Real Talk Thursday: REFLECTIONS FROM ASHE 2013 by Domonic Rollins


I just returned from the Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education. This association is more than 35 years old, and has been leading the way for higher education research and scholarship. Each year faculty, graduate students, and practitioners gather to discuss research findings, recruit new professors, and advance important matters in our field. Unlike other conferences for higher education and student affairs that I have attended, ASHE centers on current research and scholarship. Most presentations are derived from current papers on which scholars are working. For the work displayed at ASHE, you can anticipate to see it in print in a couple years. Despite the specificity of the conference, I noticed and realized that this conference is similar to other conferences I have attended in several ways.

A Place to be Renewed

Some readers may recall several blog posts where my overall tenor was low – not the exciting Domonic that most people are used to. Attending ASHE helped me to feel refreshed and renewed. Simply, I am not all alone in my efforts to make a difference in higher education and students affairs – I mean duh. While there are many professionals taking on this work in different ways, particularly with different research interests, the end goal of making higher education better, stronger, is shared among many. Conferences have a simple but cool way of doing this, of helping attendees to feel renewed about their work. You get to catch up with people that you have been in the field with for years, listen to inspiring speakers, and engage with cutting edge research and practices.

While it is difficult to quantify the “return on investment” from feeling renewed, it is a real part of the conference experience that can deeply impact how you work, what you accomplish, and how you engage upon returning to one’s campus. With shrinking budgets, conference attendance is usually granted on the basis of presentations and active contributions to the conference. In some ways, this makes sense – a discrete way to measure or determine if one’s attendance is necessary or should be allowed. Yet, how do you describe or quantify what comes from a sense of renewal. Isn’t that worth something in the work we all do? I think so, and am hopeful that others will continue to see renewal as an integral part of a professional’s career as they manage work demands.

First Interactions are Awkward

Conferences are a great place to observe people having first interactions in person. You have followed a scholars work, you cite them constantly in your papers, and you even tweet them, however, you have never actually met them in person. How do you approach them? What do you say? And most importantly, how do you break up the conversation they are having – that you think is useless – so you can start your conversation, and give them praise; of course emphasizing how their work changed your life. Simply, it’s awkward. Everyone is entering first interactions from a different perspective.

My recommendation is that people exercise more patience. Unfortunately, during the conference I observed far too many people be interrupted, cut off, or cut out of a conversation because someone wanted to speak with a scholar. There is something about the organic nature of relationships and connections that many should let live in their first interactions with others. If you’re unable to have a chat immediately, no worries, another opportunity may present itself. And if you are unwilling to wait, then possibly you don’t get to engage.

Where I stumble most in first interactions is group introductions. It’s a classic scene. You see someone you know while you are chatting with a friend. The person you know steps up, you start to chat and you forget to introduce your friend. I am notorious for doing this. Several minutes past, and your friend finally goes: “Well aren’t you going to introduce me?” To which you reply: “Of course, I was going to introduce you.” You try to continue on as if they didn’t just wait your entire conversation to be introduced. Needless to say, with much excitement about seeing lots of people, introductions will not always go over smoothly.

Consider this: first interactions are more of an art, and less of a science. There is no calculated method for starting a conversation, introducing a friend, gracefully interrupting, or getting the attention of someone with whom you would like to speak. You must try different ways, and find a style that is comfortable for you. While you may vary your approach, please ensure that manners are maintained.

People are Listening

Quotes or adages about how you are always being watched or listened to are plentiful, however, it is rare that examples surface to demonstrate exactly how someone is watching or listening to you. While at ASHE I caught up and reconnected with lots of colleagues, I also met new people. One afternoon, while taking a break from conference sessions, I met up with a colleague who is in graduate program on the west coast. He and I got to know each other through my application process, as he provided some guidance and answered questions I had about the process.

We kept in touch during the past year, and was excited to catch up some while at the conference. Mostly, we chatted about how I was doing, and how I was managing my transition. At some point, my colleague was referencing a woman in his program by saying “chick.” To which I said: “You mean, a woman, right?” My colleague brushed off my correction, and continued the conversation. There were two other women present, seated near us as we chatted. My colleague introduced each of them before we began our conversation.

Later in the conference, one of the women sat next to me during a luncheon. We caught up generally about our conference experience; we hadn’t seen each other since the beginning. Then, she said: “I want to say thank you, I overheard you correct our colleague when he said ‘chick.’ That’s exactly what allies do.” I was floored and humbled by her expression of gratitude. Of course, I didn’t think she overheard the conversation, nor did I think much about my correcting my colleague. We continued discussing similar situations and how one approaches others who use exclusive, biased, or derogatory language.

Clearly, this example reminded me that people are listening to you, even when you don’t notice or know that you are being listened to. This reminder is especially important at a conference where people are forming first impressions and making decisions about how to extend their professional network. It was exciting to be noticed for doing something good.

Reposted by ACPA CSJE Blog with permission from the author. Original post can be found at

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