AEA Conference – Day 4

I’ll admit, today my energy and enthusiasm level at the conference was a bit lower compared to the other days. There’s likely a couple of reasons for that, ranging from a somewhat earlier start time today and yesterday compared to the first two days, to the accumulated effects of being away from home. However, I think the main reason lies in the shift from the pre-conference workshops to the main conference itself. The workshops were longer affairs (minimum half-day, maximum two days): the conference sessions, in contrast, range from 45 to 90 minutes and are usually subdivided into separate topics and speakers who may be have as little as 15 minutes. Exposure to a wide range of presenters and ideas are perhaps hallmarks of any conference, but information overload is a real danger. Likewise, meeting other attendees beyond a cursory “Where are you from and what do you do” is much easier in a workshop where you’ll be interacting with them repeatedly over a day or two. Finally, the transition from pre-conference workshops to conference proper entailed a change of venue from a hotel’s meeting rooms to a rather large convention centre, the latter of which seems to perfectly replicate the feeling of time- and placelessness of a large airport, including the disorienting effects. If I wasn’t flying back to Saskatoon tonight, I would probably have paced myself a bit more over the past few days, but in any case I’m glad the workshops came first.

That being said, I’m thankful to have attended several useful sessions today, most of them on the theme of participatory evaluation and generally moving data collection and presentation beyond the standard surveys and graphs. In fact, one session led by a father and daughter team (he’s a graphic designer, she’s an evaluation researcher) raised considerations about how to present information in a way that clearly communicates your ideas (no Comic Sans font, please!) without the use of bar charts or line graphs. Another workshop introduced the World Cafe model of small group discussion that’s structured to provide a safe space to generate and share ideas, and the final session I attended highlighted different “adhesive formats” for data collection – think dots, stickers and labels instead of checkboxes and fill-in-the-blank questionnaires.

Although today marks my last day at the conference, I have many more ideas and resources to share than I have been able to record in the last few posts. I probably won’t maintain the daily writing schedule once I get back, but there will be at least one or two more posts covering some additional topics from this experience. I also plan to post under the Resource section some brief summaries of the participatory methods I learned about, along with links to websites with more information.

All in all, I had a great time at the conference, and while next year’s event is a bit further afield in Washington (DC), I would seriously consider going again!

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