Reflections on the AIR Forum: A First-Timer's Perspective

CGoverts-picture.jpgBy: Claire Goverts
The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting below.  

Claire Goverts is Assistant Director of Research, Analysis, and Planning at SUNY College at Brockport.

I’ve been to the AIR Forum. Now what?  

I spent a few weeks before the Forum looking over the schedule and adding interesting sessions to MyForum. It soon became apparent that multiple sessions that interested me were overlapping. In some blocks of time, I triple-booked myself. It was hard to balance all of the options with attempts to take in as much as possible. 

Luckily, I found that some of the sessions tied together. I started Sunday with the Research Design, Statistics, and the Practice of Institutional Research pre-conference masters seminar, after which I attended the Improving Student Success pre-conference workshop. Something shared in the success workshop framed the Forum experience for me: part of the conversation addressed the way that students are doing things course-by-course instead of integrating knowledge from one course to the next. As the Forum progressed, I started to see more connections between the sessions, which in turn helped me from feeling overwhelmed. 

Things started to come together for me during the Monday keynote speech. Ralph Wolff’s comment about IR professionals as storytellers struck a chord with me and helped me select a session in an overbooked time. Given the crowd in the Data Geek to Storyteller session that immediately followed Wolff’s address, I’m probably not the only one who picked up on that.   

Thanks to Wolff’s storyteller comment and the stats seminar, the importance of understanding what people are asking of IR was highlighted. This is key to properly answering their questionsit is more than just giving them data that sounds like it fits with what they might want. Knowing the climate and needs of your institution and the people within it helps us, as IR practitioners, arrive at the question along with the appropriate answer and analyses. In addition, having those types of working relationships with institutional colleagues helps IR understand the data within our information systems. Conversations held throughout Forum on these topics provided specific context. I found it particularly helpful to learn from these examples of what could be happening with data to muddy the clarity, which tied to other conversations about the necessity of highlighting relevant data instead of drowning the campus in reports. 

Now what? I’ve been reviewing my notes and sharing topics with my colleagues. I am using knowledge gained from the survey-related sessions while running our alumni survey. I have reached out to a few IR professionals on LinkedIn, and hope to maintain those connections. I’m also looking toward the future with an eye to how I can be more involved in AIR. One benefit of the Forum was my interaction with others, and I want to carry that forward in my work. 

2013 AIR Forum Brunch in Long Beach, California. 

 What resonated for you at the 2013 Forum? Share your thoughts below.  



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Total Comments: 6
Nancy posted on 6/13/2013 9:24 AM
This article makes me see what I missed this year.... sigh.
Jeanne posted on 6/13/2013 11:20 AM
Great article! I can understand how the first AIR Forum can be overwhelming, especially for those who are new to institutional research.
Michelle posted on 6/13/2013 12:10 PM
Nice essay! Attending a new professional conference can seem overwhelming at first, but planning ahead and making connections are great ways to take the excitement of the conference back to the office.
Eric posted on 6/13/2013 2:14 PM
I love attending the Forum and I enjoy using the resources available to us throughout the year via this website. AIR is to be commended for providing so much support to its members!
Terry posted on 6/13/2013 2:45 PM
I remember the enthusiasm I brought back from my first AIR forum. You want to apply of this knowledge to your job because you just know that it will help your institution to help students learn. The reality of day-to-day moderates the enthusiasm until a few months later when you realize you just applied that concurrent session idea to a current problem. Then you remember your initial response to the session. The enthusiasm builds because you realize you have just achieved the learning outcome of the session.
Sheila posted on 6/14/2013 10:09 PM
I wrote my reflection after the Forum. Part of my reflection is quite similar to Claire's. Below is something else that I noticed.

I. The educational meaning out of the Annual Forum

A professional conference should be educational by nature as anyone would expect, and worth the time and effort to participate. People come to learn and are experts of some sorts. But when they communicate, exchange their views and experiences with another experts, the produced knowledge as a result of this social exchange can reach a higher level of synergy. Therefore, the process of attending, participating, listening, conversation, discussion, exchanges, new concepts and ideas is both social, collaborative, and constructive; and thus the procedure of generating knowledge by nature is educational and enhances professional advancement.

All these things happen at AIR Forum, in which a social context is set for learning and growth. However, all the emerging knowledge learned and earned is set in stone. Instead, the concepts, ideas and all kinds of exchanges for knowledge shall be the starting point for further refinement and be transformed into strategies to solve challenges of one’s own


The AIR Annual Forum is absolutely learner-centered. It is a professional occasion, and education and development is absolutely the locus. Arrangements are made to ensure that members as learners are THE center, and some human factors are well taken care of as well. I am going to further tease out these aspects in the following:

1. Get people involved.
Members receive invitation emails to be reviewers, facilitators, presenters, etc. Without participation, people won’t feel engaged. Without the engagement, people won’t feel belonged. However, without a well-planned organization, all the participation will not be rewarding and fun, serious fun. Any organization will be serious about creating, maintaining and expanding. Without engaging its members and attendees, it will be tremendously challenging to handle an annual conference like AIR Forum with high number of attendees. And interestingly, this kind of engagement is connected to the following point I am going to make.

2. Professional socialization-Facilitate professional socialization and development.
Engaging people to participate and learn is essentially the learner-centered strategy. AIR members and attendees come join the forum with different levels of knowledge and experiences. The seasoned members help train the novices only ease the work of AIR, but also pass down the IR legacy with insiders’ knowledge. I term this process to be "professional socialization", namely, the veteran members share knowledge and expertise, and the new-comers receive, observe, try on, practice, and revise to make the earned knowledge relevant and sustainable. So, we saw sessions such as international IR, the first-time comer reception and so forth.
Another interesting session I found is Faculty in IR which introduced certificate programs some universities had developed to sharpen the focus of the PhD training. The idea behind this introduction was to seek possible expansion through collaboration. My take on this emerging program is that PhD training starts responding to market needs. The market is two-fold: one is the job market definitely; the other is the PhD students themselves as a market. Honing skills for PhD students and by themselves will ensure PhD recruitment and the post-PhD job security. In addition, who study higher education shall be more able to host a cross-talk with IR professionals. With the training through certificate programs, the future generation of higher education researchers and scholars shall be well versed with the cross-talk.

3. Add some spices.
The AIR Forum did not forget to celebrate the annual gathering with a festive and cheerful atmosphere. There were food and on-site chorus, a clown entertaining the attendees in the poster session area. Under this semi-professional-semi-joyful atmosphere, people became relaxed and personable. They opened up themselves more easily and got settled in, and thus were more likely to connect, support or collaborate. Well, music could go loud so we might need to speak louder. But should we complain if attendees opened up themselves accepting one another in such atmosphere?

Good house-keeping is the key element to success for a huge conference like the AIR Forum. Prior to the trip, AIR staff sent several waves of reminders for various reasons. For those who facilitate sessions, people would receive more detail schedule reminders and thank-you notes. For all conference attendees, AIR sent travel tips incrementally when the conference was approaching. These house-keeping tasks maybe intuitive, but creating relevant, timely reminders absolutely takes time, effort and expertise. In the Forum, the flow of conference time, the lunch break for rest or for private schedules, AIR bucks to spend, name badges with a new look, etc. are well thought through. Session evaluation forms are used very recent years. Providing feedback to session presenters is definitely useful and relevant.

Last but not least, thank you to AIR boards and staff who organized the Annual Forum so well. This is an association with 53 years of legacy. Acting on comments, suggestions and concerns, AIR expands its capacity and deepens the engagement. It walks its talk in the way that THE association is a portal for professional growth, and acting upon statistical evaluation and written feedback makes the association becomes learner-centered. AIR set an example to all of us as members and attendees that because AIR care deeply, so we change and march on!

Sheila Huang