Why I love conferences

I’m an avid conference goer.  Ever since my first conference presentation almost 25 years ago, I’ve loved attending conferences and learning more about my field.  Conferences are not just about the actual presentations.  They are also about the conversations around those presentations in the hallways, over drinks and dinner, and on car rides home.  I often use conferences as opportunities to see people I haven’t seen in a long time who are attending the conference or who live nearby, which spawns other great conversations.

I find conferences tend to reinvigorate me and recommit me to my work, because they bring me back to why I do what I do in the first place.  Presentations at conferences are often showcase the good things that are happening–in the classroom, at a school, within a field–and so there’s always an inspirational and aspirational aspect to them.  You either think, “Okay, someone else is able to do that, so can I.  Maybe we’ll try it when we get home.” Or you think, “We’re already doing that. Yay us!”

It’s also great to hear from people who have different perspectives. It allows you to see things from a different point of you, which maybe helps you solve a problem that’s gotten really thorny.  But now that you see it differently, you have a way to approach it and maybe solve it.

And if you’re lucky enough to be with colleagues, you get to spend some quality time with them.  You find out about their families, their first jobs, the foods they like and don’t like.  You round out your view of them, which is always a good thing.  And usually, you find out that you work with some amazing people and that you are looking forward to going back to work with them on Monday.

I got all of that out of NAIS this week, and I will write more about the specifics in a later post, but I just wanted to put a plug in for getting out of your bubble, getting some inspiration, and connecting with others for a couple of days.

Disconnected

The last two summers, I went to several conferences. I wanted to learn more and to connect with people in my new field. This summer, aside from edcamp in May, I went to nothing. There are two or three things going on right now that I could participate in virtually, but I’m not. In part, my lack of conference participation was practical. Every conference I might have participated in was on the west coast, so it was pricey. But mainly, I’m not participating because I have other things I need to focus on and I need a real break. Conferences, even online, wear me out. I’m facing a very busy year next year and I feel like I need to rest, focus on the information I need and ignore the rest.

I see the tweets and blog posts and feel slightly guilty and left out, but I know when that last week of August comes, I’m going to hit the ground running. I’m taking a short trip to see family next week, and potentially one more college visit, and then it’s down to business. I’ll reconnect both virtually and physically. I’ll start getting all my ducks in a row. I’m glad those opportunities are out there. I’ll participate next year, and I have plans for several things in the school year. I like being connected, are all but I can’t be connected all the time.

Conferencing as a family affair

I have just returned from the NCGS STEM Symposium where Mr. Geeky and I were on a panel together.  We had originally submitted a presentation on the partnership we’ve developed between his students and mine, but we ended up on a panel about the pipeline.  It was really interesting and a lot of fun to do.  Because we have children that can’t be left at home, we brought them along.  We left them at the hotel for the first half of the day, and brought them over in time for our session, the last one of the day.  They sat in the back taking photos of us and seemingly listening — hard to tell.  At the end, Geeky Boy asked a question about the relationship between teachers and students and got several responses.  He’s decided he likes conferences and wants to go to more.  We might have a future academic on our hands.

We also spent some time with a couple of teachers and another professor from Wellesley.  Mr. Geeky has new computing platform he’s working on that is not only good for college level teaching, but has appealed to K-12 teachers (me among them, of course).  A couple of teachers contacted him and we met them for dinner and talked CS curriculum and robotics.  They were very nice people and I look forward to sharing resources and working with them.  I’m jealous of their positions–they are in a full CS department where CS is required starting in 6th grade!  It sounds awesome.

The next day, we met physics professor, Robbie Berg from Wellesley who does a lot of work with robotics and microcontrollers.  He helped design the Pico boards I have played around with a bit, and that I’m working on a way to work into some of what I do with my middle schoolers.  We got to see his robotics studio, where they have not only a ton of legos and microcontrollers, but a laser cutter, a 3-D printer, and some other cool equipment.

We had planned to hang around the next day and do some sightseeing in Boston, but it started to rain, and we were exhausted, so we decided to just head home.  We’re planning to make another trek in that direction, perhaps later this summer.  I think this was a good trip for us and the kids.  It was really the first time they’d seen us in a professional setting, talking about our work with others.  They hear it a lot around the house, and, of course, Geeky Girl sees me in the classroom, but it’s different to see how other people react and to participate in the conversation. They both got a good sense of what college is really like, another bonus to our trip.

Edcamp Philly Wrap Up

I spent Saturday at Edcamp Philly, an education-oriented unconference.  If you don’t know what an unconference is, it’s a conference model where presentations are not planned in advance; people just throw up topics the morning of the conference.  I’ve been to several of these, and I like them because the sessions tend to turn into conversations rather than be someone talking at you.  I even gave a presentation myself on Google Docs.

My first session was on 1-to-1 programs, something we are thinking about.  The issue many of us see is that there are now a ton of different devices–laptops, iPads, Android tablets–and many kids have these devices.  What they’re seeing in school is antiquated.  What schools can afford to provide is often older versions of these devices.  On the flip side of that are schools where students don’t have access to that, but it’s still a good idea for the school to provide these devices so that students can do their work at home and at school.  The solution I gravitated toward was one where students brought what they wanted, and through a virtual machine (VMWare more than likely), the school provides the specialized software.  We’ll see what happens.

I attended an interesting session on Professional Development, and I’m happy to say that what I’m planning for our school will likely be something teachers will get a lot out of.  At least I hope so.

I was telling people how last year, I felt like a deer in the headlights at this conference.  I’d just signed my contract.  I had no idea what the school would be like, no idea what teaching K-12 would be like.  And now I feel like a pro.  I still have a lot to learn, no doubt, but I no longer feel like I’m facing the unknown.  I have strategies and ideas, many of which have come from having the kinds of conversations I had at edcamp.  Like last year, though, it left me feeling like I was ready to tackle it all.

More on Academic Conferences

Am I the only one who thinks academic conferences are weird? Why do they feel a little bit like a junior high school dance?

For background, go read this post about my last academic conference. I’ll try not to repeat what I said there. Because I’m not in a discipline, I tend to go to conferences that are interdisciplinary or a little tangential to some established discipline. This is a good thing as the presentations can be on a range of topics. I was recalling some of my earlier Renaissance conferences yesterday. While the Renaissance is a huge period covering several countries, there are some conventions that get repeated at conferences. It can get tiring to hear yet another paper about women’s poor treatment in [insert author]’s work. This latest conference definitely had a wide variety of topics. I heard papers on dna art (very cool), on illness in literature (also cool), twittered subjects (disappointing), and a reading of short stories and essays (perhaps my favorite).

My biggest complaint is the fact that everyone read their papers. This was especially hard on those of us (I’m sure I’m not the only one) who were unfamiliar with the topic being presented. Many of the papers were theory heavy, involving complicated arguments about philosophical positions on consciousness or relationships. Note: people cannot digest such complex arguments in 20 minutes via listening. Perhaps if one is familiar with the theory, one could follow the argument, but most of the time, I could not. Some people, despite reading, did a very good job of distilling the argument into its simplest form. But most did not. Once upon a time, this would have made me feel dumb, but now, I just feel like the people presenting are not doing a good job. If the idea of a conference is to disseminate your ideas to more people, then it seems to me important that the people to whom you’re disseminating your ideas understand them.

The name-tag glance that I mentioned in the previous post was almost non-existent at this conference. And surprisingly, I felt totally comfortable telling people that I was an independent consultant and writer. It helps that I’m not looking for anything from these people. I was there to learn, not to network. During one conversation where I described my background and my current pursuits, someone said, “Wow, you’re really employable!” And that made me laugh, considering my current limbo state. But, I knew that it was also true and why I feel so comfortable (mostly) being in limbo.

The other thing I noticed, and which I mentioned in the other post was the way that people asked questions to promote their own ideas or knowledge. This happened in the very first session, a creative writing reading. Someone asked if the stories could be tied together using some theorist’s work, who said blah, blah, blah. I was rolling my eyes. In Ian Bogost‘s plenary, much of which I found rather difficult to understand, someone did the same thing and he called them on it, saying, “What you’re asking is whether what you’re interested in is at all related to what I just said.” That made me laugh.

The weirdest sensation I had was that of resistance. Some of the sessions actually made me angry at the way they interpreted very practical things, like programming robots, as philosophical conundrums. It’s not that one doesn’t need to have some kind of philosophical stance on the nature of learning in order to program a robot, but a robot does not have a consciousness of its own that one can confront. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you exactly how they made the connection.

Perhaps the most frustrating session along these lines was the one that advertised itself as being about Twitter. I was actually interested in hearing a more theoretical stance on Twitter, but instead, I discovered that they’d used Twitter as a metaphor, dismissing it as a real entity that is having a real impact on how we relate to each other. I doubt any of the panelists even has a Twitter account. And that made me really mad. It was a similar move to using concepts from Artificial Intelligence and programming to talk about the relationship of science to art. The people using those concepts as metaphors have no real idea what those concepts really mean. They’ve never programmed or Twittered or conducted a physics experiment. But I felt like I didn’t have a good counter to their arguments, veering as much as they did from any kind of practical reality. I wish I could have stood up and said, look, I’m a programmer and your metaphor really isn’t working.

I have always been resistance to theory, primarily when it’s drawn from philosophy. What it often feels like to me is that people are drawing on these theories to interpret literature because they’re desperate to make their work more relevant. A philosophical theory arises that changes the way we think about our relationship to the world and the literature people are all over it, using it to interpret everything from Shakespeare to Pynchon. I don’t mean to be unkind. I have seen theories used quite well, but too often, it becomes a mumbo jumbo that only the initiated can understand. It’s at conferences that I most feel that I’m not among the initiated, that I’m not invited to the party.

Academic Conferences

I attended and presented at my first purely academic conference since 2003. I popped my head into the MLA in 2006, but I’m not really counting that. Having attended technology conferences and workshops for the past 5 years, going to this conference was a bit of a shock. First, there was the fact that I didn’t know many people. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, but there were certainly groups of people who run into each other regularly. I’m sure this would change if I kept attending these kinds of conferences, so no big deal.

I’m used to going to conferences and being pretty wowed by the presentations, especially the keynotes. There have been exceptions (ELI 2008, cough, cough), but for the most part, presentations tend to be interesting and inspiring. I wasn’t all that thrilled with the keynotes at this confernece. Given the names of the presenters, I should have been, but alas, I just wasn’t. This may partly be due to my not being embedded in this discipline the way I am in the technology field, but I’m of the mind that a presentation should appeal broadly not narrowly. Even within a discipline, not everyone knows the ins and outs of every subfield or topic. The talk I liked the most was one that my disciplinary colleagues liked the least, in part because the speaker didn’t seem to understand the discipline/audience. I liked the broadness of the talk, the fact that it wasn’t entirely situated within the field. The panel presentations, given by mostly younger people in the field, were much better. More on this later.

Another thing that I’d forgotten about academic conferences was the ever-present name-tag glance. This happens at tech conferences, too, but my feeling has been that this is in the honest attempt to acquire a name, not to see if you’re at the “right” kind of institution. The name-tag glance was part of a generally feeling of competition I felt at the conference. There were lots of conversations about job openings and about people being “on the market” (a phrase that conjures prostitution for me for some reason). And there always seemed to be a kind of grandstanding going on at all times. People were constantly trying to give their “elevator speech” about their latest research. The grandstanding was especially apparent during Q & A at many sessions. The questions weren’t about the presentation per se, but were an attempt to showcase the questioners knowledge of the topic. I would contrast this to the tech conferences I attend where people are often on the lookout for collaborators and conversations center around mutual interests. Questions asked during presentations seek clarity so that the questioner can put the information presented into practice.

Another observation I made had to do with who was giving the keynotes. These tended to be the “older” people in the field, those who’ve been around for quite a while and who have made significant contributions. Of course, it is usual for these people to be the keynoters, but it would have been nice to see some of the “newer” folks doing the big talks rather than being relegated to the smaller panel presentations. There seemed to be a generational divide. It seems a shame to have to wait a generation to hear from some of the new contributors to the field.

Despite these criticisms, I still got something out of the conference. I saw some good talks and I had some very good conversations. I suspect that part of my criticism stems from my being out of the loop for a while. I’ve attained a comfort level with tech conferences that I just haven’t gotten to yet with academic ones.

Conference Conversation

What fun I’ve had listening and talking to people. It’s been a great pleasure as always to talk to Bryan, but I’ve also been able to talk to Kathleen, which has been great. I’ve been able to catch up with old friends as well, including an old friend from graduate school. The thing that always strikes me when I’m able to be around people who are interested in similar things to me is how much I long for this kind of connection and communication. I often feel isolated where I am and feel like I’m fighting all the time, fighting to get people to understand me, fighting for what I think is right, fighting to do the kind of work I want to do. I don’t mind fighting, but it definitely gets tiring. And so it’s nice to be re-energized. I’m actually looking forward to getting back and rethinking some things, getting myself focused on the way forward.

The cursed traveler

I’m in Oregon for a conference, which so far, what little I’ve seen, seems interesting. But getting here was crazy. It didn’t start off too badly. I found my way to long-term parking at the airport, got checked in and, despite a really long security line, made it to my flight without having to run. But then things started to break down. We couldn’t take off as soon as we wanted, so we were delayed getting into Chicago, which meant no time to grab food, but I figured I buy something on the plane (yes, you have to buy food now). Shortly after I’d eagerly consumed my Mini-Mealtm and gotten halfway through Lake House, we were told we were making an emergency landing. Now, under some circumstances, one might panic, but not long before this emergency landing announcement, they asked if there was a doctor on the plane. (And yes, I had visions of Airplane!) So we landed in Sioux Falls, and they took a guy off the plane and we sat there and got fueled up and finally took off about 1/2 hour or 45 minutes later.

Most importantly I finished watching Lake House, which was kind of cute. I also read my entire issue of Wired and almost finished My Freshman Year. So things seemed like they were getting back to normal, albeit 2 hours behind schedule. Then we landed in Portland. We went to baggage claim and watched the bags go around. Only mine never went around. The airline promised to deliver the bag to my hotel. So I walked out the door. Only, it was one of those rotating doors and I nearly got stuck in it. It just kind of stopped and there I was, stuck. Luckily, it started moving again.

Then the shuttle was an hour getting to the airport. But we eventually made it to the hotel and then the conference to catch the end of the keynote and then dinner. I got to catch up with Bryan and ran into an old friend from grad school. Looking forward to more of that tomorrow.

When I returned to the hotel, I stopped by the front desk to ask if my luggage had arrived. They said they’d given away the last of it. As if they had some kind of luggage stash back behind the desk. And then they said they wouldn’t get another delivery until after midnight. Now, if I’m a desk clerk and a guest of mine is without luggage, I’d offer toiletries and perhaps to make a phone call for me. I mean, they’re not the airline, right? How do they know?

So now I’m sitting watching Scrubs reruns, waiting for my luggage. I’ve been assured it will be here any minute. With the luck I’m having I’ll end up with the wrong luggage.