Friday, February 15, 2013

Throw Out The Usual Suspects

Anyone who has spent time in a classroom knows that there are some students, usually a small number, to take up most of the class participation. It’s not that they are the only ones who know what is going on but they are the ones not afraid to ask questions or answer questions. At times I wonder which takes more self confidence to ask questions or to answer them. These are the “usual suspects” in a class. We see a lot of the same thing in professional development events and conferences. Year after year it seems like the same people are submitting (and having accepted) proposals to present. Again it is not because they are the only ones doing interesting, creative, innovative and interesting things. These are the ones who for various reasons really want to get up and share.

Now I confess that I have proposed more than one or two presentations. I really like to share what I know (or think I know). I like to think that these presentations are also learning experiences for me as well. I try to listen and the question and answer period of most presentations is as or even more valuable than the presentation itself. But there are risks involved in the same faces presenting year after year.

For one thing we risk squeaking out new people. When certain speakers become stars of a sort other people may feel intimidated by a perception of competing with the established crowd. Public speaking is scary enough without the idea that one will be compared to people who seem to present all the time. One may feel they don’t have a chance to get their proposal accepted. Or that if they are accepted they will not measure up. This concerns may be heightened if there is a perception that the usual suspects are quarantined some set number of the speaking slots.

Most conference session committees work hard to get new faces and new voices into their conferences. They do occasionally take some heat for rejecting regular presenters of course. A few people may develop an entitlement attitude especially with specific conferences. Others want to present that same basic talk year after year and think “it was reviewed very well why not let me do it again this year?” But conferences have an obligation, I believe, to make sure that conferences stay fresh and new and that they keep the doors open for new presenters.

Program committees have a tough job though. BTW I have been on such committees but am not currently on one. It is easy to accept proposals from known quantities. People who year after year give well received talks, especially if they talk on different topics, are a safe choice. A committee has a good expectation that the speaker will arrive prepared, present well, and add value to the conference. If the committee has not heard the speaker and does not know them by reputation they have to look closely at the proposal and the reviews by independent reviewers. So what do they look at?

Well a lot of things and not everyone weighs everything the same. Obviously the first thing is the proposal itself. Is it well written? Does it explain clearly what the presentation will be about and why it is valuable for the conference attendees? What are the qualifications of the presenter? Qualifications is not just any one or two things. Previously published or presented work is great but there has to be a first presentation or paper. Academic background? Nice but that does not always translate to a great speaker? What do they do for work? Are they a current practitioner talking about work they are doing or are them a consultant presenting on work that other people do? Both are good in their own ways.

There are also the needs of the conference itself. Are their different tracks to be filled? If there are 8 great presentations but only room for 6 in a track who gets left out? Are there three great proposals on very close to the same topic? Can you really have all three and if not who do you select?

All of this is moot though if new people don’t submit proposals. I think that is the biggest concern for some conferences. Why don’t people submit? Again, lots of reasons. One is being afraid to present. You would think that teachers who present to students every day would not have this fear but, trust me, speaking before ones peers can be a lot more intimidating than presenting to students for many people. Most conferences though are pretty good to first time speakers.

Many speakers find that once they start talking on a topic that they are passionate about the timidity fades away and they begin to speak with more strength. Solid preparation helps build confidence as well. Generally a proposal is accepted because the committee believes that the speaker knows more about what they are proposing than the people they expect in the audience. A speaker who makes sure they are prepared and ready with data, information and a clear idea of how they will present can be a confident speaker.

Other people are falsely modest. Oh they don’t think it is false modesty but often it is. Many teachers have great ideas and do innovative things in their classroom Unfortunately, in part because we in the US undervalue teachers, many think they are “just doing the job” or “not doing anything special.” I suspect that more great ideas are lost because teachers don’t share them out of some sense of modesty than any other cause. We need to help break teachers out of that way of thinking.

The season for submitting proposals for conferences is pretty much over right now. CSTA is evaluating proposals for this summers CSTA Conference this weekend. SIGCSE is a a few weeks and the presentations have been locked in for quite a while. Likewise the presentations for ISTE are locked in. TCEA, FETC and many other regional conferences are already passed. But in a couple of months new requests for presentation proposals will start opening. I hope many more teachers who have never presented will take a good look at what they are doing in their classrooms and asking themselves honestly “would others benefit from knowing about this thing that I do?”  The corollary may be “why do I do this if it is not valuable?” If it is different from what you learned or how you learned and it is working it may very well be worth sharing with others.

Think back on how much you have learned from conferences and ask yourself if it isn’t time to give something back in the way of presenting your work.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Interesting comments, Alfred and certainly words of wisdom and advice. There are a couple of other nagging things though...

For the new presenter - often they are challenged to create that catchy title and short but deep descriptor for a workshop that will attract the committee's and attendees' attention.

Then, there's the perennial presenter. Not naming any people or major conferences but there are big name speakers who conferences want on their agenda. Yet, they don't have anything new or not much new to offer. Or, if there is a descriptor that's new, the actual content for the presentation isn't substantially different from the old dog that they've been flogging for years.

Putting together the perfect conference is really not a science but an art to get the best possible mixture. Your thoughts echo so many others, I suspect.