Love/Hate Relationship with Professional Conferences


By Terry Calhoun

I’ve turned into something of a homebody in my late 50s. My wife and I are now quite familiar with the buildup of stress I experience every time I am about to travel for business. Often, even at a really great conference, I start thinking about the possibility of taking a standby flight and maybe getting home a day earlier than planned.

But I don’t usually give in to that temptation. The angst I feel prior to leaving is replaced by deep satisfaction once I get home and have had a little time to catalogue the experiences I had and the people I met. At many institutions, the fearsome budget cuts of 2003 are deep enough in the past that permission to travel is easier to obtain. So I urge you to find a conference you might enjoy and go to it!

Sometimes you have to travel away from home to learn things about home. I discovered this when I traveled to New Orleans for the NLII (now ELI) conference three years ago.

After I registered, I saw a desk where attendees could sign up for online communities. Since the topics were interesting, I signed up for all of them. An hour or so later, I was listening to a presentation when I received an email confirmation that I had been signed up for the three virtual working groups.

I clicked on a link to go to one of them and was startled to see that the site was hosted at the University of Michigan, most likely at a server just a short walk from my office. Excitedly, I emailed the webmaster and asked for a meeting when I returned. Moments later I got a reply: “Terry, I think I am just across the hallway from you in another session. Let’s meet outside at the break.” We met. I became an avid user of what is now called CTools at the University of Michigan and part of the Sakai project!

I will say about that connection only that it has been valuable and worth far more to my employer than the cost of my trip. The same could be said of all the professional development opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to experience in my employment. It is important to seek out new knowledge in order to develop yourself and become an even greater asset to your organization. Even a small thing like a subscription to Wired magazine paid off fast. When I first subscribed to Wired, my boss and I had a week’s worth of talks about whether we could spend the $50 for the subscription. When the first issue came, I found a tip in there about linking out to other websites that has since gotten SCUP millions of minutes of eyeball time on its website.

So spend a little something on a magazine subscription and learn something that is powerful for your institution’s mission. Travel from Ann Arbor to New Orleans and make important connections that would never have happened if you’d stayed at home.

  • Where are you going to go this year to reap those kinds of benefits? Wherever you decide, here are some compelling arguments to use with your boss.

    · Overheard cell phone conversation in the computer section of Borders: "Yes, I know the server is down." Listens to reply: "I know, I know! I'm looking for a book on it right now!" (He should have gone to that workshop!)

    · They don't call it information architecture for nothing. More and more our institutions are built on it—architecture that has to constantly be shifting to meet changing demands and needs. Thus your IT staff's knowledge and connections must constantly be updated.

    · Even when you hire outside consultants, someone on the inside needs to know what they’re doing to properly oversee them. At a conference you can get such advice from other consultants!

    · Or this twist …Want to pay $2K now for staff to travel and attend this conference, or $10K next year to bring in a consultant who was at the conference?

    · It takes more knowledge and skill to do more with less staff.

So, get going somewhere. This year I will definitely be going to the Education Writer’s Association (EWA;, to the Campus of the Future: A Meeting of the Minds Conference (, and to the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE; I may go to others, as well. I have also been to a Campus Technology Conference ( and I highly recommend it.

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