All About Development

“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 professional development? Sitting in Starbucks with two colleagues as we prepare to share our leadership programming idea. Especially when those two are awesome people.

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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36 thoughts on “All About Development

  1. Conferences remind me of mega-weddings– big, expensive parties to help us reconnect with family and friends we have not seen in a while. I am practical and easily overwhelmed by conference flash. Small and intimate sometimes achieves the same end goal. Deeper connections, but with less expense and fewer opportunities to stock up on favors and drink too much champagne.

    Great post, Joe.

  2. I feel that the White Privilege Conference does something completely different and innovative in how they teach social justice and power, privilege and oppression. I walked away from that conference a changed person–it was definitely professional development. I highly recommend that you go if you are able!

      • J_E_Hayes – I’d be interested to know what pieces of the WPC you found particularly innovative. I would agree that the WPC was very powerful the two years I attended – but I would like to know if it was the content or the format of the conference that changed you. I felt very changed by the content, but the format of the conference is very similar to national conventions. I will say, though, that there are some fantastic social justice speakers/facilitators whose sessions are not the “typical” conference session. There are also opportunities to meet and engage about “what’s up” for you in identity groups – which is a big shift from national conventions but also very appropriate for that specific conference focus.

  3. Joe, I appreciate your sentiments in this post and your willingness to offer ideas on how to shift the “student affairs / Higher Ed” view of a conference.

    As someone who sat on the ACUI 2012 Conference Program Team and is now sitting at the table for the ACPA 2013 Convention Planning Team, let me share a few perspectives that may (or may not) help 🙂

    1. Your Definition of “Innovative”: You and I (and many folks who use tech to supplement their professional development) may have similar definitions, but for a lot of folks who attend these conferences, the idea of “recycling” an existing program is innovative for them and their campus. I think you and I have been spoiled being on Twitter for as long as we have and expect more from our in-person learning. However, this is not a widely shared perspective and , like it or not, it is the Planning Team’s responsibility to offer as balanced a program as possible.
    2. High priced Keynotes vs. WiFi: In a perfect world, I would love to have both. But as we know, in many instances, it is a challenging proposition. While these high-priced keynotes may not mean the same to everyone, it does provide the conference with some level of “distinction”. Just as you and I would be excited if Seth Godin talked at an event, some people really get jazzed about hearing from Lisa Ling. On the other hand, the price of access to WiFi for conferences is ridiculous (often costing 10’s of thousands of dollars, and more if you have multiple conference properties to manage.) When push comes to shove of providing an “educational speaker” versus access to WiF… well, you get the picture.

    A Call To Action:
    With everything you listed, I want to enlist your help (along with anyone else of course) to help me plan the second #satechBOS Unconference this summer (Date still TBD). Last year, as you may remember, it was a success and something we can build on together. Kenn Elmore has already agreed to supporting it at Boston University, I just need a team of passionate people, like you, to help make it happen. You game?

    I’ve got plenty more, but for now, this is the start. Overall sir, I’m grateful for your perspective, thoughts and support. Keep up the great work sir.

    • Ed,

      Thanks for the brain food here. Why should our definition of innovation be different? How can we get everyone on the same page? How can we bring peoples expectations up? We can do better. Rising tide raises all boats, if we can better prepare our audience for a conference experience (a year round, consistent message and information), why couldn’t the conference be more?

      Right on, the high priced speaker is going to be what brings people to the conference not the enticing message of “Free WiFi.” The conference should NOT be defined by what names are on the stage on the first page of the conference pamphlet. That’s like defining an entire year of programming by the concert at the end of the year. We can do better than that.

      I’m game for anything that is going to push this conversation to action and improve the fields experience and expectations of what we are capable of. Let’s do work!

      Thanks for reading and sharing,


      • The note about “distinction” had me thinking, too, Joe. Who do we need this distinction for? Our campuses? The people who pay to send us to conferences?

        (not saying that I don’t enjoy the big speakers – they had powerful things to say, too).

  4. Joe,

    First of all, thank you for sharing the thoughts I’ve seen floating around twitter. I don’t think you are the only one who feels this way. I can only hope that these messages, and our repetition of them, can induce change in how conferences happen. Because WE are our organizations, it will take powerful voice to change, especially like this. And, last time I checked, I am not next year’s conference chair. There is so much wrapped up in what is the organizations perceived identity and tradition. I know it was a BIG deal for the Baltimore ACPA conference theme to vary from the “doing this. wanting those.” four word theme (B More in B’more).

    I love your ideas and hope that we can see some change. I don’t know many professionals who would JUMP FAST on that professional headshot. Seriously. How about instead of a coffee break (conveniently located in the exhibit hall), we have some great facilitators lined up to break out into conversations about a current news topic (like a mini-confab?). Let’s have more opportunities to talk about what’s “up” for us and connect to the challenges we’re pushing through, not just the “recycled ideas” we need to bring back to our campuses. Let’s not just wear hoodies to support Trayvon but dedicate some time to talking about how this impacts us, our students, and campus climate. Let’s have mini-meetups focused on current issues we’re facing. I don’t need another session on the seven ways you implemented x program on your campus, but let’s talk about learning outcomes and the need for assessment together. I don’t want to copy your program, but we can learn together. Let’s put some guiding “goal setting” questions up on the conference page so that people can come in with an intentional plan for learning and connecting – even if they don’t follow it. Let’s help each other learn how to use social media and some of the other technology out there – not present on how important it is, but really sit down together and learn HOW to use it. Let’s skip the wine and champagne and just sit down together. Let’s focus on growing and connecting. That’s the kind of conference I want to attend.

    There another large piece of this that is ruminating for me, and it’s probably going to be a blog post, soon (more focused on our move toward credentialing, but the themes I’m struggling with are similar). The big annual conventions are typically cheaper than the institutes you mention at the end of your post. Many of those institutes run in the $600 – $700 range. Compared with $350, my funds will stretch much further at an annual convention. In addition, my institutions have been more likely to send me to an annual convention so that I can recruit/interview candidates. I’m also involved in a directorate, so in many ways, that makes my choice. I would love to be able to be involved at the national level – where I connect with amazing people, but also be able to attend an institute. But the real issue here is the money, right? Whether your institution is paying or you are paying, the money has to come from somewhere and we have to be able to afford it.

    A lot of the post-ACPA blog posts I have read have focused on the connections people made at conference. The learning and growth was there, in the conversations and in the challenges from the people whom we trust. Not that we didn’t take some learning away from our programs, but it mostly came from the people.

    • Erica, your comment is a blog post on it’s own. WOW! Thanks for sharing those thoughts and calls to action. Institutions are more expensive but you know what, I think that participants get their monies worth. I think that experience has more of an effect on people and the effect is longer lasting and stronger. Not sure what it is, but definitely seems to be the case.

      • Thanks, Joe. I should put it on my blog, huh! And I agree with you, institutes are 100% worth their cost : ) Glad we can “talk” on this issue.

  5. Thanks for your input, Ed. I meant to mention in my comment that it seems like there are some “radical” voices here that may or may not represent a large number of association members. It’s easy to feel like “we all” feel this way, but I’ve cultivated my twitter feed and the blogs I read to mostly include people who feel the same way and need to remember that this is not the only voice.

  6. Joe-
    This is a great post and I will have to print, re-read, highlight and share with the OASPA/OCPA Conference Planning team as we get ready to start planning for 2013. As a much smaller statewide conference – maybe we have that intimacy naturally to make it a better conference experience for everyone. Thanks for motivating me to take a look at the way it’s always been done!


  7. Thanks for this Joe. I commented on, I think Valerie’s blog, a few months back about a similar topic. As I have two feet, I have feet in two different worlds, one being higher ed the other being experiential and outdoor education. One of the greatest professional development opportunities I had to chance to experience was a “facilitator play date” where we paid something around $ 20 for this one day experience put on by the outdoor program from George Mason. We arrived, did a little expectations and goal setting and literally planned out the sessions then and there. Folks wrote what session/what they wanted to learn on pink paper and what they could teach/lead on green paper. We then collectively built a schedule around this. It was very much in the vein of open space technology. Now, as an experience gets larger, this is increasingly more challenging, but I think it’s doable, especially if folks communicate a few weeks in advance, and if they don’t communicate, like voting, you don’t have the right to complain that your need was not met. This could be a way to accomplish many needs, especially on a regional level.

    • Gavin,

      This –> Folks wrote what session/what they wanted to learn on pink paper and what they could teach/lead on green paper. — blows me away.

      Love that idea. Thank you for reading and sharing!!

  8. Love this post, Joe – some great questions asked and thought-provoking, as always. I’m currently on the committee for a regional conference, and I’ve been trying to encourage more “unsessions”/discussion time, as well as workshops as opposed to general sessions like we’re used to. I think we also need to recognize that we have a large population that is still not online, still not used to seeking professional/personal development in the ways you and I are, and actually WANTS the typical conference experience – that’s probably repeating Ed’s comment, in a way, but I know that’s where I’ve seen pushback as a “youngin'” (as young as I can be considered :-). But I agree – we need to keep pushing the envelope and developing new ideas.
    And Ed – if I could get to Boston this summer, I’d totally be on for helping you out w/ the unconference. Maybe another year? Or maybe I’ll just have to start one for KC… 🙂

    • Kristen, to quote Chris Conzen, there was a time when we once washed clothes by hand but I think you’d agree the washing machine worked out alright. Drop that line next time you get push back. The typical conference experience isn’t a good experience. We can do better.

      You don’t have to be online to want professional/personal development. If you work in education, your goal should be to constantly get better and learn. Never stop learning.

  9. Whew, I’m FINALLY getting around to reading this. I’ve had it on my Twitter favorites for a while, and I’m trying to work through those “to do” (really, “to read”) items so they don’t simply sit idle!

    Those three quotes definitely resonate. I had precisely the same reaction as the first one in one of the sessions I attended in Phoenix. The second one really gets at one of the issues with the scheduling–there’s no good meal time planned in the schedule, so I ended up missing a mid-day session because I really needed to eat lunch. And I felt the third one, but I couldn’t skip it! I was facilitating with the awesome Lisa Endersby (and it was an awesome roundtable on mentorship, which is continuing via Google Docs).

    I think one of the major issues which you didn’t address here that really impacts the conference experience is the dilemma regarding your perception as an attendee of your institution’s expectations as your funder for attending. Much of what I read in your post relates to trying to make sure you make it worth your institution’s investment, which sacrificing the rich personal and professional development opportunities also available to you as an attendee (which, I’d argue, would be of benefit to your institution as well). I don’t necessarily see this as a zero-sum game, and I don’t see the two as independent of each other as well. The fact that you skipped a session to spend time with colleagues you don’t regularly see in-person and discuss life/work/social media/the game/etc could be more valuable to your institution than it perceives (though would take some creative selling to argue the point).

    In other words, I think part of the conversation needs to involve making the point to our institutions that the personal benefits of attending conferences can be just as valuable as the institutional benefits from attending sessions directly related to your job description.

    If our institutions had the faith that our personal development was just as valuable to them as our ability to “recycle” programs on our own campuses, I think the conference conversation would look very different.

    And I have to say, I’m torn between your perspective and Ed’s on the conference keynote issue. At NASPA we were complaining about the fact that WiFi was not automatically provided as part of the conference experience (and honestly, conference venues should automatically provide WiFi for any meeting–it’s outrageous that they get away with charging what they do for something that should be a basic utility like water fountains or restrooms), and we were informed about why (the horrendous cost charged by the Phoenix Convention Center). Your point about shifting some of the cost we budget for our keynotes could easily have covered that cost (unless it became standard with conference center rental, then no worry!). But I think Ed makes a good point that it ups the conference’s image and reputation to be able to advertise the level of keynotes that both NASPA and ACPA have been able to attract, and I do think that plays a role in the level of seriousness institutions perceive in these conferences in deciding the worth of funding attendees. I’ll have to mull that over a bit, but you make a great point there.

    Thanks for posting this! And you are right–less free pens, notepads, and other superfluous giveaways and bring in folks who can meet the needs of a greater proportion of the attendees! I know part of the balancing act is the fact that these vendors subsidize a great deal of the conference costs, but you are right–I really only visited a number of them to check out their giveaways and drawings. I’m a PhD student headed for an academic career. I will not be purchasing software which better manages student conduct files.


  10. Here’s an additional thought to chew on. There’s been a lot of arguments (which I find valid) for developing yourself professionally by going to conferences outside of student affairs because 80% of innovative ideas are outside of your profession. Don’t the “big speakers” offer this “outside” perspective?

    That was an “aha” moment for me today. I’ve always been a little annoyed at the big speakers (probably because I’ve seen enough that don’t really seem to understand what we do – which has greatly improved in recent years). Now I’m thinking about them differently.

    But I still want internet. And to be able to get wi-fi / phone access in all meeting rooms (hello – basement sessions at #ACPA12 – meant I couldn’t tweet!).

    • Does a 45 minute talk give you enough innovation versus an entire conference that is outside of higher ed? Spending three days looking at things through a higher ed lens or spending 45 minutes trying to determine how a speakers message ties to higher ed. which is better?

  11. I loved this post. Have you been to LeaderShape Institute? Though it focuses on our student’s experiences, the dynamics of that kind of organized conference for students is amazing. I want a “LeaderShape” for me as a professional in student affairs! Can that happen? I think YES! The innovation that happens for college students everyday from us should be happening with us at conferences while surrounded by other professionals. I would LOVE to see a photographer take head shots for us, I would also love to sit down and talk to my state representative at a conference. Invite them to be a part of a think tank with constituents from their state institutions to discuss the future of higher education. It would also be amazing to have “walk and talks” with professionals in the field like mini mentoring sessions. You could be matched randomly with a professional in your field and walk the city that the conference is held in to discuss your journeys in student affairs. Almost every conference (large scale) is in a bigger city that you rarely get to enjoy while at the conference, so why not make it a “walk and talk” while touring a city together to gain inspiration and innovative ideas.

    • Erin,

      Never been to LeaderShape but have applied to to facilitate and will apply again in the near future. Have you heard of the Big Ideas Conference (name changing soon)? They did something that totally changed the “typical” student affairs conference model. The other one, although more specialized in topic focus, is SAtechBOS which has also thrown a wrench in how conferences should/could work.

      Thanks for reading and for the ideas! Really liking the “walk and talk” through the city.

      Rock on ,


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