Feature: Conferences a go-go
In my undergraduate years (I talk about them like I graduated before 2008), I presented at the University-Wide Undergraduate Research Conference at the University of New Hampshire. This event provided the opportunity for students to present their research, usually related to the iPhone use or recycling habits of university students, to the University community and proud parents. As I was a particularly keen student, I was able to present two years in a row, and thanks to a research grant, I was also able to present my thesis work to my state legislature. I found all three presentations a valuable experience in both selling my intellectual wares as well as getting a sense for the palatability of new ideas for the general public. It also got me over public sweating – a prerequisite for planning school as far as I’m concerned.
Earlier this year in April, I finally got to be on the other side – as a conference participant. I wandered from session to session, silently critique the presenters, and watched the sweat bead and drip as they hocked their respective ideas. Not only that, I got to mingle with thousands of other participants and discuss menial things such as the quality of conference centre carpets and the merit of continental breakfasts.
This, my friends, was the APA Conference in Minneapolis. Five days of shoulder rubbing with mid-career planners and sympathizing about the state of the economy. Dozens of sessions dwelling on practical issues with limited theoretical analysis. One night of open bar and bacon-wrapped h’orderves. I focus on these details precisely because of the absurd beauty of them: these things are only possible at a conference, and at the APA conference specifically. I am so glad that I went.
The APA conference gave me a pulse for the state of the planning profession, something that is hard to get from a graduate planning program, and probably equally difficult to get when isolated in the work world. I learned who planners are (surprisingly still mostly old men), what they are concerned about (economic development and federal stimulus funds), and the threats they perceive (limited growth, environmental regulation). I was also able to allay many of my fears that had begun brewing since I began my master’s degree: most planners feel they did not get many ‘hard’ skills from planning school. Most planners have obscure undergraduate degrees. Most planners switch jobs and have more knowledge breadth than depth.
Certainly, I learned a lot from the sessions I attended. I was able to learn about topics ranging from residential mobility of aging seniors in northern Minnesota to comparative transportation planning frameworks in the US and China. But the most important parts of the conference happened between sessions, in the conversations and observations that a conference enables. I want to thank my program, SCARP, and the Amacon Beasley Foundation for the financial assistance. I was able to take advantage of the opportunity to attend, and I am confident I will be a better planner for it.
This upcoming year, I am planning on attending the annual conference for the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C. January 10-14th. This interdisciplinary conference brings together planners, policy makers, researchers, government employees and developers to discuss the latest in transportation research. I’m hoping the sessions are meaty and substantive, and they are certain to be fairly consistent with my interests. In any case, I’m looking forward to getting my head above the fray and seeing what this intellectual community is all about.
Essentially this is what conferences allow us to do – to get a bird’s eye view of a profession. As planners, we should be able to appreciate this. If we are not able to take a step back and assess the planning problems we find ourselves faced with, we cannot find comprehensive and integrated solutions. As part of the meta-planning for the career of a young professional planner, I see conferences as a crucial component of my education. They allow me to see my options and get new ideas. I am also able to sell my wares to potential employers – and I hope in future years I am able to up the ante by presenting. No matter the role in a conference, the benefits are still clear.
And if the conference is awful no matter what way you slice it, there is always the open bar. If it’s that bad, you don’t need to impress anyone.