Saturday, June 28, 2014

Why attend conferences if you don't want to learn?

Mike Griffin recently posted his reflections on, and apologies for, judging teachers possibly unfairly in the past in Sorry for judging on his excellent ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections blog.  His final apology under the heading 'Going to a conference but not attending sessions from others', touched a nerve in me, or probably more correctly opened a long festering sore :-)
Mike said:
Going to a conference but not attending sessions from others  
I did this a few weeks ago. Yikes. When I saw this move from a few people 5 years ago I thought it was rude, egocentric and telling. I thought it conveyed a message of, “I have learned all I need to know” and don’t need to learn from you people, but come to my session please.” Having been guilty of this sin very recently I can see there are a variety of possible reasons for this and it doesn’t necessarily imply a massive ego or disdain for others in the field.
I immediately wrote a long comment in response, which turned into this blog post of my own once I realised I'd gone beyond the bounds of comment ettiquette in terms of length and off-topicness. 

I could have written Mike's final point myself. My judgement is possibly clouded because I have met people at conferences who have made it quite clear they were there for presenting and not receiving information or even networking.

My worst personal experience of this was when I presented at one of the last sessions on the last day of a 4-day e-learning conference, when it seemed the only people left to attend one of the final sessions were colleagues or friends of the presenters or one of the other presenters in your session. Indeed, at that conference, probably less than a quarter of delegates were present on the final day, even for the morning keynote! I imagine there were "a variety of reasons" (*) why 300-400 people hadn't bothered to stay for the duration, but I did talk to a few people during the conference who said they had only come to the conference present their own paper (some even admitted they were going to present their paper then head to the beach - this was an international conference held in a small coastal city in a south-East Asian country). At this conference there was one person I had been very much looking forward to meeting, as the trials I had been conducting and was presenting on were in the same area he was working in. When I approached him after his presentation and invited him to mine, he told me he was leaving after his second presentation and didn't even show much interest in discussing what I'd been doing. He was very polite, but I certainly got the "I have learned all I need to know and don’t need to learn from you people, but come to my session please.” (*) message from him.

I had a similar earlier experience when I co-presented at a lingusitics seminar with two fellow post-graduate students on a small research project we were conducting. The person whose theory we used as the basis of our research and other academics and PhD students were our audience.  We had some very interesting early results to report on, but we were shut down quickly (I'd say 'shot down' except it may sound a little too dramatic), and the impression certainly was that they felt we weren't worth their valuable time - some of these people weren't even that polite!

I have also heard participants of conferences say they only came to the conference to present on their Masters or PhD project because they had to as one of the requirements of their program, and they had no interest in attending other sessions as they felt they weren't relevant to them.  I felt sorry for some of these people, as they seemed to have been so focused on their own narrow area of study for so long that they had forgotten about other areas of their wider subject that made them pursue study in the first place. 

Mike's post caused me to reflect on these experiences, and I realised as I was rehashing them for this comment that I'm not ready to take off my judgy pants (*) because there are people out there who attend conferences solely to deliver and not to receive.  However, I also reflected on many very positive experiences too, so I don't immediately expect the worst.  I have been to some fantastic conferences where everyone seems to be there to learn.  CamTESOL last year stands out clearly as the best example - I didn't meet any overblown egos there, but I did meet many passionate educators, including @michaelegriffin, and I'm glad I did!

What is your experience of this?  What are some of the "variety of possible reasons" for "going to a conference but not attending sessions from others" (*)?   I'd really like to know!  And I'd like people out there to know how demoralising it is for novice presenters when no one bothers turning up to your session, not because you don't have anything worth hearing, but because most of the rest of the delegates (I can't use the word 'participants') have gone to the beach!

(*) Griffin, M. (2014). Sorry for judging. ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections. 


Cameron Romney said...

I too was moved by @michaelegriffin’s post that had me thinking about this exact issue. Your question, “what are some of the "variety of possible reasons" for "going to a conference but not attending sessions from others"(*)?,” is a really good question, one that would take a blog post of my own to thoroughly explore, but since you brought up CamTESOL…

When I left Osaka this year for Cambodia it was 0°C outside and when I stepped out of the airport a few hours later I was hit with 31°C temperatures. The first time I went to CamTESOL, I tried to stay for the whole conference, but I couldn’t. Eight hours without air-conditioning and I got heatstroke. While I can handle 31°C+ temperatures in summer, my body just can’t handle the shock of going from winter to summer in few hours. So when I go to CamTESOL, which I agree is a great conference, I really have to limit what I do, and this year, especially with moving the venue to one that is no longer within walking distance of hotels, I admit that I only went to my session, a few friends’ and nothing else. I just can’t handle the heat.

Lesley said...

Thanks for leaving a comment, Cameron.

And that sounds like a reasonably valid reason for not attending a whole conference. :-) Perhaps next time you could schedule a week's holiday in Cambodia before the conference to acclimatise?

I was fortunate that I was going from an Australian summer to Cambodia, but then I love the heat! When I do this sort of thing during our winter, I usually take a couple of days before I can operate in the SE Asian heat.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lesley,

When I read the part about conferences in Mike’s post, my first thought was – okay, I’m too judgmental. :) So it was good to see I’m not the only one who frowns on the idea of attending conferences just to present. I thought one of the “variety of possible reasons” could be if you’re a keynote speaker and you do this kind of thing (speak at conferences) very often. I have no idea how many plenaries some of the well-known ELT names for instance do annually, but as they’re the names who attract the delegates in the first place (or at least I imagine that’s the idea), I would guess that most delegates would expect to hear them speak, but would be a little startled to see them actually sitting in on their presentations.

Having said this, I was recently at a two-day conference where the keynote speakers sat in on every single session, while a surprising number of the other presenters showed up only for their talk, so maybe I’m not being fair.


mikecorea said...

Hi Lesley,

Great post! I loved it.
I am glad my post seems to have struck a nerve. :)

I remember in 2009 (I hadn't been to many conferences to that point) I noticed more than a few Korea based presenters were only going to their own sessions. Some were sort of big names and others weren't. It seemed very strange to me and I judged them for this and added a whole lot of meaning to their (in)actions.

This year at a conference I had two sessions in a row in the afternoon in a city a few hours away and the week before I had a whole lot of not interesting and small problems that prevented me from fully preparing that week. I decided to sleep at home on the Friday night and thus miss all the morning sessions (some of whom were speakers I'd seen a lot of before). So after my talks, I really needed to decompress and I just spent time catching up with friends. These are my excuses and how I came to change my mind about ppl not attending sessions. Just an example of course.

I think a lot of what you talked about is a bit on the rude or at least not collegial side.

I think I can muster up some sympathy or empathy for those who are/feel forced to go to a conference but at the same time i think it sort of defeats what I see as the purpose of a conference. Maybe that is getting to the heart of it. Maybe conferences mean different things to different people. I think I should stop here before this turns into a blog post! :)

(Thanks for the kind mentions as well)