A conference that’s good for something

This one, right?
This one, right?

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious middle-aged academic (and I appreciate it may already be too late on that front), I reached a key inflection point in my professional life some years ago.

As a bright-eyed, fresh-faced doctoral student, I was thrilled by the thought of conferences: travel to interesting new places, the cut and thrust of informed debate on key issues in the field, the chance to meet the great and the good, etc., etc.

But at some point, you decide that it’s all just a load of hassle, sitting in departure lounges, then struggling to find the content or people you’re really interested in, worrying about the pile of work back home. In short, the idea of a general conference has become somewhat questionnable to me: I’m far enough along in my career that I know what I’m trying to do and know who I’ve trying to talk to. To take the past month, as part of my ESRC Fellowship, I’ve gone to a string of very specialised events, talked to a very particular set of people about specific issues and it’s been really useful for me.

And yet, here I am, one week out from a general conference, and I can’t wait to get there. My paper’s uploaded, my tickets booked and I’m ready to go.

APSA’s Teaching & Learning Conference has always had a special place in my academic heart, because through it I have been able to make the most significant advances in my practice and my understanding of any one event. Five years ago, I found myself in Albuquerque (which I still can’t spell), having the most incredible discussions with a bunch of people I didn’t know from a hole in the ground, gaining a level of feedback and insight that I had not had before in such an environment.

It was at that event that the idea for ALPS came about, and from that the pile of activity that we have since engaged in. It’s neither cheap nor easy to get over to the States, but I have made a point of doing it whenever I can: next week’s event in Portland is only possible because of the funding I won as a National Teaching Fellow, which in turn was only possible because of my work on this blog and with my ALPS colleagues.

It’s a bit late to join us, although you might still try, but there is two, more general points.

The first is that TLC works because it combines the breadth of a general conference with the depth of a workshop, keeping people together on streams, to promote discussion and interaction. It’s a very strong format and APSA are to be congratulated for sticking with it.

The second is that the kind of sweeping generalisations of the kind that I opened with are rarely useful. We have to treat each conference on its merits: will we expect/need to get something from it in terms of academic content, networking, catching up with friends, sightseeing? Sometimes, we even find ourselves at conferences purely because it’s the thing to do, which is a bad reason in of itself, but still has to be addressed.

If we’re saying that our time is precious, then we also have a responsibility to look after our use of that time. And that’s why I am happy to fly a very long way indeed to be part of TLC.