10 Considerations at Your Next Education Conference

by Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

I was thinking the other day about all the education-related events that I have attended in my career—literally hundreds and hundreds—and was thinking of what I have learned from these events. I have even put on over 50 events in the last decade, so I know a thing or two about them. More recently, I have got in the habit of “unattending” events for a number of reasons, including some of those below. Do not skip our events, however, because they are really, really good. Others? Not so much.

Some of these are more serious than others, but consider them all in their entirety. Chive on.

1. Don’t be the last speaker on your panel of five people. Ahh…. There is nothing like sitting on a panel in front of either 300 or 5 attendees (including spouses) with 4-5 panelists—all to weather a 90-minute session—only to find out you are the final panelist. This is bad for several reasons and good for only one (if you are last, you do not need to prepare because you can just talk about some of the dumb-ass things the others said). The bad? Well, as the final panelist, you must sit through the prerequisite speakers, some who may be interesting; but most who are not. Then your 10-15 minutes get pushed against the next session because people don’t know when to stop talking and the moderator has a backbone of straw. You now have 67 seconds to go through your 32 slides. In the end, you say thank you, one little anecdote, and your speaking engagement is over. Yes, you changed lives today. BTW, being the first speaker rocks. You get to set the stage; everyone (all five) is listening to you because they have yet to fall asleep, and you can use the get out of jail free card: “I’m sorry, but I have to catch a plane.” Beautiful.

2. Ensure that planners understand that your session may have a large expected audience and they should not put you in the boiler room.

I coordinated a session at AERA a couple of years ago. Without naming names, we had an unbelievable panel of big names on the dais. They gave us a room for 200; we literally had people lying on the floor in front of, to the side of, and behind the stage. We needed a room for 750 plus. I think we had 400 who chose to sardine themselves in the room. Not sure what the planners were thinking, but they most certainly were not. As with all of us, I’ve been put in 50-person rooms with a crush of 150 people trying to get in. They just need to think about the topic, the speaker, and wonder if they arranged the correct room size.

3. Scope out who you want to talk to or meet in in advance.

Large conferences—AERA has up to 15,000 people—are small cities. It is hard to just “run in” to people. Take the time to see who is speaking and try and scope out some time in advance to meet up with them, or at least go to their session and say hi. Otherwise, your efficiency rating goes down the tubes. Use time efficiently.

4. Only rent a car if you really need it.

Most of the time I take a taxi from the airport to the venue and back. Don’t rent a car. Especially in Orlando. Or San Francisco. It is a huge pain at some of these airports to get to the rental car agency, and some of them, like MCO, have long waiting lines. I used to do the express stuff, but I cut so much of my travel I don’t bother any more. As well, in big cities, like DC or NYC, they charge you up to $60/night to park “your” car. No joke.

5. Try and figure how your academic plenary speaker could actually be a good instructor.

I am struck by how bad so many academics are at presenting and speaking. Snoozefest 101. Not quite Lollapalooza (“When is Skrillex on?”). And these people teach students? No wonder higher education is in such trouble. Teach these people to speak! To be informative! And to be somewhat interesting! Yuck. I walk out of a bunch of sessions when I realize I can just read the paper. Um. Ah. Um.

6. If you’re 6,000 feet above sea level, skip the invitation to the bar.

I’ve been to Lake Tahoe and a few other high altitude places. Wow. They really do take your breath away, don’t they? I remember seeing an older gentlemen getting oxygen in the lobby and thinking, “what’s that all about?” Then I went for a jog. It was, I must say, the best 100-yard jog I’ve ever had! I thought my lungs were going to do an “Alien” on me. So, be especially careful with your alcohol at these heights. It can have an extraordinarily strong impact on you. Drink lots and lots of water or you will get headaches from dehydration. Hey, I’m just warning ya… not that any of these things have happened to me.

7. Enjoy your surroundings and find better places to eat.

Nothing ticks me off than going to really cool location and being stuck seeing the inside of a conference center and nothing else. It is the fault of the planners; and you. Build it a little time to see what is around the area. Once I flew to Malta, stayed for two days, did my presentation. Flew home. A waste of an opportunity (I really wanted to find that falcon). Find places outside of the hotel to eat to get away from those incredibly interesting plenary speakers (read #5).

8. The more important people are not always the most interesting.

Some VIPs are VIPs because they are strong, committed, intelligent, and interesting. Others are only VIP because of legacy or opportunity. Figure this out quickly and decide whether you want to brown nose or have a good time (you get extra points for both). I don’t waste much time on these types unless I really like them, know them, or want to know them.

Also important to know: the most important person is not you, even if your name tops the marquee. So cut the attitude. Be nice to grad students and not the pompous ass that everyone has learned to know about you. I’ve met some college presidents that I just couldn’t believe became college presidents. Mean. Nasty. Arrogant. Sorry, just warning ya…

9. Don’t go. Leave early. Apologize later.

With some exception, most academic conferences are a rude awakening to the need for people to go places and get validated. That is not a sexual comment, but I see how it could be taken that way. No, rather, they become the result of an academic need to get another publication and presentation peer reviewed, regardless of what those five people in the audience may think. Unless you can really learn something or need to be there, or your brother lives there (read #11)—stay home with the kids. I travelled up to 100 days a year for several years only to find out that most of it was a complete waste of time. Americans have an ego (I used to) about flying the most miles, most segments, most hotel stays, most days on the road. It’s bullshit. I learned it just took away from the important things with very little upside other than some frequent flier points that the airlines tried to screw you out of anyway. Thanks American Airlines. I really didn’t travel those 200,000 miles I didn’t get to use. So consider the need to “Be.” Can you catch up later? And I find, more and more, I either leave early or I have the clarity of thought to only book for the length “I” need to be there, including a lot of one-nighters. I do that mostly now. The six days of AERA? Two nights max. And when they give me a session on the Monday and the Friday, I skip one of them and say, “no thanks. “I’ll be at home.”

10. Nothing good happens after midnight.

No one really knows who this statement is truly attributed to, but whoever said it, it’s accurate. If you are at an education (or any) conference and you are still out after midnight, you may want to consider what you are doing. Especially if you are over 40. Have a few drinks and nice dinner. Then go to your hotel and sleep. Stare into my eyes… sleep. Zzzzzzz.

We had a famous incident (well, famously as an insider) 15 years ago, when on a Sunday night a bunch of us decided to go to this cool bar outside of Cincinnati. Those of you who know Cincinnati also know that it borders on Kentucky. Even the Cincinnati airport is in Kentucky (I know… sounds stupid). So we took a cab and had a great time. Well, about 1pm the bar was closing and we tried to get cabs to get back. Hmmm. No cabs. So we waited. Long story short, about 3am, after the bar manager tried to kick us out (I didn’t let that happen because I figured he was partially responsible for getting us cabs), and after we were literally lying on the tables because we were so tired, we got the desired cabs. We found out later we could have walked back in 15 minutes. Academics… not all that smart. I still get razzed about that, but I’m not exactly sure how I dragged all these people out with me and it was my fault.

Anyway, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

And one extra item for the top 10 list:

11. Attend the conference with the best of intentions.

I have told this story several times about an anonymous attendee at one of our Retention 101 events, which we tend to host in very nice locales. The attendee in question used the event as an opportunity to “hook up” with his/her alternate partner. We posted photos after the event and evidently the attendee’s children saw the photos on the web. Well, that was uncomfortable. As well, this person was using the spa and not attending most of the sessions, except for open bar receptions. SO…please do not use events for the wrong reasons. Certainly do not use my events for these purposes, because I do not support the use of taxpayer funds (from public universities) for boondoggles. Enjoy your time. Enjoy the hotel and resort. But do not do this on my watch.

With all of that, I look forward to seeing you at our upcoming EPI events!!!  : )

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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