Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Conferences and New Formats

I have been thinking about Amy Coffin’s two blog posts about conferences and I have read and reread all of the comments.  The two links to her blog posts as well as the comments are here and here. 

I certainly found some of the responses very interesting.  I tried to write a short response.  Obviously, if you are reading this, you realize that I wasn’t able to keep it short.  I sincerely thank Amy for her thought-provoking efforts. 

As background information, I have attended NGS and FGS conferences as well as SCGS Jamborees and a variety of one-day seminars all related to genealogy.  While working as a high school math teacher, I attended one HUGE national conference and numerous 2-day or one day seminars, some which had hands-on or discussion sessions.  As a parent I attended a variety of one day seminars on gifted education which included discussion/participatory sessions and two different 4-day conferences on foreign-exchange students, with about half scheduled as discussion sessions on a variety of topics.  I’m retired and older and have different experiences leading up to genealogy than do many of you.  And, no, I don’t think I’m necessarily right.  In fact I really don’t think there is a right or wrong to this topic and I believe that Amy would agree. 

I attend conferences because I want information.  (Fortunately, I have the time and money to do so, although family and spousal activities sometimes determine when and where I go.)  But when I go to a conference, I feel that if I get one or two pieces of information from each session that help me with my research, in some way, then I’ve benefited.  I’ve attended more than one session on organization; more than one session on the BCG standards; more than one session on the research process, etc. because I wanted different views, or because I was at a different level of understanding during each session.  I’ve sat through some really poor hours (because I couldn’t easily get out).  But most of the sessions when I don’t think I benefited as much had nothing to do with the speaker or the quality of the presentation or the information provided.  It was because there were too many attendees in the room, squished together too tightly, with too many whispered conversations; all of which made it difficult to see, hear, and take notes.  Purchasing the CD afterwards helped.  But I much prefer the DVDs that are available for many sessions at the SCGS Jamboree, because I can see the screen slides as well as hear the speaker’s voice.  Now I have a collection of DVDS, CDs and flash drives with presentations as well as a subscription to webinars.  And with webinars I usually prefer to purchase these rather than to listening live because of scheduling conflicts and interruptions.  For a modest fee, I can now listen numerous times, when I feel I need some extra hints or ideas.  But I’m doing this alone.

Regarding sessions that attendees can actively participate in, FGS national conferences have a society day, where many of the sessions encourage sharing.  I attended 3 FGS conferences and each time went a day early for Society Day.   Unfortunately, while I gained some information about how other societies operated, many of the suggestions weren’t appropriate for the society I was actively involved with.  Not that others didn’t benefit; I’m sure they did.  However, as with any situation of this type, I felt more control (a bad word?) needed to be used for the one or two people who thought this was their opportunity to make presentations rather than briefly sharing and allowing others to talk. 

SCGS Jamboree has offered a conference within a conference format for the past few years that I know of.  Last year and this year the topic was/is DNA.  Before that it was writing.  Both Jamboree and FGS Society Day are really not during the conference but the day before.  SO I benefited from that and didn’t have to make decisions about what conference sessions to miss. 

SCGS Jamborees have provided opportunities on Friday mornings to have “round table” discussions on various topics.  While a few of the tables have active conversations going on, many have just the moderator, and perhaps a friend, sitting there, waiting for someone to show up.  I believe it was in Cincinnati that I participated in my first un-conferencing sessions.  While I felt that there were some benefits, again sessions may or may not have anyone else interested in the topic.  So, the conference is paying for space that may or may not be used.

Regarding classroom settings and institutes, first, I have only attended 2 institutes, and both of them were GRIP.  I loved both years, so I’m registered again for my third year.  Second, in all of my educational experiences in the classroom, I seldom enjoyed group work or projects; and this includes even some of the time in last year’s class.   And while some student, or guest speaker, presentations are excellent, others are not.  And, yet, I’m sitting there, “glued” to my chair, waiting for the time to end.  So, I guess I prefer “lectures” or “panel discussion” to most group projects.  Or perhaps have each person work on a problem and then share their solution. 

There are courses online that have chat rooms.  I’ve only taken two, and both of them had very few participants who actually “chatted”, especially live.  But this duplicates what my daughter says about on-line credit courses in business and accounting, except that some of them have a deadline that you must post three times before midnight Saturday night.  So at 11:30 pm, everyone wants to “talk” at the same time, in order to get the minimum requirement fulfilled.   


In the responses to the original blog postings, many people like the networking.  Well, for some of us this is difficult.  We don’t travel with a group of friends.  I’ve never felt the need to go to a conference with a friend just so I had someone to talk with, eat with, or room with.  In fact, if I had traveled to my first Jamboree with a friend, I probably never would have met Amy.  Yes, I meet people at various times during the conferences, but they don’t necessarily become fast friends to meet up with again and again.  I don’t have any trouble talking with those around me before a session, or sitting at a table with one or two empty chairs and talking with those already seated, or offering to share a table for lunch or dinner with another single or duo who are waiting in line at the same restaurant and have a conference badge hanging from their necks.  But the idea of attending a conference, and paying the hotel, travel, conference fees, etc. to just visit isn’t my idea of money well spent.  So, how do we network?  What does it mean? And why do I need to? 

Do I have a solution or solutions?  Obviously not.  We need to think about the different personality types, whether or n? ot attendees want to socialize, share ideas, or just listen and absorb.  Is bigger really better?  Should our goal be to get more people attending or to provide those who do attend with a great experience that meets their needs? What should we change?  And as with all changes, there will be some people who don’t want any change, some who want just a little, and those who want to make everything different.  Obviously we need a balance. 

Good luck to all of you who are taking the time and making the effort to provide conference opportunities to all of us who sit on the sidelines and just attend.  Thank You.