NCSS: Finding Your Community at Conferences

Compass at the Washington Convention Center, Photo by SES

I just returned from the Annual Meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies in Washington, DC.  It is the ultimate meeting place for those with an interest in social studies, history, sociology, and education. And, of course, with the backdrop of Washington, DC, it could not have been a more perfect time to be discussing civics, politics, and service.  It also is a place that allows the intense social studies nerd to flourish and feel at home.  Two years ago, I saw someone walking around dressed like Mary Todd Lincoln and got passed on an escalator last year by a Minuteman.  The point here is that people are passionate about social studies.  Enthusiasm, passion, nerditude – these are all things that you can feel free to exercise in this setting.

I think that the following exchange sums it up best:

  • Me [holding a snappy map from the Rand McNally table]: Hi there.
  • Woman: OH MY GOD WHERE DID YOU GET THAT MAP!?  It’s beautiful!  You can write on it with a whiteboard marker!
  • Me: You should go over to the Rand McNally table.  They are doing a spin-and-win and I got this map.
  • Woman: I LOVE SOCIAL STUDIES!  AHHHH!  [runs away in the direction of the spin-and-win]

In my view (and I am sure in many others), the official purpose of a conference is to both connect with your greater community of practitioners and academics while bringing back the lessons of the wider community to your home institution.  AMF contends that conferences are a bringer of cognitive disruption and dissonance, which is also a growth factor for scholarship and another truth of conferences.  As I attend this particular conference, however, I am struck by how at home I feel in the halls of the Washington Convention Center and how the group of like-missioned, but uniquely grounded social studies practitioners remind me why I entered this field in the first place.

As I attended the sessions around the main conference theme of “Dimensions of Diversity”, it struck me that so much of what was discussed could be applied to my job, my volunteer positions, and my academic work.  They are lessons I want to share with peers while also refining and rethinking my own processes and assumptions.  But at the same time, there is something about conferences that bring out in me the 12-year-old scholar that longed to have the long academic discussions I knew someday college would bring.  I know this says something about my social life as a middle schooler, but I am not ashamed.  I was a grad student in training.  I just didn’t know it yet.

So, my advice to all of you who might feel that you are the solo specialist in your field at your institution, who relishes long academic conversations, who loves to be immersed in an academic environment: find a group that fits your interests and go to the conference.  You will enrich your own breadth of knowledge, find a community of practitioners, and be invigorated by the talks and topics that remind you what makes your field interesting and important.

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