of heroic-fiction) very quickly created a shared language that made me feel at home very quickly.
(I still think Dune is better than Star Trek, but no one seemed to hold it against me.)
Will Durant once said that “all science begins as philosophy and ends as art” (1926) and this interaction between disciplines was obvious throughout the conference. Talks ranged from scientific research on heroes, to philosophical discussions of heroism, to presentations on the artistic expressions of the heroic, the villainous and the “hybrid” space between the two. In general, it seems to me that these topics are nested in four research questions, which to me represent four distinct but related strands of heroism studies:
- A taxonomy of heroes and heroic behaviour – What is a hero and how do heroes differ across different domains?
- The development of heroism – What are the common developmental features that promote heroic action?
- The functions of heroes – What do heroes do for us at the social and psychological levels?
- Using heroes in applied settings – How are heroes and heroic metaphors useful in therapy and education?
My presentation fell into the fourth category (A Review of Hero-Based Interventions in Educational and Clinical Settings) and hearing from practitioners who are actually using heroes in their clinics and classes was inspiring, giving insight into the future of these kinds of programs. Hearing from clinicians like Dr. Clive Williams & Dr. Peter Bray, and educators like Joanna Pascoe, Professor Laural Adams, & Professor Travis Langley added context to the first year of my PhD studies and really made me feel like I was part of a community of researchers.
(On a personal note, it was a bit of a shock to present my research with Professor Travis Langley sitting four feet away from me because I’m a huge comic book nerd and his books helped me get into psychology. I noticed my voice crack a little more than usual…)
One of the common themes that struck me was the various ways that Joseph Campbell’s “Heroes Journey” metaphor (1949) was so prevalent throughout the conference. Whether explicitly mentioned, as in Professor Susan Ross’s work on integrating transformation and Dr. Stephanie Fagin-Jones’ presentation on heroism during the Holocaust, or implicitly such as in Michael Condren’s work on motivating social heroes, Campbell’s metaphor was woven deeply into much of the discussions and presentations.
In that context, it was really interesting to hear the contra-points and divergent discussion that were dotted throughout the proceedings. “Hybrid” heroes, villainous characters that display the features of heroes, and their part in contemporary fiction, presented by Benjamin Van Tourhout, were an interesting extreme case of the downside to heroic intervention outlined by Professor James Beggan. This was made more striking by Professor Bryan Smyth’s presentation of heroic action as a non-self-sacrificial form of self-realisation, which contrasts with the more common vision of heroes as inherently self-sacrificing. In all this left a lot of food for thought and opened up interesting avenues of research that may diverge from Campbell, or at least, as Professor Goethals suggested in his closing remarks, use the “hero’s journey” in new ways.
I’m in the process of writing my proposal for Irish Research Council funding and so I’m trying to reflect on the call to action presented by Professor Zeno Franco in his Keynote Presentation. He exhorted us to find new ways to examine heroes and heroism and to take a broader vision of the phenomenon. Attending this conference at this time has given me the opportunity to structure my PhD with that in mind, to examine heroes from the emotional, cognitive and behavioural perspectives and to see my research in the context of a wider program of work taking place all over the world.
I really can’t wait to meet everyone again at the 2020 Third Biennial Heroism Science conference here at the University of Limerick (located in the sometimes sunny South West of Ireland), to hear about how everyone’s work is progressing and see the next cohort of PhD students present their work.
– Kevin O’Malley, PhD Candidate, Department of Psychology, University of Limerick
Campbell, J. (2008). The hero with a thousand faces (Vol. 17). New World Library.
Durant, W. (1926). The story of philosophy (No. 04; RMD, B72 D8.). Garden City.