Doing conferences wrong? Response to @JoeGinese.

Joe Ginese posed an interesting question today on Twitter with a follow up post on his blog. I had a number of thoughts, so I wanted to address them here where I could freely write. Twitter response wouldn’t do it in this instance.

Joe says, “We do conferences wrong and have been for years.

Now he covers a number of issues, and I’m not going to rehash them all. Please read the article for yourself and either respond in the comments section or write a blog response.

First off – I agree with Joe’s general sense of how conferences can be intellectual roller coasters (he didn’t say that, but that’s what I thought of while reading his post). You go to a session and feel like “Yes, I totally came away with a new idea!” or “Man, that session wasn’t what I thought it would be” or “What a waste of time when I could have gone to that other session instead.” Up and down, up and down.

BUT, I do want to share what I was thinking with some of his key points.

“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.”

I whole heartedly agree and wrote a post about this topic myself not too long ago. I want to be an innovative creator utilizing the strengths of the institution I work for, not using someone else’s brilliant ideas.However, as with all things – there are exceptions.

At ACUI’s Annual Conference in Boston, I attended a quick session on iPad usage in Student Unions. This was a perfect session for me and was an example of a session that wasn’t a waste of time and had a ton of takeaways that will help me professionally and will help the office I work for. So many people want to know how to justify iPads, but don’t know how. I get asked all the time how we use ours in Campus Activities – but I know my usage may or may not be helpful for others. I did present about how we use ours for assessment, walk arounds during events, and etc. all utilizing Evernote in my “All About Technology” Pre-Conference session – but this other session I attended about iPads covered so many other items and did it quickly with programs and apps and etc. for attendees to research on their own. Current info, covered many different audiences and I could go check the relevant info out myself on my own time. This is a case of not recycling some one else’s ideas so much as this session provided concrete ways to improve my work flow and help the institution in terms of running our programs more efficiently, while being mobile. They highlighted apps to use, but let us come up with the ways in which to use them for our own programs and services.

“You know what else inot 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.”

Oddly enough, I would usually jump right on this train. Joe, I am usually the person at the table begging for fewer keynote speakers. However, I did want to point out one thing. If a speaker motivates us, thanks for our service – I cannot push them off just for this. As Student Affairs practitioners I believe we NEED motivation, we need to hear that the work we do is valuable. We don’t hear this enough. We don’t get that validation as often as we should, and its nice to hear it from someone outside our profession. Nothing wrong with a little motivation. I just appreciate it in doses.

“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.”

I agree with Valerie that having a someone provide head shots to attendees is an AWESOME idea. I need one of those myself. Tried snapping a photo of myself for my Twitter account in my hotel room only to be called out by someone who recognized the photos since they had them on their wall too.

But as to replacing marketplace vendors with personal service providers, again I take the middle and say a nice addition would be having both. To combine this thought with another one:

“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.”

I have to say I’d definitely approve of ditching the novelties at night and add more personal service vendors at the expo. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to a NASPA or ACPA conference in a while, so I don’t know how beneficial (or not) the vendors are – but with ACUI – most of the vendors are very useful IF you’re running a Student Union. I myself am purely Activities in my position here at Binghamton U, so most of the vendors are not relevant. I would be happy to attend the Expo if there was more for me to do there (besides Lunch).

Lastly, I do have to say that if our institutions are paying for us to attend these conferences, they obviously want some return on their investment which means that they want you to come back with institutional ideas and something that will benefit them. Which is why I think folks are looking for those quick 3 ideas or whatever that they can come back with that they can implement right away to justify their attendance. Institutions should also value the learning and knowledge gained for the professional themselves. Oh my lord, I could go on for days!

To those of you losing confidence in conferences – let your voice be heard. If you want “unconference” sessions built into the conference like ACUI did (there was a session about Hunger Games!) then tell the folks in charge what you want! Demand stronger regional conference offerings. Suggest drive-in type events ONLY if they contain what you need from them. Get out there and volunteer! Commit to put your time and efforts out there to changing the way things are done. It’s possible. Our CPT changed the schedule to have regional dinners right after regional meetings (new) and then also started a conference wide service project (new). Every conference has an element of innovation allowed to it. Change is possible – it just takes someone out there to start it!

Such a great topic for conversation and I applaud Joe for starting it. Let’s keep it going – because this is the time. Next year’s conferences are in the planning stages NOW!

10 thoughts on “Doing conferences wrong? Response to @JoeGinese.

  1. Jeff Pelletier (@JeffBC94) says:

    I hope you didn’t think I was calling out your photo in a bad way – I defintiely found it funny, and was more pointing out the fact that all of our rooms had identicals pictures! If anything, it was more of a knock on Marriott for being boring. 🙂

    Also, I’m with you on doing away with some of the novelties expenses in favor of things we might be able to use for ourselves. I know it’s great to see what a company like Fun Enterprises can do, so that you might consider bringing them to your campus (I’m sure many activities folks took this as a takeaway), but what I am I going to do with an air-brushed hand basketball when I get it home? Not as much as I might do with a professional headshot, fun business cards or some of the other suggestions mentioned.

    Great response to a great post!


    • Jennifer Keegin says:

      Basically, during ACUI there was a bulletin board that allowed folks to jot down topics that they really wanted to talk about. Then other attendees could sign up to facilitate discussions around those areas of interest. I mentioned Hunger Games, but there were some on all kinds of topics. I liked the free form spontaneity of it all. My session unfortunately wasn’t exactly facilitated. It was about how Marriott handled the power outage and the gentlemen really just told us about what happened and then how they handled it and we asked questions. But I loved it. I liked that it was added in because it’s something that those of us in CUAD would want to know about crisis management.


  2. kate kinsella says:

    Great post! I always think it’s important to have a conversation with your supervisor before heading off to a conference. You need to know what is expected of you (any particular sessions or functions they want you to attend and what you’ll need to share when you return to campus) and balance that with your own goals for the conference.

    You’re so right about the need for feedback. If there is something you don’t love about a conference, or have an idea, send it along to the organization so they can try to make it better/incorporate new ideas. Nothing more frustrating than people who complain about things, and do nothing to try to make it better.

    Thanks for sharing your POV!


  3. genarstack says:

    Another conference pet peeve of mine: lack of clarity/awareness/disclosure about the depth or breadth of a session. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone to a conference session hoping to learn how to improve something we are doing on campus, only to find the session focuses on how to build that particular program from the ground up (or vice versa – hoped to learn how to initiate something and became quickly overwhelmed because we aren’t at the target level). There’s nothing wrong with “How to…” sessions, but the target audience should be very different from a “How to improve…” session, and it would be helpful if presenters could make this more clear. This may help prevent some of those sessions that aren’t helpful because the ideas are either too basic or well beyond the means of the institution.

    Another though – how often are general “audience” descriptors for professional experience (entry-level, mid-level, SHO, SSAO) or institution type (four-year, two-year, private, public) really helpful? Would it be more helpful for the individual presenters to be specific about their target audience? Example: This session is intended for staff members who are looking to begin a faculty-in-residence program. VS This session is intended to show staff members from campuses with faculty-in-residence programs how to improve collaboration and develop more meaningful relationships among students, staff, and faculty.


    • Jennifer Keegin says:

      Great points! I usually try to figure that out before attending a session, but its not always very clear. Our whole Late Night Programs Community of Practice was started because there was only one session at ACUI regarding LN programs and it was about a program that held events ONCE a month. Meanwhile, most of us in the room had long standing programs (over 10 yrs or so) and wanted to know how to shake up programs when we do events every weekend, two nights a week. I also find folks don’t pay attention to the intended audience…EVER. LOL. I like your suggestion to have more specific intended audience statements.


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