There’s a lot to say about conferences and presenting, and a lot of great folks have already said a lot of it.  There was a recent twitter discussion that sparked a blog post, that sparked a ton of other blog posts (including this one).

Here was my initial response to Joe Ginese’s post calling student affairs professionals to do better with conferences (which you should read – right NOW…please):


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 wouldn’t 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.

Ed Cabellon made a great point (read the comments on Joe’s post – they’re worth it): conferences, especially national ones, are serving multiple “masters.”  Ed didn’t say it that way, but that’s the takeaway I got and what is sticking with me now.

My initial response to Ed included thanks for the reminder that although there is an amazing community of student affairs professionals (who I happen to follow and network with on Twitter), this voice is not the only voice, nor is it the most important (as much as we would love for that to be the case).  I value, at my core, the need for questioning and the call for change.  I consider myself an instigator – someone who is not okay with the status quo just because it is the “way we do things.”  That being said, I am also reminded that there are literally thousands of voices to honor and people to educate at a national conference.  That’s right –  thousands.  A huge part of me trusts the educator I have grown into when I say that we can do better with our presentations.  Another huge part of me recognizes that we must also acknowledge what we know about education and development, and that like our work with students, we have to meet our peers where they are, and walk with them.

A few of the “masters” a national conference must serve:

  • student affairs professionals of all levels of experience (1 – 50+ years)
  • graduate students
  • undergraduate students intending to enter the field
  • professors of graduate programs of study
  • researchers
  • practitioners
  • large universities
  • small private colleges
  • for-profit institutions
  • community colleges
  • international institutions
  • stated values of the association and field
  • stated professional competencies (and trying to meet them)
  • herding the cats that are volunteers – those people who do all the planning, program reading, and a ton of the other work that goes into the conference – people who do this in addition to their “real” job
  • commissions, standing committees, knowledge communities, and other “within association groups”
  • companies who pay to be in the marketplace
  • limits/opportunities of the city & conference center
  • $$$
  • networking needs/desires
  • competition with other professional associations and conferences (within and outside student affairs)
  • people. lots and lots of people. 
I know there are plenty more, but I hope this helps us gain perspective for why things aren’t different…yet.   And I have hope that with understanding, we can seek change.  And there are SO MANY absolutely wonderful ways in which we can do better.
There are a few main points that have come up as a part of this ongoing dialogue around conferences.  Here are the ones I have found are vital to our understanding if we want to impact change.  This is by no means an all-inclusive list.  It’s just what I have found to be important as I wrestle with how #wecandobetter.
  • Funding
    •  Who pays – institution or the individual
    • Why is the payment happening – for ideas, for personal development, for networking, etc.
    • What are the expected outcomes of said funding – is there something tangible that needs to be “brought back?”
  • Costs
    • Convention center and accouterments
    • Internet
    • Speakers
    • The non-volunteers
    • The physical needs (printers, curtains, etc.)
  • Learning Outcomes
    • Individual goals
    • Institutional goals
    • Commission/committee/community goals
    • Association goals
    • Oh wait, I said learning outcomes, not goals.  Well, learning the difference there is probably important.
  • Learning Styles
    • Different learning styles: visual – experiential, etc.
    • Different strengths: input, woo, etc.
    • Different personality types (preferences for walking in this world): MBTI types
  • What we know about learning (“good” practices)
    • experiential / active learning
    • communicating high expectations
    • creating safe & inclusive spaces
    • developmental stages
    • cognitive theory
  • What we “know” about good presentations (which have been hashed out in several other places)
  • Networking, Connecting and Relationship-Building
    • how do people connect?
    • natural & organized opportunities
    • opportunities to discuss “what’s up”
    • affirming current relationships & building new
    • what connections are most important?

If you’re anything like me, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed right now.  Add to that the crews and crews of volunteers who turn over every year.  And the expectation (from whom?) that presenting is an important contribution to the association and one’s own professional development.

There’s a lot to muck through.  And yes, we can do better.  But like any change, this won’t happen overnight.  And we need to cross the metaphorical bridge and lead our peers to our side instead of shouting at them to hurry up and get here.

How will you cross the bridge today?


Filed under student affairs, technology

6 responses to “conferencing

  1. Great response, Erica! Thank you for sharing. Your list of “masters” made me stop and think. As a presenter, it’s often too easy to assume that everyone in the room has the same level of understanding as you and comes from a similar professional/educational background to you.

    I once attended a pre-conference workshop on learning outcomes by Keeling & Associates. The experience level in the room (with learning outcomes and assessment) varied immensely, making it impossible to educate everyone in the room at their level. It’s the same with any given conference presentation. You will have those with no prior personal/professional experience in the given topic, but a desire to learn more, to those who could be considered “experts” themselves – although why they attend sessions they already know a lot about is a whole other conversation 🙂

    So, conference presenters are left with a dilemma. Present to a specific target audience, and alienate the others in the room, or present to the middle, and potentially alienate everyone in the room.

    Perhaps session abstracts should be written more like course descriptions, and outline whether prior understanding is a prerequisite: “This presentation will introduce the participant to basic concepts and ideas and is ideal for those looking to learn more about XYZ” or “This presentation will build on the theories and concepts of XYZ, so prior knowledge of ABC is required.”

    I am really enjoying this conversation, and reading the different thoughts on conferences and development. You’re right, we can do better, and it will take time. It’s conversations like this that get that ball rolling.

    • Kate,

      Glad this got you thinking. I feel like it’s an issue we face in the classroom that we’re not as readily transferring to conferences. I run into it a lot when I’m doing social justice “training,” especially when it’s a set group with no break-out/session options.

      You brought up some great questions:
      * how do we “market” programs/sessions?
      * how do we ask presenters to identify ideal audience ?
      * what issues do we face with setting the audience?
      * how do conference/program chairs sort through the multiple layers happening and try to put together a schedule?
      * How is the “space provided” for abstracts, etc. limiting us?

      Keep the thoughts and questions rolling! Thanks for contributing!

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