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The Prodigal Academic has a nice primer on the ways that new academics -- especially graduate students -- should handle conference travel. It’s about the importance of networking, the informal chatter between sessions, and visibility. It’s all true, as far as it goes, but it got me thinking about a very different primer I might offer for more senior people at teaching-intensive institutions.

Conference selection is probably the most important part. At most community colleges and teaching-intensive, non-selective four-year colleges, travel funding is relatively thin and teaching loads are pretty high. On the bright side, the “rat race” side of the research competition -- seeing and being seen by the right people -- matters a lot less.  That means you’re often free to skip the big national disciplinary conferences in favor of either more regional ones or ones more focused on teaching.  (In math, for example, AMATYC is often of more relevance to community college faculty than the university-focused version.) For disciplines that take teaching seriously enough to devote conferences to it, these can be valuable.

But an even better idea, if you’re willing, is to go to the occasional conference in a field about which you don’t know a lot. I call it going in “sponge mode” -- just absorb what you can. That might mean something like CUR, the AAC&U, the AACC, or even something like #RealCollege.  

The first time you try something like that, it can be disorienting. If you’re accustomed to going to the same conference or two, when you go at all, a new one in a different field often means knowing very few people there. I had a taste of that a couple years ago when I went to a Middle States conference for the first time, having previously attended (and presented at) NEASC for several years. I had reached the point with NEASC where I knew enough people that I felt comfortable walking in, knowing I’d soon see somebody I’d be happy to see. Walking into the hall at Middle States for the first time felt a bit uncanny; I had the muscle memory of comfort, but knew almost nobody.  That took a little getting used to.

The joy of going to a strange conference in sponge mode is that the pressure is off. It feels like a really intense graduate tutorial, but in a good way. In those settings, the side comments during presentations are often revealing. They give clues to what’s considered passe, or trite, or insultingly obvious. It’s lines like “we’re not going to food-pantry our way out of this” that really help shift perspective. It’s a sort of defamiliarization that, if you’re open to it, can help you see things you didn’t notice before.

At their best, well-chosen conferences that are a little distinct from what you usually do can shift your sense of what’s possible. I remember the team from Holyoke coming back from a conference at which they saw faculty from Tidewater Community College present on an all-OER degree program. It was one thing to hear about the concept, but something altogether different to see people actually enact it. They came back energized. I remember the same feeling the first time I saw Nikki Edgecombe, from the CCRC, present on students who skipped the remedial classes into which they had been placed; she found that they did just as well in college-level classes as the students who did as they were told. It had never occurred to me even to ask that question.

To me, the greatest danger for senior folks -- faculty, staff, or administration -- is stagnation. The most common version of that comes from isolation, but the second-most common comes from going to the same conference every time.  Mixing them up increases the benefit exponentially.  The same bucks can get you much more bang.

Going into sponge mode at #RealCollege on Monday reminded me of just how valuable moments like those can be. Whether it’s that conference or another one, if you’re at a point where you can skip the “see or be seen” part of travel, picking something new and going with ears open can be rejuvenating. Leave the nametag-gazing behind, and go learn something.


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