The Magic of Professional Conferences

Just two weeks ago I attended the annual Southern Association for Institutional Resarch (SAIR) conference in sunny Orlando, Florida. The theme for this year’s conference was “Magic” (we were, afterall, in the most “magical place on earth”). The theme got me thinking about why we attend professional conferences in the first place. What’s the “magic” in getting together with a bunch of higher ed wonks like yourself for 3-4 days and talking about…well…work?

Conference Magic Trick #1: The Incredible Shrinking World of Higher Education!

This was my fourth year attending the SAIR conference and every year the crowd gets smaller- not literally, but figuratively. I remember the first year I attended. I remember feeling overwhelmed with all the faces and names. I remember feeling…well… small and insignificant. But each year I recognize more and more faces. Each year this big, vast world of higher education gets smaller and smaller for me.

Conference Magic Trick #2: Abracadabra! Learning New Tricks

I have never walked away from a professional conference without learning at least one new “trick.” If you have, you’re doing conferences wrong. Albeit, sometimes you have to think outside the box a little and be able to see your own personal/institutional application in something abstract, but there are applications nonetheless.

Conference Magic Trick #3: See The Impossible

Every year I go to professional conferences weighed down by a problem. One year it was moving from paper-based evaluations to online evaluations all while trying to do the impossible- keep response rates up. And every year at a conference I attend a session in which the presenter is describing exactly how he/she did the impossible at their institution.

Just the other day blogger Margaret Andrews posted a survey on Insider Higher Ed for those of us who have been working in higher ed for more than a year (this survey was a follow-up to a previous survey posted for those new to higher ed). I participated dutifully. This “higher ed veteran” survey asked, “What advice would you give to someone just beginning to work in higher ed (in a similar position to your own)?” I unequivically wrote “get involved in professional organizations and attend professional conferences.”

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