All too often, academic and professional conferences are something of a chore, or in the worst cases, events to be endured. By contrast, a conference that fosters engagement and connection provides ample cause to be grateful.
That’s among the reasons why I’m an ongoing cheerleader for the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference (WSH), co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology. I just returned from the 2015 offering in Atlanta, and I was greatly energized and inspired by the experience, in terms of both content and people.
I’ve already written about two compelling WSH conference panels (sustainable employment and toxic leadership in non-profits) and will share more in future posts, but I also want to underscore the general importance of positive conference experiences such as this one. Good conferences are community builders. They foster connections in big and small ways, allowing people to become part of a broader academic or professional community and to build ties within specific areas of interest.
Speaking personally, I tend to find this connective quality more often at smaller conferences, seminars, and workshops. WSH is among a minority of larger-scale gatherings (programs and concurrent panels running for three days) that manage to create a friendlier, more interactive atmosphere. I believe this is due in large part to the values that the conference sponsors bring to organizing and hosting the event.
Building good tribes and vibes
In his 2008 book Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, author and entrepreneur Seth Godin popularizes the idea of informal tribes in society, consisting of people connected to each other by shared interests and enabled by easy methods of communication. Among other things, modern-day tribes can bring people together to organize for positive change, via networks that cut across distances.
The Internet, of course, now serves as a prime medium for these groups, but it’s important to have face-to-face gatherings as well, and that’s where conferences like this one come into play. Here is an international gathering of researchers, practitioners, educators, and students dedicated to reducing stress and enhancing health at work. Within this assemblage form smaller groups focusing on shared interests in research and practice. Hence, we see the Godin-esque tribes coming together in very exciting ways.
I was part of three panels on topics related to workplace bullying, and between speaker overlaps and a few good meals together, our little tribe took shape as well.
They’ve all been mentioned before on this blog, sometimes several times (click names for representative blog links), but this is the first time they’ve had an opportunity to interact with one another so extensively in person:
- Jessi Eden Brown (licensed counselor in private practice, and professional coach, Workplace Bullying Institute);
- Ellen Pinkos Cobb (attorney and author of a global guide to workplace bullying and violence laws);
- John-Robert Curtin (veteran business and non-profit executive now turning his attention to the fostering of compassionate organizations);
- Maureen Duffy (therapist and consultant, expert on workplace mobbing behaviors);
- Ivonne Moreno-Velazquez (Univ. of Puerto Rico industrial/organizational psychology professor and professional coach);
- Kathleen Rospenda (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago psychology professor and pioneering workplace bullying researcher); and,
- Greg Sorozan (SEIU/NAGE union local president and a leading labor advocate for workplace bullying protections).
Unfortunately, Drs. Gary and Ruth Namie (co-founders, Workplace Bullying Institute) were absent from our group due to a last-minute cancellation of plans, but they and their signature contributions were with us in spirit.
When the conference competes with the host city
As many veteran conference goers will admit, a prime attraction of any such gathering is the opportunity to explore the host city. That said, one of the major indicators of a quality conference is that it doesn’t leave much time to play tourist because the programs and people are so interesting.
For me, this was a quick visit to Atlanta, and a very busy conference. Other than a much needed walk after our feast pictured above, I didn’t get a chance to see anything of the city, despite its many attractions. But I’m not complaining. My head was full of ideas and information after three days of this conference, and I couldn’t be happier about that.
I’ve started to think and write more extensively about the nature of academic and professional conferences and gatherings. After hosting a small conference at Suffolk University Law School last year, I wrote a short article, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” which also served as an introduction to the conference proceedings. The essay may be freely downloaded, and here’s the abstract:
Large, impersonal academic conferences may be a necessary element toward building a career, but for many they are far from pleasant and at some point deliver more burden than benefit. This essay makes a case for organizing and hosting smaller academic conferences, workshops, and symposia that promote genuine dialogue and intellectual exchange, while moving at a slower, more contemplative pace. In addition, in offering post-program publication opportunities, we may consider packages of shorter essays as less demanding alternatives to full-length symposium issues of journals. This essay grew out of the author’s hosting of, and participation in, a small conference on therapeutic jurisprudence at Suffolk University Law School in 2014.