Although I’m barely back from two conferences in July, yesterday I started making arrangements for the next conference I’ll attend which takes place in October. Although it involves a lot of travel, preparation, and money, I see going to conferences as crucial for my life as an academic. Most obviously being able to present my work is important for my development as a scholar and is the main reason that my college and Dean are so generous about travel funding. But listening to other people present their work is just as important, since I learn about new pedagogical techniques, assessment methods, classroom approaches, ideas for courses, and innovative curricula. While the people at DePaul do a good job of creating cutting-edge classes and programs, I wouldn’t know that if I wasn’t able to see what other people and institutions are doing.
But today I was also reminded that there’s another, possible equally important, benefit of conference attendance: the gaining of perspective about the quirks of your colleagues and institution. No set of people or place is perfect, so every academic (heck, every person) has something that they dislike about their work environment. Complaining about it is a favorite activity at lunch tables and and coffee shops, but without the ability to meet people from other institutions you would never learn how things are done elsewhere. Sometimes that helps you to see how your unit or institution could be made better, which is useful. But sometimes it shows you that things could genuinely be worse, which almost no one believes until they hear the details. Gaining perspective, whether it’s about curricula or your working environment, is one of the best things that conferences have to offer, and it’s worth the time and energy to make that happen.