“That session was not at all what the description said it was going to be.”
“Oh. My. Gosh. I can’t take this, want to skip out and go see what those *insert local novelty food here* are all about?”
“7:30 a.m. session? Pfft. I’m sleeping in, what about you?”
Raise your hand if you have said one of these three things in your experience at a higher education conference. Don’t be shy, no one knows what you are reading or why your hand is up.
Maybe this comes from a place of annoyance since I wasn’t able to attend a national conference this spring. Maybe it comes from wanting to poke the box of the “establishment” of how higher education conferences run. Maybe it comes from simply wanting to stop thinking and start sharing, writing, posting my ideas for all to see. Whatever the case, here is what I’m thinking. We do conferences wrong and have been for years.
How does a typical conference go? Let me break it down for you.
- Pick one of the over used overall themes that typically speak to building, growing, overcoming, sustaining or reaching new heights.
- Get a semi famous keynote speaker to justify a pricey conference registration. (But skimp on the WiFi? o_O)
- Figure out what style badge, ribbons, and free swag you will hand out. This reminds me of getting a toy for buying a happy meal and like those days, sometimes the toy was better than the meal.
- Over order on the coffee, pasta, chicken and cheesecake.
- Stuff the schedule with sessions, often putting similar sessions in the same time just to tease attendees.
- Fill the marketplace with services that 70% of your conference goers won’t talk to unless there is a free iPad or Kindle raffle involved.
I could go on but I’d rather get into the meat of the post and motivation for it. First it started with the results of a TuesTally where 50% of the respondents said their innovation came from attending conferences. Now I assume they mean higher education conferences for the sake of the argument. Seeing a great program from another school and bringing it back to yours is NOT innovative. What that there is, is called recycling. There is nothing wrong with recycling, if fact it is very resourceful but it is far from innovation.
With that stewing in my head, a tweet from Valerie Heruska set me off to even more ideation. Which lead me to ask the question that sparked some lively 8AM EST chatter.
Are conferences professional development or institutional development? Thoughts? #sachat
The basis for the question was thinking about whether or not those who attending conferences are doing so for their own development or for the development of their institution. Am I going to develop my skills? Or am I going to see what programs I can develop for my campus?
In the past, the programs I’ve attended have had little to do with me and everything to do with my institution. Now I’d be lying if I said that the knowledge learned in some cases stuck with me, but if you told me what sessions I went to in Philly at NASPA 12 – I can only recall one (Thank you Tony Doody and Patrick Love). Ask me what sessions I attended in Chicago at NASPA 11 and you have a better chance of me remembering what I was wearing on August 5th, 1991. The point is, I look for ideas that can be applied immediately to my current position and I imagine many others do as well. I don’t go in with a learning plan or set of goals. Again, the ideas I gain will be for my institution’s development of their program offerings. It doesn’t make me a more developed professional; it makes me a good idea recycler.
“Hey XYZ U is doing this and I think we can make it work here.” This is NOT personal or professional development.
You know what is not professional development? Attending our session. This has nothing to do with the development of the audience and everything to do with sharing how awesome we are for coming up with a new idea and how the attendance could use it. They don’t get developed from hearing us share this, they get an idea to recycle.
You know what else is professional development? Attending a social and watching one of the best connectors I’ve ever been in the presence of and soaking in how she does it so I can adapt it to my style and be as effective in helping others network.
You know what else is not professional development? Hearing a former politician, activist, author give a room of practitioners a commencement style speech where we are thanked for our service and told that change starts with us. Right…you know how change starts? By taking the money we paid for your name and for you to speak for an hour and using it to fund grants for struggling institutions to apply for so they can develop new programs.
“So Joe, you seem to have all the answers. If you were a conference chair, what would you do differently?”
Simple. I wouldn’t call it a conference. I’d call it an opportunity. I’d call it anything but a meeting. Get together to engage, act, do, share, learn. Do not get together to present, preach, collect handouts, or break out into small groups (also known as, “We can’t fill XX minutes so let’s break them out into small groups for 15 minutes.”)
I would replace the marketplace with INSTITUTIONAL service providers and replace it with personal service providers. Valerie tweeted that she needed professional head shots done. Who doesn’t? I know I do. Let’s replace that booth that has some random software that organizes clubs and orgs in a new way with a professional photographer who is paid to be there. The photographer(s) will be prepared throughout the conference (free of charge) for a simple professional head shout. Who wants a free professional head shot over another free recycled materials shoulder bag? This guy does.
Why are we spending money on badges, ribbons, pins, pens, folders, etc? I’ll come prepared with materials, I don’t need more free pens, paper, pins, or ribbons. You know what I need for my professional development? Something to hand out to those I meet. Why not have these be the sponsored gift for registering for the conference? And don’t tell me there isn’t money for it. I’ve attended regional conferences that offered trivia and other novelties for night entertainment. Good effort but really I’d much rather leave with a professional head shot, not a caricature. If I wanted novelties, I can do that on my campus almost every other week.
Those are just two ideas for how to make the experience more about professional development. One more that I’d talked about before is the program submission process. How has this not improved in all the years of conferences? Submit your program 4-6 months before the conference, have your peers review it, get approval for it, and present the materials that were “new” and “relevant to the theme” 6 months prior to the date you actually present. Huh?! Boston ConFAB was a step in the right direction. “Here’s a topic in the news today, discuss.”
I’m running out of steam but I certainly hope this spurs some conversation and gets your fired up. Disagree with me. Let’s have an intellectual sparring match, I’m all for it. I have more that I’ll share later as these ideas come together.
Until then, my professional development fund money that would have been spent on a trip to Arizona will most likely end up going to adding to my office library. That sort of development is renewable, inexpensive, and benefits anyone who wants to read it. (Oh, and it leads to more innovation and less recycling.) Can any of the sessions you attended last year in Philadelphia/Baltimore do that?
Note: This is specifically to conferences. Institutes are actually doing something right. Intimate, deep connections fostered through more discussions, less presentations. More mentoring, less preaching.
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