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Powerful Learning Experiences
in Management Learning and Development

Here are some of the experiences that managers felt had most affected their learning and development during outdoor management development courses.

Interviews

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Click the titles to view these edited interviews.

EXPERIENCES OF HARDSHIP

This manager's main story was about finding herself suddenly thrown into a position of responsibility for which she was ill-prepared, and about having to cope with several different unknowns at the same time. She experienced a wide range of emotions throughout the course: 'enjoyment, pleasure, relief, failure, frustration, relaxed, despair, exhaustion, fear, neglected'. "The more I realised the physical content was determined by yourself and the more the team got together, the more I enjoyed it."

Although enjoying the team aspect, she seemed to be having a particularly individual course experience. She wanted to learn both through private reflection and through sharing learning: "We were pushing very much for … time to do a recap of what everyone had learned". Most of her learning was private, but one important personal discovery came through a group feedback session (after the boating) when she learnt that she had not shown her feelings as much as she thought she had.

The connections which she made to work were mainly about being careful not to place others in the kinds of situations which she had suffered on the course. Her learning mainly took the form of guides for behaviour such as: [paraphrased] make a conscious effort to remember and thank everyone; don't brief or delegate in a rush; be aware of how others are feeling; be considerate to others when the pressure is on; don't neglect people.

The lasting picture I have of this manager is of her sitting in the dark in the stern of the group rowing boat with map, compass, torch and steering lines in her hands, lost and with a mutinous crew.

'UNDER PRESSURE' (boating)

Questionnaire: I felt despair when asked to navigate a boat on a lake in the dark and not knowing where I was trying to go, or how to use the compass. I had not attended the navigation classes, nor been shown/instructed how to do it, except in my experience of flying a plane (in daylight). The project was to be undertaken in the dark. My brief [by another group member] was about 2 minutes long, during the launching of the boat. I was also cox - an interesting but totally new experience.

As I struggled to conduct 3 or 4 new tasks with minimal success, I had considerable dissension in the ranks. This played havoc with my morale and self-esteem and adversely affected my confidence. The combination of my inability to perform and getting things wrong was demoralising.

Interview: I didn't have a clue how to navigate. No one told me about the rudder or about how to navigate - especially in the dark … [Someone] suddenly thrust the map at me and said "We're going there. You're navigating" … not having been involved in it before but knowing that we were going to have pick up things, but not knowing where the points were, what … which order … how to steer the boat … was terrifying … Taking each one in isolation I could have done them, but combining all three under pressure - was very much … juggling, deciding which one I should do first. … the group started to descend … In terms of motivation and morale, how easy it would have been [to] slip off minus ten [and] throw the map overboard.

[On the boat again, a few days later] when going to the second reference point we had a mutinyThey were all mutinying against me. In the end I gave in. I hit my lowest ebb. I knew I had to get this navigating thing sussed. In the end we couldn't find the clue. We took a vote - head for [home base] - totally different - the boat was flying along in the water and everything was clicking into place.

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STEPPING BACK, TAKING A LOOK, SLOWING DOWN

This manager was keen from the start: "I'd keyed myself up for this course. This was going to be wonderful. I felt really, really great on Saturday" [day one]. He was "keyed up" both for challenges and for learning opportunities: "If I go in for one sole thing I'm sure I'd miss it, and worrying about that I'd miss thousands of other little gems that you could have picked up along the way. Perhaps, more importantly, if you centre on the wrong one, you could miss some real gold mines … I go in like a child in a toyshop". But his appetite for learning did have some direction, as he stated on his questionnaire that he wanted: "Development of myself" and "Improvement of my abilities to build, motivate and work with groups".

This manager described his original group as "free-flowing, everybody has a go, chucks it all in …". On the fourth day of the course, he became "fed up" in a temporary, mixed group which he found more formal ("wait your turn"). Back in his original group the next day for the "big project", it was "excitement" and "all systems go". "We'd been shaken and changed and you were … thrown back into your family again. It was a lot better: more free flowing, more relaxed, more informal attitude … I like it lively."

This manager's story also links together a series of personal achievements of a similar kind: first on the ropes course, followed by a rock climb, and the 'zip wire' (aerial runway). He overcame his fear of heights by using relaxation techniques that he learned during the course. Since the course, he had applied the same techniques at work "of stepping back, taking a look, slowing down, and making people wait for me, and it worked!"

OVERCOMING FEAR OF HEIGHTS, RELAXATION AND BREATHING

The thought of climbing a rock face terrified me. I thought if I can overcome that - whatever method I learned to overcome that, maybe I can use for things like standing up in front of a large group of people, which I find difficult, or awkward interviews … If I could find something to use the adrenaline and calm the nerves, I thought I could benefit greatly from that at some point in the future.

I found that I could make the rockface, by a lot of determination. Also by realising that I shouldn't try and talk myself out of it half way up … I succeeded quite well. I'm not saying I'm not frightened of heights any more. I'm very much aware of it, but I think I can use the fear in a controlled manner. I know that if I stop and think I won't fall. But when you're up there, blind terror takes over. Yes the only thing I remember that was taught was actually to breathe your way through it … yes you've got to keep on, just one at a time, step by step, and keep on going through this thing, and you suddenly find that you're quite a long way into it … You're aware of it, but you're not worried about it. I think I can actually use that in my personal life and in my job.

REVIEWING

It was a bit difficult to review it privately … The first chance I really had to do that was when I was filling in this questionnaire in the evening … It started to channel my thinking from wanting to go down and have a lie down into: "What have I got out of it? What did I want out of it? What am I going to do with the things I've got? What am I going to use them for?" So in that way it started [arranging things] in columns and lines which it hadn't done up until then … It started to slot things up for me. It was useful. It set me off on the course of thinking … links to work.

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GETTING IN TOUCH AND IN TUNE

"Several of the things that I did, they were things that I chose to do on my own … I really focused in on what I was doing." These experiences reminded this manager of the past: "The bonus for me was the pleasure and exhilaration of putting myself back in touch with things I hadn't really done for a long time, or hadn't done in an intensive way." These experiences made him want to get "totally involved" in something at work, and also prompted him to think about using more active ways of managing stress and of getting more "balance", "flow" and "depth" in his life.

The lasting picture I have of this manager is of him getting fully immersed in hand painting at the end of the course: "I just dipped my hands in a load of paint and was splashing about making things that were 3D, that were textural and that flowed … I wasn't conscious of anyone around me or anything". He saw this painting as "symbolic about how I'd like to be really … I'd like things to flow around and for there to be peaks and troughs … I would like to think there's some purpose to everything I do that relates to something else."

He was able to "get out of the gear I'd got into" and find strength, vision and purpose from getting back in touch with neglected parts of himself: PASSION - "passionate involvement"; CREATIVITY - "giving fairly free rein to creativity"; PHYSICAL - "stretched my body in a way that I haven't done for quite a while"; THINKING - "getting into a [new] mode of thinking - about me and how I operate and how I wanted to operate".

He appreciated the "space" and "choice" which the course allowed: "It would have been difficult in any other environment [to have] stopped to think about it or had the experiences that would make me think about it - that I had realised that I'd changed." Its value as a "knowing myself" course became more apparent to him during the course of this interview.

TOTAL INVOLVEMENT (hand painting)

I think it came together for me quite well at the end - the collage [hand painting]. It demonstrated how we were feeling at the time and what we got from the course. And that was quite nice because that put me in touch with a bit of myself that I think was there but I hadn't been conscious of for a while - of creativity - doing things that were generated from within me, and that I gave fairly free rein to. And it made me think workwise that I'm not someone who's short of ideas, and I need to give myself space to let those operate at times. And things slotted together quite well. And that's why I've put down [on the questionnaire] life, work and family - getting those things to relate to each other.

I just dipped my hands in a load of paint and was splashing about making things that were 3D, that were textural and that flowed. I made a conscious decision to cut my square piece of paper into an oval shape, because I wanted to give a feeling that things flowed - weren't angular. There was an overlap and one thing ran into another. I was mixing paints up and mixing mediums up and didn't put any straight lines in this thing at all which was symbolic to me … symbolic to me about how I'd like to be really. I'd like things to flow around and for there to be peaks and troughs. I don't particularly want to work on an even plane, nor do I want to compartmentalise things in straight lines. I would like to think there's some purpose to everything I do that relates to something else …

I wasn't conscious of anyone around me or anything. I just got into the exercise and let my thoughts run free. I couldn't have done that unless I was pretty totally relaxed. I couldn't have done it unless I'd had a build up in terms of time and opportunity to think about me and how I operated and how I wanted to operate. Having a week was useful.

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UNFAMILIAR, UNCOMFORTABLE EXPERIENCES

This manager describes three very different kinds of experience. Although different from each other, each of them were (at least initially) unfamiliar and uncomfortable experiences. "I suppose each of the exercises in their own way brought about different sorts of triggers for experiences either I don't normally have or don't take the opportunity to think about."

SABOTAGE: One experience involved "a very direct challenge" from a group member while managing a project. She said that this "very powerful" experience developed her confidence in coping with conflict in a group.

COXING: In another group exercise she felt very uncomfortable and out of her depth when coxing the group rowing boat in the dark - an experience which did not give her "any more confidence in terms of tackling it 'a next time'". She felt that she would "go through the same sorts of anxieties" if, for example, she was monitoring another section at work (about which she knew nothing) while covering for someone off sick.

HILLWALKING: The third experience which she related was discovering the world of hillwalking.

The 'sabotage' and 'hillwalking' experiences ended up as fairly positive stories, but the 'coxing' experience was only partly redeemed when on a later (daytime) boating trip (this time rowing), she found that she could take her part in the boat, "and row as effectively as the rest of the group". It was only during the course of this interview that she felt that she was starting to learn something from her experience of coxing in the dark: "I think the value would come in having the opportunity to have this sort of discussion as part of the course".

DIRECT CONFLICT (while leading a creative project: 'Earth, Wind and Fire')
We broke for a cup of tea and then reconvened with me taking the lead, and almost immediately there was another member of the group who became extremely challenging and disruptive … I found myself getting very angry, and very uncertain about how we'd got into this situation - which up until tea-break seemed to be going relatively smoothly … There was something very clearly within the dynamics of the group that meant that I had to restrain my own feelings of anger and, possibly, defensiveness, whilst at the same time ensuring that the group as a whole were able to keep on with the task … and so for me that was a powerful experience. I don't think I've ever encountered such a direct conflict, where there wasn't the opportunity to just take some time out … I don't think I've ever been in a situation where the opportunity for very real damaging destruction was so evident. "I was pleased [she wrote in her questionnaire] that I could control my anger and still be creative about helping to devise strategies to get round the problem. I have been able to experiment; have had some success; and can derive confidence from this.

A GREAT FEELING OF INADEQUACY (while coxing the whaler)

I was actually nominated to be the cox … I'd certainly had no previous experience to make me feel that I could actually get people from one side of Windermere to the other. And it was dark and it was windy. And I felt very uncomfortable the whole time we were going across in the boat. And I felt very aware of my own ignorance … Having got to the other side [I felt] a great sense of relief, but not achievement, because I didn't feel that I had done very much to get us to the other side … All it did for me was to give me a great feeling of inadequacy - in terms of - they got there in spite of me rather than because of me … that was a very extreme example of not being in control of any of the information.

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BEING CREATIVE TOGETHER

This manager was very clear about what he did and did not want. His experiences of other 'experiential' courses in the past helped him to work out beforehand how he would get most benefit from this kind of course. He decided to 'adopt a role of being laid back and not taking a lead in situations', a decision which does not on the face of it appear to be a positive strategy for learning and development. Although he may have been 'laid back' during the course, there is little sign of his 'holding back'. His enthusiastic manner and his account of playing music in the trees indicates that he was more fired up by opportunities for teamwork and creativity than by opportunities for taking a leadership role. He wanted to be a team member on this course rather than a manager. He saw this as a way of "getting back into a more natural, positive, enthusiastic working style".

He makes a very confident statement about why the experience was powerful: "what I got out of it became more powerful because I'd got an open blank sheet". He seems to have revelled in getting fully immersed in a creative team project, as a chance to let go and rise to a challenge. This was not a story of individual physical challenge which commonly appears in Brathay stories; it was more a story about the challenge of making something out of nothing - having a space to play, an idea to play with, and the creative resources of a small group of people who were also letting go and diving in. In addition, the theme of the project "working relationships and change" and its elemental title "Earth, Wind and Fire" seem to have struck particularly strong chords with someone who wanted to get "back to basics".

BEING CREATIVE TOGETHER: EARTH, WIND AND FIRE

So in terms of powerful learning experience … the 'Earth, Wind and Fire' exercise and the trees and the music and the percussion … four of us got together when that session was negotiated … we got together on the basis that we wanted to keep things simple and be creative… The four of us also had a musical bent. So we decided [that] in our drama we wouldn't use words, we would just use drama and music and percussion, and be fairly creative … The theme was "working relationships and change". So we were thinking about chaos into harmony. Percussion and wind instruments - discord, trees, panic and fear and harmony and we brought together the rhythms, and with the harmony and the tune at the end and that was very powerful because it wasn't constrained by jargon or language or anything … That was why it was powerful … because it was a totally different setting and yet we were asked to produce a drama on working relationships and change and [triumphantly] we did! It wasn't a problem. We did it in a relatively short time-scale and produced it… We should be using everybody's creativity and experience. The course actually reinforced that.

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TAKING THE FIRST STEP

One experience stood out "very, very clearly" to this manager above all others: "taking the first step" on the ropes course. It was significant to him because the whole experience was so resonant with his thoughts about facing change and taking risks back at work.

He arrived on the course wanting to use it as an opportunity for "trying to shift my views of change from a negative to a more positive one". It seems that "taking the first step" was the key to unlocking a more comprehensive awareness about how the whole situation was so analogous to his situation at work. For example, he also talks of "hanging onto the tree stump" (on the ropes course) and of "hanging onto the past" (at work). He managed to "take the first step" and walk across "the swinging and high poles with nothing to hold onto" by "taking time to broaden focus and relax physically". This achievement has given him both the confidence and a strategy for tackling analogous situations back at work. There follow extracts both from his questionnaire and from our interview.

QUESTIONNAIRE

Choose one occasion (ideally the one which you think has most affected your learning and development) and write about it below.

Some of the more difficult sections of the ropes course look and feel physically risky. They required of me an effort to take the first step - especially one which needed a stride from a platform to a block on a tree trunk with nothing to hang onto until I grabbed a rope on the far side. Both this, and walking across the swinging and high poles with nothing to hold onto, needed an effort to step away from the stable and secure, and I found it difficult.

What other experiences do you associate with this one?

After many years in essentially the same job, albeit in a very difficult area, I have achieved security and stability, if not comfort. Change is now required. This has been very threatening personally. I have found it very difficult to think of moving from the familiar and the secure into the risk situation of new structures and expectations.

In what ways do you think this experience has affected your learning and development?

1. Has taught me that the first step is the crucial one.

2. That I can achieve that first step if I make the commitment then.

3. Consciously consider my focus and bodily and mental resource state.

4. That taking time to broaden focus and relax physically whilst doing the exercise helps me towards successful completion.

Why do you think this?

Because it was possible to try something I perceived as risky, at my own pace in my own time, in an essentially non-competitive environment at the same time receiving active support and encouragement from my colleagues.

INTERVIEW

Does that stand out as the main experience of the course?

Definitely. Very, very clearly... There was really quite a powerful link between the experience at Brathay of hanging onto a solid tree stump, and making that step out into a situation that was uncomfortable, risky and [where I might] fall off. And that was really quite a good learning experience.

Did anything useful come from making that connection?

Yes. There were a number of things. I suppose first of all - some confidence that if I get myself started I can nearly always do it, and very often I can do it as well as, if not better than, many other people.

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GRAPHIC EXPERIENCES IN A SAFE ENVIRONMENT

Amongst the kinds of learning experiences reported by this manager were: boosting self-confidence through exhilarating physical achievements; discovering differences between real and imagined limitations - and "doing things I had never dreamed I was capable of or had the nerve to do"; making analogies between physical course experiences and experiences at work; learning from making mistakes (and getting insights into how accidents happen); reinforcing and developing intellectual knowledge through physical experiences which "graphically brought home" that knowledge; learning more about his colleagues; building working relationships; and changing attitudes and perceptions.

Although he was manager of a major course exercise and enjoyed having a "super supportive team", he did not rate this particular exercise highly as a learning experience. This was partly because he felt that he had managed this "self-motivating" group in "quite a low key way", and also because he considered that he was already "quite in tune" with how he operated as a manager. He generally seemed to have learned much more from other course experiences - mostly when things went wrong.

Course experiences stimulated two contrasting patterns of learning for him: on one occasion he made several connections from just one exercise - "a whole series of things … fell into place"; but on other occasions the same 'lessons' were emerging from different exercises, such as appreciating more than once the need to trust others and interfere less, and also experiencing a series of personal achievements which were continually reinforcing his course motto that "limitations are in the mind".

REALISING THAT "LIMITATIONS ARE IN THE MIND" AND LEARNING TO TAKE RISKS

"We had to do a motto for … the week and my motto was that limitations were in the mind, which is something that I'd brought from the first course, and the second course reinforced that … Similar to the zip wire, was doing the ropes course for the first time. And again [I was] doing things I would never have dreamed I was capable of or had the nerve to do … I was enjoying myself [canoeing]. And the exhilaration in terms of taking a few risks in going out in that sort of weather. I found it quite rewarding because I don't tend to take risks easily."

"A lot of the limitations that we set upon ourselves … they're not real limitations, and [in] virtually everything I've done at Brathay, the dangers or the risks are really minimal - they're more perceived than real … The limitations are limitations you set for yourself. That also transfers to work … and life … [This] was something which I had inklings about. The first course focused it for me. The second course reinforced it …"

"Some of the issues might have been picked up in intellectual exercises, but the physical exercises for me probably give a much more graphic illustration of the issues and reinforce them … Intellectually you knew it the first time … but a lot of us actually have to experience that before we actually act on it … arriving at a campsite and not having any water to drink was a very real experience and that was because we didn't plan it properly … what came home for me was a whole series of things which fell into place … And for me that was quite a powerful experience … And that was real and it had much greater impact than just intellectualising or discussing it. Brathay is about real experiences but in a safe environment - and that is for me a more powerful learning tool than an intellectual exercise."

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A DRAMATIC EXPERIENCE WITH VIVID IMAGES

This senior manager associated 'power' with 'support'. She felt both the power of support and the power in herself which support helped to bring out. She used the word 'dramatic' to refer to the whole course rather than to a particular event: "it was a dramatic experience … I think this is one I'll carry with me for quite a long time." She was particularly interested in her own learning processes, partly as a result of having previously attended a 'learning to learn' course at a management school, where analysis (based on Kolb) showed that she had a balanced learning style. The three examples which she chose to talk about each demonstrated different kinds of learning: learning about getting support from other people (on the ropes course); gaining insights into her own motivation and that of others (during the 'Monopoly' exercise); and 'exploring thoughts' with others during both structured and informal reviewing.

She found 'lots of opportunities' for learning, but rather than learning one thing at a time, this manager was finding that new insights, possibilities and strategies were opening up before her a few at a time. She seemed to be learning on a number of different levels from the same event, and learning in different ways. She was also transferring her learning in different ways, but especially through 'carrying' and 'drawing' on vivid images from the course.

The interview took place six weeks after the course in her office. Souvenirs of the course were displayed on the wall: a collage representing her course experience and some photos taken during the course.

SUPPORT, FEAR and NEW SITUATIONS

Questionnaire: [The ropes course] … was unlike anything else I had done before, and I experienced a feeling of fear beforehand and during the event. However, the support I was given by those I was with was extremely helpful, as was the preliminary work undertaken before the exercise - identifying and working on strategies for relaxing and for facing new situations in a well-resourced and positive way.

Interview: … the relaxation exercise that came immediately prior was very helpful … having done that I thought about how I go into new situations and quite frightening situations, and … [I recognised that I can] physically do something about that, both in terms of doing something myself, but also using people to support me.

TRANSFER OF LEARNING

Before I went on the course I hoped that I'd be able to make a leap between the physical challenge bit to the work setting. I've got this visual picture [of my ropes course achievement] which is helpful. I think it's as much helpful in a symbolic sense. I mean that was something which I overcame and achieved despite all sorts of things. It's almost like a sort of talisman.

We had a meeting with the unions last week which we knew was going to be quite hairy, and one of the other participants from the course going into the meeting with me said "Assume the posture". [referring to the ropes course] It was quite light-hearted, but it's still there with me. [The course] was a dramatic experience … I think this is one I'll carry with me for quite a long time.

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LETTING GO AND TRUSTING OTHERS

Having been on another course at Brathay in which he had a fairly passive role, this manager said, "I was determined on the second course to take up the leadership at some point".

He said, during our interview, that he found the pre-course visit from two Brathay staff to negotiate the programme "most helpful" because:

"They had made an attempt to restructure the programme around all our individual needs and [had] given us much more space within the week to have reflection on those experiences that we might endure, and to think ahead to how we might... be able to come back and gain most from it."

This 'pre-course' negotiation happened to follow the same kind of negotiating process that what was to become an important part of his main experience: leading an eight hour exercise in which he became the person with the main responsibility for ensuring that each individual's goals were met. He wrote on his end of course questionnaire that:

"I had to try and gain group support and see that everyone's personal goals were met by the choice of tasks and the way we went about the exercise. I needed to gain their confidence yet be able to let go and trust others to perform key tasks and assume responsibility for certain tasks. At times I felt a sense of losing control, pulling it back, and then valued the richness of groupwork/team spirit, and ... success."

He now felt that he "must take more risks and be innovative to gain greater satisfaction at work ... In a changing environment a manager must adapt and respond in different ways, not simply leading from the front." He was learning a more participatory leadership role, but his "greatest pleasure" (he wrote) was enjoying the experiences of "sharing real fears/anxieties with colleagues and the mutual support we offered each other".

LETTING GO AND TRUSTING INDIVIDUALS

John Adair in his leadership book … [says] you've got to provide for the individual, you've got to provide for the group, but you've also got to concentrate on your task in terms of achieving it. At times, during even the first hour, I was having to try and hold people back from running off on the task … I still remember that fifteen or twenty minutes into the exercise, as the leader, I suddenly realised that everybody was going off and doing different things and I was left on my own, with feelings that I wasn't going to be able to co-ordinate all these various activities and retain control … the interesting thing was [realising] that I'm going to have to let go and trust individuals and then be responsible for the outcomes …

[The 'Monopoly' experience] showed that the teamwork, if it's happening, is quite tremendous in being able to carry you, your organisation and everything forward. The synergy was definitely there within the group. It wasn't one plus one. It was multiplied many times … Outside the course, in work, I think I've tended personally to meet success or failure on an individual basis … What was evident [in this exercise] was [that] individuals didn't see themselves as individuals, but very much a team and were sharing and helping each other considerably … [How it relates to work?] - build up trust and understanding to the extent that you feel that you can contact people and you can openly express your fears and anxieties as well as share the experiences and learn from each other. I don't think I did that too willingly previously. [I'm now] far more open and honest, both with myself and with individuals … I think the course was to do with being sensitive to other individuals: trusting them, being involved with them and in supporting them also realising that they were offering me the same in return.

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Powerful Learning Experiences: extracts on this site

  1. ABSTRACT
  2. MAIN FINDINGS (from the 12 interviews)
  3. 4 GROUPS OF STORIES (from the 12 interviews)
  4. 12 THEMES (found in the 12 interviews)
  5. 12 STORIES (3 line summaries of each interview)
  6. A MANAGER'S STORY (extract from one interview)
  7. INTERVIEW INDEX   INTERVIEWS (this page)
  8. REFERENCES
  9. DOWNLOAD
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