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The Trouble With Conferences

As the academic year begins for most of us, I want to ask: what are your professional development plans for the year?

And what is your institution doing this year to build intercultural capacity among faculty and staff, those who are most responsible for shaping the experience students have at your school?

At the risk of inciting some controversy, I want to strongly suggest thinking beyond standard professional development conferences. Don’t get me wrong—conferences are great for many things.

But if your goal is to develop intercultural capacity at your school or organization, conferences are not the best investment of professional development funds or time.

Here’s what conferences are great for:

  • Networking. Attending conferences is a good way to meet and maintain relationships with others in your field.

  • Presenting and sharing research. You can build your resumé and share your knowledge and expertise by facilitating a conference session or presenting your research.

  • Gaining breadth of knowledge. The ability to attend numerous sessions facilitated by peers and leaders in your field is a great way to learn a little about a lot. This can be especially helpful if, for example, you work in a role where you need to stay current with changing regulations or similar.

Here are some of the key drawbacks to conferences, especially as it relates to developing intercultural capacity:

  • Breadth yes, depth…not so much. There are limited opportunities to learn on a deeper level at a conference. Developing intercultural competence and learning how to facilitate others’ intercultural development requires deep learning that not even a full-day pre-conference workshop can achieve.

  • Little or no support of implementation. Has this ever happened to you: You come home from a conference with a lot of notes and some great ideas, but you’re quickly confronted by an inbox full of emails and back-to-back meetings, and the notes get tucked away in a drawer and the ideas are quickly forgotten about? That, along with the fact that no one is likely holding you accountable or providing support that will help you practice and implement what you’ve learned, are key drawbacks of conferences.

  • Travel expenses. Oftentimes, more than half of our investment (of money, but also time) is actually spent on travel. Just think about it—the last time you went to a conference, how much did you spend on on airfare, hotel, meals, etc.? And how much time did you spend traveling? What if you had put all that time and money toward actual professional development instead?

What I’ve come to understand over years of helping educators develop their intercultural competence and their capacity to facilitate intercultural learning is that a different kind of professional development program is needed to do this effectively.

As a result of this, I’m in the process of refining True North Intercultural’s programming to better fill this gap. Specifically, our programs will focus on developing intercultural capacity among faculty and staff—and ultimately students—in the following ways:

  • Go deep and focus on capacity-building. Train-the-trainer professional development programs will not only help faculty and staff navigate cultural differences, but also help your institution develop a cadre of trainers that can eventually handle that type of training internally.

  • Support ongoing practice and implementation in context. Developing our own intercultural competence requires practice, which necessitates ongoing support. And developing our capacity to help others learn across cultures takes time and mentorship. Therefore, programming will focus not only on teaching the what and the how, but also provide ongoing support and feedback to participants as they work on their own intercultural development and design and facilitate intercultural programs, so that they can effectively learn through the process and refine their craft.

  • Develop connection without the travel expenses. Programs will take advantage of technology to help people from around the world connect, form relationships, and support one another along their intercultural learning and teaching journey without requiring travel expenses. That way, your professional development funds all go towards learning and growth.

I look forward to sharing more later this fall about the programmatic changes underway at True North Intercultural. In the meantime, I challenge you to start thinking differently about professional development on your campuses and in your organizations.

If you’re committed to developing intercultural capacity among faculty and staff at your institution in order to more effectively recruit, serve, and retain students from all backgrounds, I’d love to partner with you on that journey.

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