An initial look at a conference program can lead attendees to become (in the words of a former colleague) “paralyzed by the possibilities.” There are just so many sessions we’d like to attend that it’s hard to choose. At a recent conference, a new faculty member asked me for advice about negotiating the labyrinth. Here is a collection of strategies that I have developed over the years to help me make the most of the conference experience—before, during, and after the event.
- Consider treating the conference as a personal independent study. At a teaching conference, my topic of study might be “hybrid classes.” In preplanning my agenda, I piece together a breadth of sessions that examine hybrid classes from multiple perspectives. I seek out a variety of presenters from different disciplines, approaches, and session types (poster, keynote, workshop, panel). Depending on the size of the conference, I may identify a “major” and a “minor” for my independent study. The effect is that each session augments another. By the end of the conference, I have the equivalent of an extensive review of literature, a multi-institutional (even multi-national) perspective, an array of stories from the field, and a collection of key resources and contacts.
- Pick one “outlier” session—a topic or approach that is unfamiliar or a complete departure from something you would normally pursue. Over the years, this has been a source of unending connections to new ideas for me. A session on how students perceive the veracity of online sources, for instance, led me to apply the notion of “perception of credibility” to student classroom interactions and brought insights I otherwise could not have articulated. We’re always encouraging our students to move outside their comfort zones; it’s good advice for teachers as well.
- If you write notes by hand, buy a notepad with a bright cover. This is a small thing, but the notebook will become a visual reminder of the conference: when you see it on your desk months later, it can prompt you to go back to the thoughts, resources, and items you noted.
- Check the program for names of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Touch base to see what they are working on now and perhaps try to get together for a meal.
- Bring extra business cards to exchange with fellow attendees. When someone gives you a business card, jot a little note on the back to remind yourself of the conversation (e.g., interested in sharing writing assignments).
- Plug into social media. Almost every conference now has a conference hashtag that conference organizers and attendees use leading up to and during the conference. Following the hashtag is a great way to see what other attendees are talking about, share resources, and stay current on conference announcements.
AT THE CONFERENCE
- Start the conference with a blank “think about” sheet. This sheet remains separate from the notes you take in each session and serves as a generative source on a phrase, theory, image, example, or reference you want to think about later.
- While conferences can provide chances for you to spend time with colleagues from your own institution, going to sessions on your own opens up windows for serendipity. By not sitting with friends, you’ll have freedom to meet new people, talk further with the session leader, or even take a moment at the conclusion to reflect.
- Relish your role as a learner in an environment with teachers from other institutions, disciplines, regions, and countries. Be open to perspectives shared by the presenters and other attendees. Asking questions serves both you and other session participants and helps create robust discussion.
- Strike a balance. Going to sessions all day can lead to information overload. I have a colleague who only attends every other session. Between those, she goes to her room and writes out how she can apply what she just learned. Another has breakfast with colleagues from home. Others of us skip group dinners and opt for something more low-key.
- Take care of yourself. Traveling can be hard on the body. Set aside time to exercise, get a little fresh air, sip some green tea—whatever it is that helps you recharge.
AFTER THE CONFERENCE
For the plane ride home
- Look over the “think about” sheet and add a question following each entry. This begins the conference processing phase and will help you keep the momentum from an invigorating conference experience.
- Use the “think about” sheet to generate your to-do list. Start each entry with an action verb so the task is clear: (e.g., email this speaker, order this reference, read this essay).
- Reflect on how you could contribute to the conference in the future. Jot some notes on possible proposal ideas and how your participation this year informs your proposed topics.
For back at the office
- Plant visual reminders—your colorful notebook, the conference pen, or a mug from the conference city—where you’re most likely to use them. We often return to our campuses with a head full of ideas, which then get buried under our everyday tasks. These visual reminders are key to helping us implement what we have learned.
- Respond to the conference evaluation. Your feedback is important to conference organizers and does influence the planning for the next year.
- Develop an opportunity to meet with others who went to the conference and suggest a once-a-semester departmental meeting or campus faculty development session on conference findings.
Let’s keep the conversation going. What strategies do you use to make the most of a conference?
Linda K. Shadiow is a member of the Teaching Professor Conference advisory board and a professor emerita at Northern Arizona University.