The conversation started by All About Development was (and still is) overwhelming. Allow me to continue my thoughts from that sleep deprived and annoyed post with another one focusing on the programs/sessions that occur during a conference.
There have been a number of great posts that have been shared, written, commented on since that post last week. Check here, here, here, here, and here. I’m also still working on the schedule for the Google Hangout. I’m thinking next week this will happen.
I want to discuss the programming structure. This is nothing new for me. I started this conversation outside of a fantastic panel discussion at NASPA Region I conference in Sturbridge, MA. It was me, Dean Elmore, and Valerie Heruska talking about how there was no talk about Penn State or the economy in Greece at the conference. Two issues at the peak of their attention on news stations around the country and they weren’t even on the table for discussion. Why? Because we do conferences wrong and have been for years.
Disclaimer: I’m not going to argue the point of the professional development of programs. This is purely the process, accountability, and structure. Content I’ll tackle another day/night.
How does a the call for programs typically go for a conference?
– E-mail goes out TEN months in advance announcing a call for programs (Let’s say May)
– Due date for submissions is SEVEN months in advance (This would be September)
– Successful proposals accepted and presenters notified FIVE months in advance (This is October)
– FIVE months later, the proposal written and submitted SEVEN months before the conference are presented.
We can do better.
How are programs selected?
– Members review and recommend which sessions get approved.
– See above. Yes, read it twice.
We can do better.
Are programs held accountable for what they submitted?
We can do better.
There are so many paths I want to take right now with this post try to follow along.
First, ten months. TEN months. You are telling me that a notice of ten months is necessary to get the amount of programs needed to fill a conference schedule? Are you telling your students now to plan for their housing deposit for the 2013-2014 housing year? Seems a bit like overkill doesn’t it? Heck, it practically kills any opportunity for someone who joins higher education in the Fall semester to do anything (assuming they are coming from out of industry and aren’t totally familiar with annual conferences). “Hey that program I did last semester (spring 09) would make a great program at the annual conference. I can’t wait to present it in the spring of 2010.” We can do better than this folks.
Asking for proposals seven months in advance of the conference seems a bit ridiculous given the technology we have now. Has this timeline changed since the advent of social media? E-mail? It seems like a timeline fit for a time of snail mail and fax machines. How could we not turn this around quicker to allow for more current topics?
I’ll get into what I would do in a second but let me get to this last point. Peer reviewed sessions. I was a first year graduate student and I was reviewing conference program proposals. This was great for my professional growth in the sense of giving me examples of how to write a good (or bad) conference proposal. Personally, this is a fantastic exercise. Professionally, you are letting first year graduate students decide what sessions get presented at a national conference? We can do better. No offense to first-year graduate students, but what training have you had to do this? Oh wait, it is just personal judgment. “Oh I don’t like Pixar movies so this session doesn’t really make sense to me. It probably won’t make sense to anyone else either.” See the flaw? I reviewed conference proposals for one organization that actually had a portal that let you see what other reviewers ranked it (and who they were!). So much for unbiased opinions. “Wait so this SSAO ranked this low, well I can’t rank it high then. They’ll see it and I can’t disagree with them.” Face meet palm.
Finally, I could write this fantastic proposal with all the bells and whistles. The conference could arrive and guess what? Whoops, the presentation didn’t take the form we thought it would. Instead of the promised laser show, we have some noise makers and will break out to small groups to kill time. Is anyone holding presenters accountable for following through on their proposal? If you say, “well the organization is it’s members,” please DM me or e-mail me so we can talk. My presentation could be terrible but guess what? It will still go on my resume saying I presented at XYZ conference. We must do better.
I’m not just about thoughts. Here are some ideas to propose to help move this “issue” forward.
First, I know most organizations have buckets that you can say your presentation falls into (leadership, technology, diversity, social justice, etc). That’s a fun way to characterize, organize, and advertise the sessions but there is room for improvement there.
Step 1: Self identify. “I’ve presented nationally and/or regionally…0-3 times, 4-6 times, 7-9 times, 10+ times.” This gives the reviewer some perspective and sets expectations appropriately. Would you stick around for a session if you knew it was from someone who has presented more than 10 times? I would. Guess who gets those morning sessions? Yup. The presentation “pros”, how’s that for a carrot? People will wake up for those. Yes, this is counter-intuitive. Why not give pros the prime time slot? Well, they didn’t get to be pros overnight. Someone had to give them a chance, and quite frankly, presenting to a half full room at 7:30 a.m. is not a way to reward a new presenter for putting themselves out there.
Step 2: Proposal identity. The conference theme determines 1 to 5 buckets/tracks for presentations. Presentations can only go in one bucket. One bucket must be current topics which means the timeline is truncated and much shorter than 10 months. Buckets are clearly defined, with separate rubrics, and specific reviewers. Buckets are structured into the conference. Day 1 =bucket A and B in the morning. bucket C and D in the afternoon. Day 2 = bucket C and D in the morning. bucket A and B in the afternoon. Day 3 = User created buckets voted on starting night of Day 1 and all day until night of Day 2. Could you imagine a conference changing mid-conference to appeal to the needs/desires of attendees by the last day?! The last day is user generated. WHO WOULDN’T WANT TO STAY TO SEE WHAT THEY VOTED ON AND CREATED?! Engagement starts as soon as the conference kicks off. Talk about being bold without boundaries….
Step 3: Send a sample. That’s right, this means no procrastinating. With the truncated timeline, if you are planning on presenting asking for a 3-slide, 60 second presentation preview for your session shouldn’t be a problem. (I’m sure many scripts look great on paper but horrible on film. This is no different for proposals.)
Conference Session Selection
I love the volunteer effort. I really do, I think I’ve benefited from volunteering my time to review sessions. Let me ask you this though, if you are building a house do you want a volunteer who has never held a hammer building your house? (Yes, I’ve done this with Habitat for Humanity but even they have supervisors watching the volunteers.) I didn’t think so. You want someone trained in what you are doing so you know if you are doing it correctly. How come we don’t? What ever made me qualified to say whether or not a presentation will be great for the conference and attendees? We need training. We need a better rubric. We need to have “volunteer” program reviewers have…*cringe* credentials to do so. Back to the house reference, house inspectors need to be trained to inspect houses. If a conference is our home of professional development, who the heck is inspecting it and are they qualified to do so? We can do better.
We need secret shoppers. Seriously. Don’t give me the “a organization is its members” sch-peal. Should a room of my peers give me enough incentive to perform well? Yes, yes it should. Would having someone there that is an official “judge” help step my game up that much more? Absolutely. What does this mean? It means that the review submitted by the judge is an official document from the organization. This translates into professional portfolio materials (see LinkedIn recommendations and/or justification for spending department money to present). The reviews that are returned to presenters FOUR months after the presentation are constructive how? Heck, four months later my presentation could have been revamped three times over and morphed into something different. FOUR MONTHS. WE. CAN. DO. BETTER. How can we not do live feedback forms that people fill out as the session goes online? How is this not possible?
If you want to say I’m all talk. Go for it. I hope to be in positions to possibly join conference committees (regional, national, virtual) when the job search process settles down and I can actually be settled in a region. I write as a call to action and believe me I’m ready to serve whoever wants to have me help them make these thoughts reality in any way, shape, or form.
We can do better. This is a call to action. A call to thought. A call to start a conversation.
What do you think of the conference session proposal/selection process? Have you seen something that works really well in a different industry? Engage. Find your voice and share it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think.