I recently enjoyed one of those marvelous Thursday evenings when neither writing nor Netflix demanded my attention, and was drawn the evening’s #sachat focusing on conference attendance. It is, after all, the most wonderful time of year as NASPA, ACPA, and a number of other spring conferences came back around for their annual visits. Spring is an appropriate metaphor for conference season as it brings both symbolic and tangible opportunities to shake off the winter chill and re-energize with new life as we approach the end of another academic year.
In my final thought of the chat, I posted this:
FT Conf's have 2 equal objectives: Learn/grow as a pro, AND re-energize, have fun, relax. Both make us better educators. #sachat
— Craig W. Beebe (@craigbeebe) February 27, 2015
By my introverted nature I should probably hate conferences, with their perpetual noise and all that, how do I say this… human interaction. But Conference Craig loves conference season. More on him in a moment lest I get ahead of myself.
I love conferences for two reasons. As a perpetual student, there is simply no better time or place to get actual information from actual people who are doing actual work in our field. But conferences are also a time for relaxation, rejuvenation, and reconnection.
As professionals in higher education, we have a duty not only to our institutions, but to the profession itself. Above all else, we are responsible for modeling the type of learning and behavior that we expect to see from our students and colleagues back on campus. There are a few personal rules that I like to live by at conferences:
Show up. Early sessions can be tough, but that means no fighting for seats! Also, consult the conference schedule before making travel arrangements. Nothing diminishes the buying power of the professional development budget faster than cutting a day off of your conference experience because you have to catch an early flight.
Go to sessions that might normally not interest you. Liberal education is powerful because it provides a broad foundation of ideas, language, and theories upon which to draw. Avoid the temptation to attend sessions just because they are familiar to you. You never know when a session about fiscal management could hold the answer to your staff scheduling problem (and I know you have one!)
Have a learning agenda. Why are you attending this conference? What do you want to learn? Think in terms of vertical and horizontal learning. Are you hoping to deepen your knowledge in a particular area (vertical)? Or do you want to expand your foundation of knowledge (horizontal)? Ask lots of questions. Presenters love to talk about their material. If you can’t catch them after their session, look them up and shoot them an email when you get home.
Just as important to your experience is taking the opportunity to reconnect with yourself and with colleagues. We’ve all had the feeling that after time away from the office we need a vacation day to recover. But our work never stops.
Prepare for your departure. The last thing you need is to be worried about unfinished business back home. Whittle down your inbox and set your away message. Check off what you can from your to-do list, delegate any urgent matters that are still unfinished, and be okay putting the rest on pause so you can be in the moment at your conference. If you know you will need a recovery day afterward, request it up front.
Plan your social agenda. We all have those people that we simply must meet at conferences. But you are probably not the only one. Reach out before the conference with a quick email or tweet. Don’t be shy about inviting others to chat, whether it’s just a handshake after a session or a quick lunch. But don’t be overbearing. Be respectful of others’ time and remember that they have their own networks and priorities.
Shine! Remember Conference Craig? He doesn’t just come out naturally. He needs preparation. Be thoughtful in your approach to conferences. A lot of us struggle in overwhelming social situations, so get yourself ready. Get plenty of sleep, use colleagues you already know as introduction points for getting to know new people, and take breaks when you need them. Also, coffee helps.
Attending a conference is an investment in yourself, your campus, and your profession. Have a plan, prepare yourself, show up, and let Conference You shine!
> BONUS <
Podcast With Joe Ginese on Maximizing Conferences