It's no secret that conferences often need themes as vehicles for marketing and focus. However, themes can be limiting and the ever-present "applicability to conference theme" checkbox for reviewers is a hurdle that some submissions can never get past. For their 2014 annual conference, NASPA has decided to add a new type of session to the mix. Dubbed "Members' Choice," these sessions are similar in nature to some of the unsessions from years past. Having lead some of the unsession slots the last few years, I am appreciative that NASPA has maintained some spots for those topics that don't necessarily "fit" the usual "mold" but are still "critical conversations student affairs professionals should be having."
One of my hopes for the 2014 Members' Choice sessions is that the spirit of disruption, innovation, technology, dissonance, and relevance from the "unsession era" continues. The choice portion of these sessions comes from a social-media-based submissions process. Student affairs practitioners can submit their idea for a "Choice" session using three options: a comment on the announcement page, a tweet with the #NASPA14 hashtag, or a post on the NASPA Facebook page. According to NASPA, the "top ideas will be voted on by NASPA membership in January with a few more wild cards to be determined at the conference."
Now, one of my concerns about this process is that it favors those of us who are plugged into social media. However, I'm sure that if you contacted NASPA via email, carrier pigeon, fax, or snail mail, they would still add your idea to the mix. In previous years, I've given unsessions at NASPA's Annual Conference on social media, digital identity, technology, and the future of the profession. It's a lot of fun to facilitate a session that didn't get squeezed through the normal submission process. If you have a great idea, and you didn't submit it / you didn't get accepted, I would highly suggest that you revisit your topic as a potential Members' Choice option.
Lastly, it's great to see NASPA experimenting with the structure of their annual conference. Whether or not members will be comfortable with this slightly unstructured approach remains to be seen. I think there's a lot of room for change and innovation with how the event is structured. Ideally, the Members' Choice option is just a continuation of a conference/association evolution that increases participation, learning, and creativity within the field.
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