Thursday, May 2, 2013

AERA Today, and AERA Tomorrow

The annual meetings of the American Educational Research Association just wrapped up, an enormous event attended by something like 15,000 scholars from across the world. It was, as always, overwhelming.  This time, however, in a mainly positive way thanks to the efforts of the incredibly attentive and creative Kris Renn.

Since Kris worked so hard to make the 2013 AERA far better than AERAs of the past, I want to honor that by noting some of the best changes, and proposing some additional innovations for the future.

The Latest & Greatest of AERA:

1. Free Wifi everywhere. This year, for the first time, in every space of the conference we were able to get online and participate in Twitter chats, send each other papers in real time, and convey follow-up thanks immediately. This was no easy feat, since the conference was spread across multiple hotels rather than a single convention center.  The Wifi was easy to find, easy to access, and much much appreciated.

2. Twitter. Wow, they really took this seriously. There was a very active @AERA2013 Conference tweeter (very nice grad student), multiple hashtags, handles on the name tags, and active encouragement to engage even before the conference began.  The back channel discussions were the highlight of the conference, especially during Arne Duncan's talk.

3. Doing more for the community. The most difficult part of this meeting was the sharp contrast between the theme "Education and Poverty" and our daily actions of inhabiting expensive spaces and places while people begged on the street outside.  To its credit, the organizers created opportunities for charitable giving and volunteering in San Francisco, and canceled the annual reception.

4. Trying new formats. This will be the AERA where I learned about and performed an "Ignite" talk, and heard music played before sessions for the first time. There were many new things attempted, and from what I heard they mainly worked out.

5. The app. A big congrats on making it possible to do without the paper program!

Looking to the Future:

1. Give back with our greatest skill-- expertise. Unfortunately, while clearly well-intentioned, this year's efforts to do more for the community also reminded us that charity can be a form of violence.  It was also not very effective, and somewhat embarrassing-- the donations to GLIDE lagged far behind what was anticipated, making us look stingy.  Instead, I think a future conference could capitalize on the opportunity created by so many education scholars concentrated in one place over a week's time by pairing local community organizations, schools, politicians and business leaders who often actively seek the insights and assistance of AERA members with those members who will be at the annual meeting. For example, the conference leaders could assemble a set of practitioners who'd like to have a 2-hour session on a given topic, and then using a list of AERA volunteers who indicated their available time and areas of knowledge, match them up.  You can send the scholars out into the conference's local community to share what they know, learn from those practitioners and policymakers, and thus share the wealth.  Even better, embed a mentoring program in this, pairing a more seasoned public intellectual with a more junior one, and provide time for them to debrief afterwards on the experience.

2. Teach people to tweet in advance.  The medium was widely available but many people I met expressed frustration because they don't know how to tweet.  How about providing a short video and set of instructions, featuring the AERA "stars" that people can review in advance and begin to practice before the conference?

3. Encourage dissent and provide more space for it.  There were some frustrating moments in this conference around the Reclaim AERA protests at the president's speech and Duncan's speech.  I will never forget the cutting remarks I overheard in hallways from so-called "progressive" colleagues about the "inappropriateness" of public protest, the "disrespect" displayed, and a sense that this was led by an "extremist minority."   We are scholars and therefore by definition we disagree. Protest is a necessary and wonderful form of expression.  Major speakers should be required to respond to a panel of people who both agree and disagree with them.  Follow-up sessions after speakers like Duncan would be helpful to provide legitimate spaces for people to talk out issues.  Put up a twitter feed behind speakers so that the audience's questions-- beyond the 3-4 who get to speak-- can be voiced.  But most of all, we must disabuse ourselves of the idea that vehement and public disagreement is "inappropriate" and "disrespectful."  We ought to be speaking truth to power more often, not less.   President Tierney did the best he could this year, and it was a good start, but I'd like to see this message more clearly promoted and dissent anticipated in advance.

4. Engage the local community further.  Creating structural change is difficult and charity won't cut it. In addition to my first suggestion, I also propose that AERA provide conference registration waivers to local community leaders, enabling their full participation in our meetings. The money used for champagne toasts could easily be redirected to that purpose.

It was a very solid meeting, and I look forward to more. I hope this suggestions are useful for future organizers (but no, do not even think about looking in my direction)!