Academic Conferences: TC Students, Faculty and Alumnae Share Their Experiences ☆

Arts & Humanities students and faculty were in heavy rotation this past academic year, presenting at leading academic conferences around the globe.  About 60 A&H folks participated in 15+ conferences, bolstering TC’s legacy of intense involvement in the world of scholarly discourse.

We spoke to five TC students, listened to faculty perspective and checked in with two alumnae to learn about their recent presenting experiences.  Just what is it that motivates students, professors, and in-service teachers, already short on time and long on responsibilities, to add yet another commitment to their calendar?  Networking, the opportunity to receive feedback and professional development all figure into the equation.  Read on for the stories, plus pointers from veteran presenters on how to best navigate conference waters.

Scott Wylie and Aviv Cohen are both Social Studies Education doctoral students.  They participated in the NCSS (National Council for the Social Studies)  in Denver, Colorado last November and co-presented (along with Professor Anand Marri and Professor William Gaudelli) curriculum that they developed as part of the Understanding Fiscal Responsibility project.  As Wylie explains, “Our goal was to publicize the curriculum and get feedback from teachers interested in incorporating these lessons.  A large number of social studies teachers attend the NCSS Annual Conference each year so it was a perfect forum to present our work.”  The opportunity to collaborate with faculty was a boon for Wylie, who learned a lot from working with Professors Marri and Gaudelli:  “They were very supportive throughout the proposal and preparation, and during the presentation itself.” Though TC had a significant presence at the conference, Wylie appreciated the chance to present his work and receive feedback from scholars outside his own community.  “It is always interesting to hear the diverse perspectives that are represented at academic conferences,” he says.

Tim Patterson, also a Social Studies Education doctoral student, joined Wylie and Cohen at the NCSS conference to co-present “Educating for Sustainable Citizenship: Two Sides of the Megalopolis with Sandy Pope, another TC doctoral student.  Patterson was also driven by a desire for critique from a larger network of scholars: “Researchers in the social studies present at this conference every year, so it made sense to gain some feedback from them on our work.”  Patterson sees networking as a big benefit of conference participation, as well as the chance to round out his experiences on his cv.

A few months after his NCCS experience, Cohen went on to present at the AERA (American Educational Research Association) conference in New Orleans.  His paper, “Knowledge of the Land: Teaching History and Geography in Israel as a Means of Civic Education,” was mainly based on his master’s thesis, and he decided to submit the proposal after a satisfying experience at the conference last year.  His experience in 2011 went just as well:  “The atmosphere was very supportive and there was a genuine feeling that the audience was interested in my work (and they even laughed at my jokes).”  Cohen left with a “boost of motivation” to move forward with his research and was inspired by meeting top people in his field.

Nate Olson and Jihae Shin, both Music and Education Ed.D. students, traveled in April to Exeter, England for the Research In Music Education (RIME) conference. Scholars and music educators from around the world participated in RIME, and as Shin explains, “One of the most exciting things for me was that I could have chances to listen to various topics from different countries, which broadened my perspectives about music education research. Interesting presentation topics included music teacher preparation in Brazil, music lessons with Special Education students, and reflective learners.”  Networking, sharing findings and learning from one another top Shin’s list of conference advantages.  “Participation in conferences helps me grow as a music educator,” she concludes.

Olson, whose presentation topic, “Fiddle, Jazz, and the Making of Culturally Diverse Institutions,” came about in dissertation seminar, was delighted with his audience.  “I was surprised that some distinguished authors who I knew from my own research actually attended my session, and had positive things to say about my research. One woman approached me afterwards and said that she resonated ‘spiritually’ with some of my ideas.”  Like Shin, Olson benefited from RIME’s international setting, as it allowed him “…to see how teachers from other countries had dealt with issues that the US is only beginning to tackle.”

The motivation for students to participate in conferences is clear, but how about for in-service teachers and professionals for whom time is tight and careers are already established? As alumna Elizabeth McAnally (MA, Music Education ‘91), a K-8 General Music teacher and choir director explains, “For me as a professional, it challenges me to keep my game as sharp as possible.  Listening to new ideas rather than teaching the same way I did the first day I walked into the classroom, and always trying something new…there’s always some nugget that can improve my practice.”   Beyond staying on her toes, McAnally is passionate about sharing what works for her with colleagues.  “I think it is very important, in the whole notion of school reform and professional development, for in-service, practicing teachers to be a part of that process.  When we leave that solely to the professors, no disrespect intended here, then we get a lot of theory and not necessarily the hands-on “is this going to fly with my kids?” ideas.”  To this end, she presents at the MENC (Music Educators National Conference) and shares her ideas with other music educators, who in her opinion, have a tough time finding “useful, usable” ideas.   McAnally also cites a desire to give back to the profession as a reason she continues to present.  “We are not always good at mentoring in our profession.  There is not a lot of opportunity to learn from an experienced professional.  Now don’t get me wrong, as a young teacher I was surrounded by caring, helpful educators.  But I was the only music teacher in the building when I just started out.  So I suppose what I want to provide is what wasn’t available to me.”

What are the keys to doing well and getting the most out of any conference?  Preparation.  As alumna Monika Ekiert (Ph.D., Applied Linguistics ‘10) urges, “do your homework!”.  She explains, “Very often, you see big names in your field coming into your room, and I’ve seen it a lot of times:  people just freeze once they see the room filling up.  And once you freeze, you forget what you’re supposed to say…you have to go prepared…make sure you have notes on exactly what you want to say.”  Ekiert recommends that the notes be written conversationally and should sound unrehearsed.  She also recommends making an early and strong connection to the audience, as well as linking your presentation to the larger conference setting. “Audiences react really well if you actually connect your presentation to something that’s been talked about.  It makes it more meaningful.”  McAnally corroborates this sentiment, and agrees that good preparation can steel a presenter against the dreaded “freeze”.  She recalls a packed audience of 95 at her first presentation, and the fact that her solid prep and the glimmer of recognition in the eyes of the other scholars helped transcend her fear. “It was little scary!  But then I realized that I was saying things that were meaningful to people, and that was a real confidence builder for me.”

Assistant Professor of English Education Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz remembers her own early student presentation experiences as “overwhelming”, and when she saw TC grad students at the AERA this past April recalls, “I wanted to hug them and say, ‘I’ve been where you are.’”  Sealey-Ruiz was a discussant and a chair on a high-profile symposium on Hip-Hop Pedagogies, then presented some of her own research.  She also prescribes preparation as getting the most out of a conference, but preparation in terms of building connections in advance of the event:  “What’s important is having relationships that you build throughout the year, through phone calls, Skype and smaller conferences, so by the time you get to (the conference), you know who you’re meeting with.”

Sealey-Ruiz, Ekiert and the five TC students who shared their stories all made a similar observation:  TC had a significant presence at conferences they’ve attended. “Both as presenters and in the audience I constantly met TC people,” Aviv Cohen noted. Sealey-Ruiz was proud of the recognition she received as a member of the TC community:  “TC is a phenomenal place.  People know whom you are without you knowing who they are…So I definitely felt the weight of that, but it was so wonderfully positive….I felt, ‘this is the league that I’m in’, and it caused me to think about how I represent my own research.”