Finding Your Way During Conference Season: A first time attendee looks back at AERA13

In late April I attended the American Educational Research Association conference in San Francisco. It was nearly a month ago, but with a few conferences coming up in June I wanted to reflect on what I remember.AERA2013_Banner_Homepage

I remember it was BIG. The largest conference I have ever been at. I think at the #ACPA13 keynote address they said there were 6,000 or 7,000 guests including the NIRSA delegates. AERA was more than twice that size with about 15,500 registrants. It’s a monster and had2,400 sessions and 6,000 presenters scattered over at least 6 hotels. And at 452 pages, the program guide was bigger than most municipal phone books I have seen.

It was BROAD & DEEP. AERAs’ divisional structure covers nearly any angle of academic research you can imagine. K-12, curriculum studies, social contexts of education, teaching to teacher education. Post-secondary education (#AERADiv_J) is what I would call ‘home’. But even Division J has 6 sections within it! However I am also attached to the Measurement and Research Methodology group, which is Division D and, as a current doctoral student I am a member of, the very large (and well organized) Graduate Student contingent.

Wait there’s more. AERA also has a very large number of Special Interest Groups (SIGS).  There are at least 100 of these and they cover issues that cut across the divisional structures like Private Education, Survey Research, or Post-Colonial Studies. So there are no shortages of places for newcomers to use as a ‘base’ for the conference.

It was FORMAL. By this I mean that the most common session was 3 or 4 papers grouped into similar topics like one session Tricia Seifert presented in called ‘Assessing Teaching Contexts, Strategies & Outcomes’. Each paper (they are presentations based on pre submitted academic papers) had about 15 minutes to present, followed by 15 minutes from the discussant talking about each paper’s (strengths/weaknesses) and common themes, followed hopefully by a few minutes of questions from the audience.

But it had VARIETY. In any 90 minute block there were usually 80 sessions, plus any 60 or so roundtable discussions. These also had 3 papers, a discussant, but the audience, sat around them, making it a little less formal and more conversational. There were poster sessions with maybe 50 presentations several times a day usually organized around a few themes. There were keynote lectures. There were invited responses to conference themes. There was a Film Festival.

It was very active in SOCIAL MEDIA. Search Twitter for #aera13 and you will see what I mean. Also a number of the very large keynote addresses had hashtags set up in the program beforehand.

It had some BIG NAMES. Depending on your line of work and research, many of the big names were present. For those interested in research methods you could see presentations by John Creswell. Interested in critical theory? Michael Apple and Peter McLaren were presenting. And in the higher ed world Laura Perna, Adriana Kezar and Kristen Renn were each a part of numerous sessions. And from what I saw and experienced, everyone was very willing to take time to talk.

There was some CONTROVERSY. (Search Google/Twitter for Arne Duncan AERA).  That particular controversy was given a forum, and a process to discuss the issues was set up. Surely, not everyone was satisfied with that process, or the outcome, but AERA recognized how important the discussion was for many members.

I enjoyed AERA this year, but know there was lot of unrealized opportunity. All conferences need a plan, and this is especially trye for for me and AERA14. And with the annual Congress/Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education and CACUSS  coming up I’ve thought a bit about how to have a better conference experience; especially when it’s your first time attending.

What You Can Do

  1. Review the program schedule carefully, identify your preferred session and have a backup in case you get sidetracked or something gets cancelled. With that read the abstract and the title carefully.
  2. Talk to people who have been there before to learn about the key events, experiences, cultures and people that you may not know about or don’t jump off the page while you are planning the sessions you will attend.
  3. Have a 30-second talk ready for when someone asks you about your research and/or work.
  4. Try to engage deeply with a few people, rather than meeting everyone.
  5. Attend orientation and welcome sessions, roundtables, panel discussions, and anything with free food! These are some of the best places to meet new people.
  6. Think about your networks. They are larger than you realize. Both your institution and your area of work or research.
  7. Follow up during and after the conference.
  8. Volunteer. Most divisions, interest groups etc are always looking for volunteers to help out.

What the Conference Can Do

  1. Host 1st-timer and newcomer sessions – Both before the conference and as the conference begins. Kristen Renn hosted a great webcast for newcomers to AERA13 that really helped me plan my time there.
  2. Mix up the program with large plenary talks, paper/presentations, roundtables, films, Pecha Kucha sessions, learning labs. Recognize multiple learning styles!
  3. Ask for feedback! AERA_DivJ had a full session on improving the conference experience.
  4. Give some of the conference away for free. Pick a few sessions, have them webcasted for free to anyone – member or not. This is a way to introduce your organization and conference, and encourage participation and attendance next year.
  5. Set up hashtags for each session and put them in the program guide. A+ to ACPA 2013 for starting this!

These are just a few random thoughts as we move deeper into conference season. We would love to hear what advice seasoned conference-goers and newcomers have for maximizing their conference experiences!

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