Rethinking Why and How I Attend Conferences

By Amelia Horsburgh PhD

Let’s get something straight: I don’t like attending conferences. Over the years I’ve found them overly-pretentious, stress-inducing, and mentally exhausting. Not to mention the financial cost. I’ve been a graduate student most of my adult life and scraping together little bits of funding to attend conferences has been soul-sucking and made me rethink my life choices.

Festival_of_Learning_logo

Now that we’ve cleared that up, I want to tell you why I may be rethinking conferences. You see, at the end of May, I had the very good fortune of traveling to Vancouver to attend the Festival of Learning: Celebrating Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. The theme this year was “Higher Education: Handle with Care.” Our host, BC Campus, had us consider the following questions: How does care manifest – or fail to manifest – in our practices, policies, structures, spaces, technologies and pedagogies? How could we be better caretakers and caregivers in the context of post-secondary education and in service of student learning?

If you’ve ever been in my classroom, you know that I’m a nurturer, a helper, someone who takes inclusivity and accessibility to heart, and tries to weave universal instructional design into every element of my teaching practice. I’m a promotor and advocate for my undergraduate and graduate students and their success in and outside the classroom. You could say this conference was right up my alley. That still didn’t mean I was going to like it. Or was I?

How to conference the right way #1: Stay where the conference is being held

For the first time, I stayed at the hotel where the conference was being held. This was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made regarding conferences. It was a game changer for me. I was able to roll out of bed at a leisurely 7am, shower, get dressed, and take the elevator downstairs for breakfast. So relaxing and felt somehow decadent! As a side note, I have low expectations for conference food, but at this conference, the food was amazing, which is a sentence I never thought I would write about conference food. Even the fruit platter was wonderful; none of that tasteless filler-fruit like green melon (who likes that stuff)?

How to conference the right way #2: Don’t present anything

Shocking, I know. Honestly, without that monkey on my back I was able to relax, breath, and just enjoy the sessions without all that stress and anxiety eating away at my insides. That said, if you’re wanting any kind of funding to attend a conference, you usually must be presenting something. For that reason, this might not be an option for most academics, especially graduate students, early-career academics, adjuncts, and sessionals.

How to conference the right way #3: Volunteer

I don’t like talking to people. I especially hate “networking.” But when I registered way back when there was an option to volunteer and I clicked on it. I offered to lead fitness breaks outside and an appreciation station where folks could pen thank-you notes, colour, have a cup of tea, and just relax. I figured there would be minimal talking on my part and it would be good for my own self-care to get outside every day and walk along the waterfront and to find time to practice some gratitude at the appreciation station.

How to conference the right way #4: Have keynotes that are down-to-earth and awesome

On the first day, the keynote speaker Jesse Stommel spoke compellingly about the importance of empathy for our students, and on the last day the keynote speaker Monique Gray Smith emphasized that educators’ words can be medicine in lifting our students and the importance of naming our students’ gifts. I’m down with all those ideas, but it did my soul good to hear that other educators feel similarly and have a room full of folks nodding their heads in agreement.

How to conference the right way #5: Have BC Campus host the event

BC Campus made me a believer in conferences. I have never experienced such an inclusive conference. Just a few of the ways they made everyone feel welcomed and appreciated: Free childcare (yes, you read that right), all-gender washrooms, accessible spaces, nutritious and delicious food, yoga and meditations sessions, pronoun ribbons for your conference badge, and that awesome-sauce appreciation station mentioned earlier. These folks went above and beyond, and I wouldn’t hesitate to attend another one of their events.

From now on, I will attend conference that feed my soul, recharge my teaching spirit, and provide ample opportunity for me to practice good self-care. I suggest you do too.

Amelia has just accepted an instructor position with the English Department at Vancouver Island University. She begins August 1st, 2018.

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