Monday, April 23, 2018

Curated Serendipity, on the Cheap

In grad school and the first few years after, I was a pretty severe skeptic about academic conferences.  The major one in my academic field, the APSA, struck me as an inconveniently scheduled, anxiety-generating festival of nametag-gazing.  (In my defense, it was.) The smaller regional ones I attended were so small that they didn’t really feel like conferences; at one panel of the Northeast PSA at which I presented, the one audience member left early, so the panelists were left talking to each other.  It’s almost sweet in retrospect, but at the time, it just felt sad.

I didn’t really see the positive purpose of conferences until I stumbled on the Undergraduate Education section of the APSA, which dealt with innovations in the classes I actually taught.  Suddenly I wasn’t a supplicant, hoping that some big name would somehow notice me; I was an active participant in a conversation that was actually about something.

A few years after moving into administration, I discovered the League for Innovation and the AACC.  Remembering the bitter lessons of APSA, I decided to skip most of the nametag-gazing and instead focus on what seemed useful.  

Conferences have been essential to my own professional development.  Most of us don’t get to travel to multiple colleges around the country every year and talk to the right people about innovative stuff they’re doing.  A conference gathers them in one place, with prepared presentations and social permission to talk about work. It was at a conference that I first heard discussions of longitudinal data on remedial courses and odds of graduation.  It was at a conference that I discovered the CCRC. They were where I discovered the ALP model for co-requisite remediation, the concept of multi-factor placement, and Kay McClenney’s unparalleled ability to run a panel. (If she taught a master class in it, I’d sign up.)  

Urbanists and sociologists will recognize the conference as a pop-up version of Jane Jacobs’ great American city.  It’s a space in which structure (storefronts or panels) and interstices (sidewalks or hallways) create opportunities for cross-fertilization of ideas.  They create a sort of curated serendipity.

In other words, despite what I confidently believed twenty years ago, I’ve become a fan.  

Unfortunately, travel funding is often an early casualty of budget cuts.  In the short term, it looks like a “soft” cost. Over time, the cost of missed opportunities compounds and leaves the entire institution poorer, but that can be a tough case to make if people aren’t already predisposed to believe it.  “Throw smart people with a common project together and something good will happen” is somehow simultaneously true, ingenious, and hard to sell.

So I’m looking for suggestions about lower-cost versions of professional development that actually work.

Academic Twitter can be an excellent professional development tool -- if you use it right, it can become a self-updating annotated bibliography.  Certainly IHE and its paywalled competitor are valuable and accessible without flying anywhere. Depending on the field, certain journals and blogs can be useful -- I’m thinking here of poli sci’s “Duck of Minerva,” for example.  (It’s a play on Hegel’s line about the owl of Minerva that spreads its wings at dusk.) In the best cases, the interwebs allow for discussion of almost-done ideas before the concrete dries.

On my own campus, we have a “Scholars’ Day” at the end of the year that functions as a sort of mini-conference.  Faculty and others present on their own innovations and experiments to their colleagues. It’s an inexpensive way to include lots of people.  We’ve even developed confidential peer teaching observations that are designed to be formative, rather than summative, and that don’t go into personnel files.  Uptake hasn’t been as robust as I’d hoped, but the folks who’ve tried it (and said so) have been positive about the experience. As one put it, it’s direct feedback on the major activity of your job, and it involves minimal risk and expense.  

Guest speakers can be helpful, but timing is everything.  That’s all I’ll say about that.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found or seen other forms of low-cost professional development that can lessen the sting of reduced travel funding?