#SAsubCon: Dissonance at Work

By Niki Messmore

There’s a stigma surrounding conferences. Sure, everyone loves the chance to meet up with old friends, have a drink, and learn new practices/research, but there’s this tendency for an eye-roll to surface at the mention. Critiques state that the format is too scripted and there’s not enough engagement. This resulted in the movement of the ‘unconference’. And now it appears that academia may be moving into a new phase, initiated by MLA graduate students organized over Skype, called a ‘subconference’.

I can’t help but wonder if Student Affairs is ready for this new type of conference that discusses issues within the profession [spoiler alert: I think we are].

Unconference
“An unconference is a highly informal conference” (THATCamp) with several main characteristics. 1) The agenda is set at the beginning of the meeting instead of beforehand; 2) Everyone is expected to participate and there are no formal presenters; 3) The cost is inexpensive or even free.

Or as THATCamp explains it, “An unconference is to a conference what a seminar is to a lecture; going to an unconference is like being a member of an improv troupe where going to a conference is (mostly) like being a member of an audience”. Lisa Endersby wrote up a great reflection of her experience at #SATechTO if you want an insider’s perspective.

There are some unconferences already making an impact in Student Affairs, such #SATech Unconference, Boston University’s Confab, and grad-sponsored events. And now this year at ACPA’s Convention they are implementing PechaKucha sessions, which are a form of unconference facilitation.

Subconference
So what is this new version of a conference? It’s similar to the format of traditional conferences. The MLA Subconference program features panels, presentations, meals, and socials. But the subject matter is not your average conference.

The organization states that “Our aim is to take a recognizable and traditional form and produce a necessarily urgent call for conversation, information sharing, and, ultimately, action. This is a Call for Papers that doesn’t stop at Papers, but only starts there”. The topics presented included key issues in higher education, such as student debt, organized labor, and adjunct issues.

Does Student Affairs Need a Subconference?
Disclaimer: I’ll be up front with you. I began in a student affairs/nonprofit hybrid position and recently transitioned out of education-based nonprofit administration to graduate school in a student affairs program; set to graduate in May. I’ve only attended ACPA 2013. So while I’ve been reading The Chronicle for the last 7 years, I’m unable to wholly understand SA conferences and interests at the level of someone with different experiences.

Do we discuss higher education issues at places like ACPA, NASPA, ACUI, etc? Sure. It’s kind of our thing, after all. But I think, based on reviewing past programs, we (as a field) are much more comfortable with discussing how to work with our students then we are with each other or the field itself.

Not saying it doesn’t happen – there are a good number of presentations, panels, and roundtables that address different needs within our community. But it is never the focus.

So then we have to ask, do we need a subconference? Do we need to address issues within the profession and the system of higher education? Should we?

We do and we should.

There’s great conversations happening about the profession in pockets around the country, on Twitter, in blogs, and in literature. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get people into a room? To really get down and dirty, talk these issues out, and start setting action plans?

(I know the rebuttal – SA folks are always too busy and there’s an issue with people taking ideas from a conference and actually working on them. I’m an idealist but I’m not foolish. But with the right people, the right energy, and the right level of plan making…well, I think we could make things happen. Call me an optimist).

What Issues Would Be Discussed at a Subconference?
Creating dissonance is what we do best – we just have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable during these discussions!

  • Graduate School Curriculum – this is a hot topic among the #sachat crowd. Are knowledge areas like technology being incorporated? Or how about the research going on right now by folks like Dr. Lori Patton Davis and Dr. Shaun Harper exploring how issues of diversity are inserted into the curriculum? We collectively need to improve drastically in both of these areas, especially the latter.
  • Discrimination in Student Affairs – we live in a society that issues privilege to certain identities and oppresses others. It is difficult to unlearn these toxic teachings. So how are we addressing issues that face professionals who identify as people of color, women,  transgender*, low SES, LGBT, international, ability; etc within our own field? We can’t avoid the fact that the majority of SA administrators are white men.
  • Politics & Student Affairs – our colleagues in k-12 and other areas of higher education are active in unions and politics. I’m not proposing a union, but I do think there needs to be an discussion of why/how student affairs should be more involved in politics. After all, if legislatures are deciding issues that directly impact us and our students, like financial aid and state funding, shouldn’t we be encouraging active citizenship?

There are other ideas I see commonly discussed…the schism that can develop between researchers and practitioners; student affairs v. faculty; the future of student affairs; student loan debt; higher education funding; how we use our funds; social justice; and so on. What would you want to discuss if the #SAsubCon become a thing? Let me know in the comments or via Twitter at @NikiMessmore.

And Finally…

Two years ago Eric Stoller asked “Where are all the Radical Practitioners?” Let’s hope they (and frankly everyone, even those who would never identify with the term ‘radical’) meet up one day soon at a #SAsubCon.

#SAsubCon: Dissonance at Work

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