Sitting Around

I’m writing this from a hotel lobby in Orange County, California, where the National Conference on Students in Transition just wrapped up. I’ve got a few hours until my flight and the WiFi is fast and free, so I thought I’d put together a quick reflection…

I enjoyed this conference. Like, a lot more than I thought I would? I know that sounds arrogant, but I haven’t had a great time at conferences lately. What I think made this experience more interesting to me is that it wasn’t centered on libraries. I travel a fair amount as part of my job these days, but it was nice to get beyond the view of just academic librarians and talk about some of the broader challenges and opportunities in higher education. I attended sessions about advising, residence halls, first-year curriculum, transfer students, and a lot more. And more than that, nearly every session I attended centered the student experience, rather than the role of whichever academic service or department the presenters were representing.

This was perhaps best exemplified in my last (and favorite) session of the conference, in which Kathryn Wilhite from Kennesaw State acknowledged at the outset “there are no student voices in this presentation–I wanted to instead look at the language we use when we speak to students.” I really appreciated her honesty and recognition that her focus was still on the student experience, even if she was instead investigating what other people are saying. From there she shared how she had applied Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge to analyze the rhetoric of communications to first-year students that had me nodding emphatically the whole time. (tl;dr: words matter, and sometimes we do a disservice to our students by not being thoughtful about our language.)

I also managed to connect with a few librarians and other staff who are working on research similar to what I’ve been studying with Erin Richter-Weikum, and it was highly validating to hear how the results of our study are similar to what colleagues at other institutions are seeing. This year has been a bit complicated, but it was genuinely energizing to be reminded that there are lots of thoughtful people in higher education who are doing good work to improve the student experience. Throughout the conference (a few presenters aside), nearly everyone I heard talked about how the onus is on institutions to better meet the needs of students, not how they had managed to change student behaviors to meet the needs of the institution. This is the correct tack.

Lastly, I appreciated that this was a smaller conference, which always allows for more conversations and connections. Although some sessions were more sparsely attended than what I’ve come to expect at national meetings like this, I had some really great, long discussions with professionals from around the country, representing just about every kind of school I’ve heard of. And while there are differences between institutions (“that could never work on my campus–we’re a commuter school”), there are also a lot of common threads. I heard a lot of people talk about the role of leadership, and the need for effective, engaged leaders. I also heard a lot about the need for faculty, staff, and administration to all work together, rather than relying on old models of siloed services. And, refreshingly, a lot of people discussed the role of higher education workers, and how improving the student experience also must involve improving working conditions for academic labor. Maybe it’s just the nature of this conference, but it was a welcome touch.

Unlike the Dodgers fans everywhere. 😛