One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work is when I’m invited to speak at a peer institution.
Last week, I was invited by Jason B. Jones, Director of Educational Technology at Trinity College (and co-editor of the widely read ProfHacker blog) to visit Hartford to speak Trinity’s Spring Institute for Teaching & Technology.
This was the very best sort of speaking gig, as Jason asked that I lead a conversation on the liberal arts and technological change. As you may have guessed, this is my very favorite subject on the planet to talk about - and I only wish that the event could have lasted a month rather than part of a day.
In reflecting on my participation in Trinity’s Spring Institute for Teaching & Technology, there are 6 things that stand out as making the time invested so productive:
#1 - Preparation Requires Hard Work and Reflection:
Getting ready to talk about your work with colleagues at another school forces you to think really hard about your work. It is a challenge to synthesize the efforts that you are working on into a presentation that is concise, impactful, and related to what your audience cares about.
Speaking at another campus is great practice for communicating on your own.
#2 - Academic Folks Are Incredibly Gracious, Positive, and Welcoming of Visitors from Other Schools:
Can you imagine if everyone was as nice to you at your own school as colleagues are when you visit there school? That would be ridiculous, and exhausting for all involved, and besides we are already pretty collegial at our own schools to begin with.
It cannot be denied, however, that if you want to feel good about your place in the universe - then take a trip. Higher ed is particularly great (I think) at warmly welcoming colleagues from other schools. We are so happy when people from other schools come to our campus to speak. And speakers coming from near and far are always given the VIP treatment.
#3 - Listening to Colleagues in Their Home Environment, Is Different - and Better:
The main reason (I think) to speak at other schools is to learn things that we can bring home to our school. There is some way that you learn more from peers when you are speaking to them on their home turf. You can learn lots from blogs, tweets, and conferences - but there is no substitute to seeing with your own eyes how the work is playing out.
The reason that you learn so much more from campus visits, as opposed to conferences or online, is that you see the work in context. You can see not only the organizational charts, but how the offices are physically arranged. You don’t only hear about the project teams that work on a given initiative, but instead get to have wider ranging conversations with a more diverse set of contributors.
The key, I think, is to leave time for conversation. To treat your presentation as a conversation. And to be clear that your goal as a presenter is not only to share what you know, but to learn as much from the people in the room as possible.
#4 - Speaking At Other Schools Encourages A Different Type of Conversation Than At Home:
There is less risk when speaking on a campus that you don’t work. On our home bases we need to be cautious, conciliatory, modest, and collaborative. When invited to speak at a peer institution we can be bold, outspoken, and provocative. Part of the reason that you have been invited to come to campus, I would bet, is to stir the pot a bit. To get ideas in the mix that may be too controversial or too disruptive for an insider to broach. Since you will not have to do the work that you are suggesting (once you leave campus after your visit), you are free to advocate for big ideas and difficult to reach goals.
Of course, this call for outside speakers to be provocative should be followed with moderation. The worst thing to do is to come to another campus with a message that you have things figured out on your own. In fact, I think you can be more vulnerable somewhere else - as your need to project authority is less.
It is also a good idea to treat every campus visit as a job talk - even if you have no desire or thought to leave your current gig. The world of higher ed is small, and making a good impression on your hosts is always the smart play.
#5 - Traveling to Peer Institutions Builds Relationships and Networks:
Exactly how small is our world of postsecondary digital learning? Has someone quantified our community? It seems to me that our community is small enough that there is a good chance that we will know each other. That we will have connected online, at a conference, or over a project that we are both involved.
It is during visits to other campuses that we build some of our closest professional networks. There is something bonding about seeing a colleague on their home turf. You understand them, and their work, in a whole different light.
#6 - Visiting Another School Is the Best Way to Learn Ideas That Can Be Brought Back Home:
Higher education is a weird industry. We compete fiercely with one another - yet we do everything we can to share with competitors everything that we know. Can you name another industry where the coin of the realm is how much knowledge you can create and can share?
The reason that we share what we know so freely is that our values are so well aligned. We all believe in the power of higher education as an engine to create opportunity. We think that learning and knowledge creation is not a zero sum game, and that we all benefit when each of us improves the quality and access of our schools.
When we take the time to visit our peers we maximize how much we can share, and how much we can learn.
To paraphrase Flaubert, traveling to other campuses makes us modest. Every college and university is doing amazing things today to advance learning on their campuses. The best way to get a sense of these amazing things is to go and see them for yourself.
What has been your experience traveling to other schools to speak about your work?
When you invite someone to your campus, what sorts of talks (and speakers) are the most impactful for your community?
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