Thursday, June 2, 2016

Hopes For Another Conference


Despite that overarching sense of anticipation, the one difficulty with attending conferences is seeing whether events match up with expectations. There is always a certain bar of achievement to which attendees hold event organizers. The one, perhaps unspoken, hope is: please don't let us down.

When it comes to the Southern California Genealogical Society's annual Jamboree, one rarely encounters any aspect that could contribute to that letdown. It seems the regional society is a well-oiled organizational machine, up to any challenge yet pulling off their assignment seamlessly every year.

Yet, beside the external level of hopes, there is an inner struggle for conference-goers, as well. Each one of us carries, besides those expectations, a combination of skills and abilities that we bring to the conference. Some are pure, unadulterated beginners, seeing family history with fresh eyes. Some are enthusiastic pursuers of the truth of their family history—still on the trail after so many years, ever hopeful of uncovering deeper ancestral secrets. Some, perhaps, are jaded after years of unfortunate experiences with "experts" who, in the midst of setting things right, sucked the very joy out of the process.

And then, there's me. And I'm stuck in a place that, as a veteran conference-goer, seems uncomfortably familiar to me at a time when I wish I didn't feel this way.

Something that has plagued me as an attendee—having nothing to do with genealogy, specifically, but everything to do with the process of learning via conference setting—is that there seems to be a learning curve that arcs at about the level where I am now. Well beyond beginner, far enough into intermediate studies to qualify as securely in the middle of the big middle, I start to feel like all the stuff I've yet to hear has, indeed, been things I've already heard. Granted, I can go out on a limb and specialize in an area in which I'm currently unfamiliar (and I'll be doing that with the eastern European focus at this year's Jamboree), but there is only so much room for such a scatter-shot approach.

There comes a time when you have to dig deeper.

I'm not exactly sure how to handle such malaise as this. It's not something the genealogy world has claimed a corner on. I've felt the same way at education conventions, too—when I've absorbed all the information there is to glean at an event, and strangely felt like I was at the same point at the last time I attended.

Granted, the Jamboree folks have come up with excellent options for those clamoring for more: their Friday morning, three hour long in-depth sessions focusing on one specific topic. I kick myself for not having found Blaine Bettinger's "Third Party Tools for Autosomal DNA" workshop details soon enough to register for the special session. This is the type of focused learning for the weary conference goer in such a slump as I'm in. I had heard this type of offering was in the works, but never found information about it online in a timely manner.

Of course, I've already found another option for the always-learning enthusiast: the weeklong workshops offered at genealogical institutes. While the one I attended was the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy last January, there are others occurring throughout the year in various locations around the United States.

But that was then, and this is now. Since I'm here, of those hopes I have for this week's conference, I include the hope to learn something new—something that advances my research skills, introduces me to new techniques or resources, and helps to hone or refocus my genealogical questions.

Those, however, are the external hopes. The inner desires are less straightforward, but are likely the very qualities which either make or break an organization's flagship event. For many people, the number one desire in that category will be: did I have fun while I was there? For others—myself included—it will be: did I connect with others? Did I broaden my horizons by introduction or continued relationship with others who share my research interests?

It didn't take more than a few steps across the hotel lobby to check in yesterday, when I had already heard my name. It turned out to be someone I had met at Jamboree a couple years ago, a fellow blogger who has written a book drawn from her family's history. Since I had arrived fairly early—not everyone comes for the first day of the conference proceedings—it would have made sense to have gone through the entire hotel registration without seeing a single familiar face in the process. But this one chance encounter made all the difference.

It reminded me that, for me, the one draw to live events is the connection with other people. While some come to conferences for other reasons—at face value, one would hope that includes the learning experience—a genealogy conference is, at its core, a social event. We can never lose sight of that interpersonal connection if we hope to continue seeing this type of learning venue thrive in the future.

11 comments:

  1. One of my blogging buddies and I had this very conversation recently. I've been to only one major conference whereas she's been to many. She has noticed that a lot of the presentations are the same from conference to conference, year to year. I don't see that as laziness on the part of the presenter because there is only so much to say on some topics and ways to say it. Quite honestly, even with my limited exposure to conferences, when I see the announcements, my first thoughts go to, "I wonder who will be there" and I'm thinking about people like me, not the presenters. Offering a few "special" sessions for seasoned conference-goers with at least intermediate-level skills seems like smart planning to ensure there will an audience in years to come.

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    1. Wendy, I think it is definitely helpful for conference organizers to address the learning needs of intermediate-level researchers, as you mentioned. Thankfully, SCGS Jamboree organizers seem to be taking the lead in that direction. Otherwise, as people learn and grow, the organizers work their way out of a future job as conference hosts.

      But your observation, "I wonder who will be there" is spot on. There is definitely a social element to convening at conferences. I know I certainly look forward to coming to next year's conference, based on both of those thoughts.

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  2. I've been to conferences in a different business - and the attendees are largely there to be some place other than at work - and view the local bar(s) the place to do some supposed networking. The presentations are given by amateurs and some of them are first-timers (with very rough edges). Net effect? Snooze-fest for the hungover and difficulties with following along for those trying to pay attention and learn.

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    1. I guess it is different, Iggy, for genealogy conferences than for those attended for work. Despite genealogy conferences drawing in professional genealogists along with avocational enthusiasts, there is certainly a different motivation for being here.

      Though what you describe is certainly unfortunate for those hoping to learn more in the line of your business, every organization hosting conferences will have to have some quality aspect to their offerings, or they will eventually "go out of business" as conference organizers, I would think.

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  3. The more people you meet and network with the more chanches you will learn something new! :)

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    1. It's those one on one encounters that bring the most pleasant surprises when a tip or anecdote gives new direction. I'm sometimes surprised at how energizing it is to connect with other conference-goers and realize how "value-added" the experience can be.

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  4. Chances...fat fingers:) But good for a smile:)

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    1. Always grateful for another smile! ;)

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  5. Jacqui, You said it all. About the only conference I attend is Roots Tech. It is close to where I live. I know I should "branch out," but I'm not big into conferences. At the end of that conference, I sometimes ask myself, "What did I learn?" But in my case I need to ask myself what I could have done to better prepare for the conference. I tend to get distracted in the area with the booths and miss classes. I didn't even sign up for classes last year, but stayed in the booth area. I know this sounds redundant, but in may case, I get out of it what I put into it. I did get a lot of great ideas from the people in the booths, but the questions becomes, "Will I follow through?" You are so right about the interpersonal connection part of the conference! Oh by the way I'm doing the Happy Dance now because after about forty years I was able to break through a brick wall because somebody posted a connection in familysearch.org. I am sharing it in

    http://thestephensherwoodletters.blogspot.com

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    1. I saw that happy dance, Grant. So glad for you!

      Gleaning from the exhibit hall is an interesting learning strategy all on its own, too. One difference I learned from attending the genetic genealogy conference in Ireland a couple years ago was that the European style is to actually teach mini-courses right in the exhibit hall--a type of hybrid of our two starkly separated conference venues, classes versus trade displays.

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  6. Interesting way to do it. Hope you enjoy the conference.

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