It is not going to be long now. Soon enough we will all pile into ballrooms and convention centers, remove our masks, and begin conventioning again. And I use the term conventioning because I believe it is a verb of sorts. The act of attending convention. And I LOVE a good convention. Every year I gear up and register for convention X because you know this one expert who was also feature in this one thing to talk about this other thing will be there. Also, I hear Cincinnati is lovely this time of year and there are so many great restaurants to choose from. I got a presentation as well; you know it is on this thing that I have been researching about. And my favorite part! The exhibit hall. A wonderland of free pens, business cards, and offers for services I will never contract with. Did you hear this year they are adding a sundae bar to get you there? Sign me up!
Of course, the conventioning leads from the session you just sat in and for the life of you cannot remember who was presenting; was it the old sage from prestige west coast university and their idea we could never afford or the eager young professional from the regional 4 year with the questionable data? Who cares, time to hit the lobby bar! THE LOBBY BAR! I have not seen you in forever friend!
Look, I am not here to bang on conventions. Some of my best ideas and friends came from attending conventions. But if I have learned one thing during the COVID crisis, I may have been too focused on their value and not looking for more effective and efficient ways to develop myself and enact change. Here is why. There are many benefits from attending a conference and I have enjoyed all of them in some respect. For example, I often attend a conference and present to get real time feedback on my projects and work. As mentioned before I find and make new friends at these conferences and they result in new research and professional partnerships. I get to hear from my peer group and learn about innovations in our field or to learn more about traditional solutions. I know I have become better at presenting and communication because of conference going. When you present as much as I have, I am sure the difference is noticeable. And yes, I do like visiting new cities and seeing new places. I have eaten at some great restaurants. Probably one of my favorite aspects has been the opportunity to meet many of my student affairs heroes. That has been cool. George Kuh is an actual human and I have had dinner with him! Finally, there is nothing like a late-night debate in the lobby bar over a new research finding. Its liberating.
But here are the sobering facts. As we emerge from the COVID fog there will be three factors that will make us rethink these mass gatherings.
- Budgets will become constrained the proof of concept for more local and regional meetings along with expanded online offerings will force a contraction. Western Governors University wrote about this not too long ago. They mentioned that as an online provider they found online worked for keynote and mass messaging events and their employees were more impacted in a workshop setting with longer time on task and more narrow themes. This allows both shallow and deep learning to happen, and its cheaper.
- Many of us realized how much time we spent preparing for, traveling to, and being at conferences and conventions and we like having that time back. I have found that our Consortium is more productive working online than when I was trying to get everyone in a room. I can get a vice president to commit to two hours, but two days was a bit much.
- I feel like we have more choices now. By not limiting ourselves to the conference program everyone is free to present. It is democratic. That session you got rejected for. You can do that now. While that might result in a smaller attendance level, the attendance should be more impactful and allow all sorts of growth.
I am proud that the Florida Consortium has already gone down this road. Our conferences including our National Student Success Conference have been developed with intimacy and complexity in mind. We intentionally keep registrations low and give expanded session times along with the ability of participants to meet and work on projects during session times. It is a new way of doing this work and it is exciting. Our hope is that in time we will build a better conference that is regional in nature, national in ideas, and provides a place to learn and experiment. Imagine a conference where instead of sessions there were blocks of time where we could feature:
Keynotes in the cloud
Data and Practice Bootcamps
So many possibilities. So, while I will always love a good Convention, I am not sure that is what we need forever.