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Distressing as it is to see gimme that stuff behavior on the conference exhibit floor, it is also a cause for concern as it migrates into the interactions among academics.

Any chance you attended one of the fall 2005 IT conferences? Back in October (it seems so long ago), I was one among the thousands who made the pilgrimage to the annual gathering of academe’s IT tribes: the Educause Conference in Orlando, and the Conference on Information Technology (League for Innovation in the Community College) in Dallas. Taken together, these two events drew some 9,000 people; about two-thirds from campuses, and a third representing the firms that provide IT and eLearning products/services to colleges and universities.

Both events schedule pre-conference programs of professional development seminars ahead of the official “opening” of the conference. And “opening” is probably the right word for what happens at both events, as the doors open to the exhibit floor where the representatives of eLearning and IT firms, large and small, await the arrival of conference attendees. Ahead of that opening, small groups circling the doors to the exhibit hall eventually become large crowds. And when the doors open, there is a rush as the crowd moves forward, onward and into the exhibit hall.

What prompts this crowd behavior? Why would grown academics and campus IT professional staff engage in a kind of “land rush” into the exhibit halls at the Educause and League conferences? Answer: They rush for stuff.

Yes, dear reader, it’s true. Your peers and colleagues rush the floor for stuff: t-shirts, pens and pencils, notepads, backpacks, briefcases, and other goodies with corporate logos. Some also rush to get their names into the raffles held by individual vendors; others rush to be among the first to visit a specific set of exhibitor booths in order to get their conference card stamped so that they might be eligible for a later raffle for tech toys.

It’s not by chance that some of the firms exhibiting at the Educause and League conferences provide super-sized shopping bags (with their corporate logos): After all, if you are serious about getting stuff, you need a bag for all of it, right? Sure, the bags often contain a lot of paper—advertising collateral and product information—from the eLearning and IT firms exhibiting at the conference. But they also end up being crammed with stuff that the conference attendees get (or sometimes take) from the vendor booths.

Some observer descriptions of the “rush for stuff” are akin to the descriptions of the land rush of the Western pioneers some 130 years ago; others are less kind, likening the swarming of attendees to the descent of (academic) locusts. The corporate folks who work both K-12 and higher education events report that while the academics are bad, the K-12 teachers are worse. Teachers (they say jokingly) reach for everything—even busted ballpoint pens. (In fairness to the teachers, many grab for stuff that they may use for school supplies, given depleted K-12 school budgets.)

The corporate execs who staff the exhibit booths are captive onlookers to this behavior. Sure, they are there to answer questions; but the veterans of these annual events know that they are also on the floor to pass out stuff.

The quest for stuff takes interesting turns. Some years ago, a senior marketing manager at a tech firm told me he literally gave one of his campus clients the shirt off his back: “Michael,” said the client, a senior campus IT officer at a major university, “that’s a great shirt.” (The firm’s personnel were wearing Rugby-style shirts with a corporate logo.)

“Thanks,” said the marketer.

“No, you don’t understand,” the client reiterated. “That’s a great shirt.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Michael, you’re not listening. That’s a great shirt; I want it.”

“Oh, okay,” Michael said, seeing the light at last. “I understand. I’ll send it to you after the conference.”

“Michael, I really like the shirt. I want to go home with it.”

“But I’ve been wearing it for the past few days while I do booth duty. I’ll wash it and send it to you.”

Not good enough for the client. “I want it now,” he said.

Michael found a t-shirt he could wear as he was packing up the booth, and did, in fact, give the customer the shirt off his back.

It’s interesting—often entertaining—to watch the gimme behavior of grown academics and campus IT professionals at these conferences. The corporate personnel often refer to the gimme behavior as one aspect of “the higher ed handshake” the extended academic hand that reaches for your pocket and grabs stuff.

Distressing as it is to see the gimme behavior at work with the vendors, it is also a cause for concern as it migrates into the interactions among academics. Of course our medium of exchange is not t-shirts or notepads: our medium is content; intellectual property.

Consider, for example, an e-mail I received following my presentation summarizing the 2005 Campus Computing Survey at the Educause Conference in Orlando: “I loved your survey discussion. I would like to use some points for a presentation I have early next week. Can you send me a copy? It was not posted yet [on the Educause conference Web site]. Thank you in advance.” Admittedly, it was a nice comment about my presentation. But it was also a clear statement of expectation: gimme, as I need your materials for my work.

Perhaps this is simply part of the culture of academe—an expectation that we give (or “share”) stuff, an expectation that we are entitled to one another’s “stuff”—t-shirts and notepads from the vendors; content, syllabi, and intellectual property from other academics and professionals in the campus community. Perhaps. But I’m also reminded of the comment I once heard from an executive in the publishing industry: “Faculty feel everything should be free—except their stuff, which should cost a lot of money!”

Maybe gimme behavior is simply endemic to who we are and what we do in academe. Then again, maybe the Internet and the Web have simply made us more aware of our gimme behavior, made it more visible as people we know—and many we don’t know—reach for our stuff.

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