This past week, I was given the opportunity to attend the 2012 American Association of Agricultural Educators (AAAE) Annual Conference in Asheville, NC. Since I was to present my research at the conference, the University generously sponsored my trip and my stay in the amazing DoubleTree hotel. Can you believe they always have warm cookies available for free at the front desk? Amazing yumminess! But, aside from the cookies, the hotel also presented a wonderful location for AAAE members to meet and share their research and interests in relation to the field of agricultural education (broadly defined).
Some of the key take-aways I gathered from the conference were as follows:
1. Take advantage of the opportunity to network.
While at the AAAE Conference this year, I had the joy of meeting some amazing people who I had previously known only through email correspondence or who I had cited in my thesis. It was nice to finally get the opportunity to meet with these people face-to-face (Or, as social media junkies like to say IRL or In-real-life). I was able to share research ideas and discuss issues related to our field, which provided an amazing learning opportunity for me. While it can sometimes be intimidating to strike up a conversation with someone who is much more experienced and knowledgeable, they are usually very friendly and willing to help. Always make sure you take time to explore these networking possibilities . . . Even if you are afraid whoever you want to meet might bite 😉 I definitely came away from this conference with lots of new connections who I hope to stay in touch with and maybe work with in the future (see point #3).
2. Don’t be narrow-minded about research.
Too often, it seems that people only see value in research that is directly correlated to their key interests. If you only like to do qualitative research on teaching agricultural education, you may tend to see great value in research that is along those lines. This, however, is a narrow-minded way of viewing research that can limit the benefits you gain from being involved in research conferences, professional organizations or collaborative research teams. Just because you may primarily participate in qualitative type research does not mean you should undervalue quantitative research. Likewise, those who do quantitative research should not undervalue qualitative studies. And, then there’s the whole argument about the existence of a true mixed-methods approach. From my limited experience, however, I find the most benefit in approaching all research with two questions: “What can I learn from this?” and “How can I adapt the lessons learned to better my teaching, research or professional development?”. When viewed in this way, there was not one of the 80-ish research ideas presented at the AAAE Conference this year that I could not benefit from. Some people had done studies similar to mine, so it was easy to see how I could adopt their ideas to help further improve and specialize in my research are of social media adoption. Other presentations, which focused on various issues of demographics and historical issues of culture and racism, gave me insights on these issues that I can use to help improve how I handle issues of race and diversity in the classroom or in a 4-H program. I think this concept is easy for me, because I haven’t developed 20 or 30 years of experience working in one area, but I would challenge everyone to try looking at things from this approach next time they attend a conference or convention. It may amaze you how much you learn.
3. Collaboration & Communication are KEYS to success.
Several of the presentation at the conference also focused on the necessity for collaboration–between disciplines, between universities, between faculty and departments, etc.–in order to increase the success of getting studies funded through grants. This seems common sense to us newbies, because I can easily see how I would benefit from working with some of the rockstars in Agricultural Communications field (Dr. Emily Rhoades, Dr. Courtney Myers, Dr. Billy McKim and many others). However, when you have been in the world of academia for many years, I can see how it would be easier to just want to work with the people you are used to working with for years. But, opening up to new possibilities is going to be essential in the next few decades to ensure that research is as efficiently and effectively conducted as possible. Collaboration and effective communication can help prevent duplicate studies, and expand the scope of studies so that the results are relevant to a larger, broader audience. This helps ensure that organizations get a maximum return on the investment they put in when funding the grant together. Social scientists need to work to find their niche in these multidisciplinary collaborative teams to ensure that they are providing valuable input and that the field of social science research remains relevant.
4. Always seize the opportunity to enjoy a bit of food and fun with colleagues! 😉
Finally, (and you may take this last bit with a grain of salt) it is important to utilize these opportunities to actually enjoy spending time with your colleagues–from your University\organization or from across the nation. These gatherings are definitely created to allow for academic advancement and learning, but they also allow for a wonderful opportunity for members of the profession to catch up with old friends and share in conversations about what is going on at their university or organization. These experiences allow for building of friendships and strong networks of support that are much more challenging to build while going through the motions at official events. I will say one of the most enlightening conversations I participated in about research while at the conversation was over dinner one night at TGI Fridays. While it is obviously very important to be professional and courteous at all times, it is also nice to be able to explore the city where the conference or convention is being held and enjoy building friendships off of the conference time clock. I would not advocate skipping events or anything important, but make sure you take time to enjoy the location. There is a reason they don’t host these conferences in Podunk, Nowheresville.
So, those are the four things I learned while attending the AAAE Conference, in addition to adding a few more important contacts to my list of professional connections, stuffing myself with amazing local Ashville food, and attending a concert after which I got to meet the piano player. All-in-all, it was a wonderful week and I am glad I got to go and present my research! I look forward to maybe attending next years conference in Ohio.
Until next time,