Why Academics Gather on Each Other's Campuses In Summer

How cross-institutional communities of practice connect.

August 6, 2018

This week, experiential learning educators from around the country will gather on my campus for the inaugural DELTA Summit. This convening follows a Librarians Active Learning Institute (LALI), and a Digital Learning Writing Retreat.

The template for all future campus-based cross-institutional summer gatherings was probably laid down by the Dartmouth 1956 Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence. 

Have you hosted or attended a campus-based summer academic workshop?

These summer gatherings feel very different than traditional academic conferences. They are smaller, more intimate, and more relaxed.

Summer campus academic gatherings are less structured than traditional disciplinary and professional conferences. They allow space for writing, reflection, and connection that are difficult to come by in a typical conference.

As we progress through our academic careers, what we want from conferences changes. At some point, what is most valuable is not the content - the sessions and the speakers - but the connections with colleagues.

In academia, our closest colleagues often work at peer institutions. We need time listen to what each other is doing.  We need to bolster each other up. Often, we are collaborating on a project with a colleagues from another school, and we just need time to get some work done together.

At traditional conferences, we tend to do the work of connecting and collaborating around the margins of the event. Early in the morning, between sessions, and in the evenings.

Campus-based academic gatherings invert the structure of a traditional conference.  People are coming mostly to spend time with one another, and to do work together, and not to engage in “professional development”.

Campus-based events have a DYI feel.  There is no professional association staff planning and running the event.  The people putting on the gathering are the participants. These are grass-roots and community organized academic gatherings. This also makes these convenings less expensive for the participants, as conference fees tend to be low as they are not funding the other work of a professional association.

We are long past the days where work mostly stops in the summer.  Our universities haven evolved in to 24/7 year-round operations. Still, some rhythms of summer academic life seem to persist. Folks seem just a bit more relaxed in the summer. Warm weather that encourages walking around, and gathering for meals outside, certainly helps.  Campuses at most schools seem a bit less crowded and frenzied in the summer.

The past few years I’ve attended campus events for my digital learning innovation community at ASU, CSU Channel Islands, and the University of Michigan.  Even in winter, campus-based academic meetings are my favorite way to gather.  Although summer is best.

There are some downsides of building our cross-institutional communities of practice around campus events. Campus gatherings are smaller than traditional academic meetings. The small size is necessary because the hosts are also the participants, and because the events are held in classrooms and not conference centers.  There are only so many people a school can reasonably host for a convening.

Small gatherings are wonderful in many ways. They allow time for the participants to strengthen relationships. Trust can be built. Everyone can be an active contributor to the discussions.

What is gained in intimacy at small campus academic convenings is lost in inclusiveness.  Small campus events don’t have the diversity of voices of larger professional gatherings.  Often there is not enough space for everyone who would like to come.

Running a campus event can also be lots of work for the hosts. The best campus gatherings share the planning work across many hands on different campuses.  Coordination and planning take time, a commodity that is become ever-more scarce.

Despite these limitations, I’ve become more convinced that the unstructured campus gathering is a model that we should follow for our professional and disciplinary based academic convenings.

We should meet when the weather is good.

We should trust folks enough to have less structure and less content.

We should use our off-campus time to get collaborative work done with our colleagues from other colleges and universities.

We should move beyond the idea that convenings are for professional development, and think of them instead as opportunities to build knowledge in our disciplines.

We should spend less time in hotels and conference centers, and more time on each other’s campuses.

What has your experience been with hosting or participating in campus-based cross-institutional gatherings?

Is summer also your favorite time to hang out with colleagues on a college campus?



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