Why Alt-Acs Go to Conferences

On messy careers, liminal roles, and building cross-institutional communities of practice.

July 26, 2017

We’ve been chatting about conferences this week on IHE.  Dean Dad kicked us off with The Cost of Not Traveling, followed by Colleen Flaherty’s article The Great Conference Con?

The discussion around these pieces got me thinking about my own conference going.  How does alt-ac conference participation differ or overlap with that of traditional academics and administrators?

I’d like to propose 3 gross generalizations:

  • Traditional academics go to conferences to advance knowledge.
  • Administrators go to conferences to learn about and share best practices.
  • Alternative academics go to conferences to figure out what the hell we should be doing.

The reality is that nobody does anything for just one reason. Our motivations are complex. And alt-acs are just as interested in advancing knowledge and sharing best practices as everyone else.

What I’m trying to capture in the alt-ac description of conference going is just how profoundly we are making up our careers as we go.

So many of us in alternative academic roles are the first person at our institutions to hold that job title. There are no examples of how to accomplish the objectives of the job because the job did not previously exist.

My goal when I attend academic conferences is to find someone else who is doing similar work to my own at a different institution. I then ask them every question that I can think of to understand how they have navigated challenges around resources, priorities, staffing, culture, structure, and change.

Many alt-acs are the only person in a position at their institution. We need to attend conferences to find our communities of practice.

Alt-acs often work in the liminal spaces between and across existing organizational boundaries and divisions. Our work is often characterized by efforts to initiate new projects, pilots or experiments - efforts with little track record and often small chances of success.  We fail more than we succeed.

The work of an alternative academic attending a conference is not primarily giving or attending presentations or talks - but rather engaging in conversations. These conversations with colleagues from other schools depend on a certain level of trust. After all, we are not talking about all the things that we are doing right on our campuses, but rather what we are doing wrong and need to do better.

That ability to show vulnerability can only come in situations where we feel bonded and close to our colleagues at other institutions - and that development of trust does not happen on webinars or over e-mail.  We need to spend time talking together, sharing meals, and listening to one another.

Whatever success in advancing digital learning that I’ve had at my own school owes mostly to what I’ve learned from colleagues and peers at other schools.  It is hard to overstate just how small our community is, how much we know and depend on each other, and how much we rely on our peers at other schools to be effective in our jobs.

My sense is that the design of conferences that alternative academics attend have not kept up with the needs of the community. A good alt-ac conference would prioritize the building of trust, the dense sharing of unstructured information, and the space for informal exchange of ideas. Truthfully, I have no idea how to pull this off.

How would you design a conference for alternative academics?

Why do you go to conferences?


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