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Reflections on AEA 2022

My first in-person conference in almost three years yielded surprises, disappointments, and the expected awkwardness.

This time of year is usually conference season. October and November are typically big for conferences (much like May and June). This year I ventured out and attended my first in-person conference since 2019: The American Evaluation Association conference in New Orleans, LA (#EVAL22).

I had little idea of what it would be like. Would it be weird? Was it going to be liberating to be back out and among my professional peers? Am I going to be out of practice as a presenter and conference learner? Might this conference remind me that the world is a little bigger than it has felt in the last two and a half years? Would it be awkward? Would it be fun?

The answer: Yes.

It was like pulling out a pair of shoes that had been in the closet for years, waiting for the special occasion to find that they still looked the same, but the fit felt a little different, and you weren’t sure whether they were still in style.

Here’s what my takeaways are from Eval 22.

Format

The format of this year’s conference was similar to so many other AEA conferences. This is usually a big conference, and this year was no exception – to everyone’s surprise, including the organizers. More than 2500 people joined together for four days (plus pre-conference workshops) to learn about the state-of-the-art in evaluation. The AEA had hoped there might be 1500. That’s a big difference.

The usual mix of panels, presentations, talks and plenaries were held. I wasn’t all that impressed with what I saw. After two years of Zoom everything, I thought being in-person would make a big difference. What it did was make me far less patient with poorly developed and articulated talks. I was much less interested in the usual stuff, and it contributed to my dissatisfaction with a lot of what I experienced in the formal program.

A colleague of mine asked over dinner: has the fireside chat format reached its peak? I think it has. He’s right: what was once an innovative way to introduce some informality to a conference has become just another short talk format with little depth of discussion. That was the case this year. Lots of fireside chats but not enough sparks.

I wanted something fresh — although I don’t know what that was.

One thing I loved was the two-hour break over lunch. New Orleans is a food-lovers town, and having the time to break, recharge, eat, and just rest was very much appreciated.

Care, COVID and Design

One of the big questions I had going into the conference was whether or not safety — and the wearing of masks, keeping distance, and other actions — would be a factor. It was…sort of. Fellow Canadian Evaluator Trilby Smith wrote about her experience and noted a lack of community care in the program. Another fellow evaluation colleague, Elizabeth Grim, joined remotely because of these fears and wrote about how a gathering can protect its guests and why we should all care.

I think there was care and carelessness. Masks were coming down, forgotten, or neglected sometimes. I was good 90 percent of the time but even caught myself forgetting to mask up on a couple of occasions when walking through the concourse — which means I was careless 10 percent of the time. I also felt comfortable going to meals or meeting people for drinks or coffee without my mask on.

In many cases, masks made having discussions challenging due to room configurations and acoustics. I can understand why people would not want to wear them. I kept mine on during the conference session but found asking questions from the back of the room difficult. It’s also hard to keep a distance when you’re jam-packed into a conference room that is too small to accommodate the number of people in it. The common areas had a lot of ventilation, high ceilings, and open spaces, which provided some reprieve.

The awkwardness of COVID was present throughout. I made the choice to mask up throughout — and many others did, too — but that didn’t change the fact that there were many design decisions about the conference, the format, the venue, and the arrangements for all of it that could have improved my sense of safety and the protection of everyone. More creative seating set-ups, microphones for speakers and the audience, and more adaptable conference rooms could have made a difference.

Architecture

While New Orleans’ architecture is notable (see above), it was what was inside the hotel that affected the conference the most.

This conference, more than many, was affected by the facility’s architecture (as already noted). The AEA works at a scale that is too difficult to fit into small venues. The New Orleans Hyatt Regency is a beautiful hotel with a lot of space to move around, but the way the building is laid out makes for one of the most challenging spaces to navigate. This feeling was unanimous among the people I talked with.

Like most conferences (not just AEA), there seemed to be little rhyme or reason for why some talks were held in tiny rooms and others in large ballrooms.

(I also recognize that conferences are partly organized years in advance and with enormous constraints, but then that’s what great design does: works well with constraints).

This was a design challenge and brought us together with the pre-COVID ways of doing things (e.g., theatre-style seating, hotel conference rooms) with a present reality that isn’t well-suited to COVID or any other respiratory illness. This isn’t just an issue for AEA, it’s for any organization seeking to hold large-scale events. After two years of creative collaboration in the virtual space, it’s time to focus on what we can do in the physical space.

People

No surprise, the issue of colleagues made the event worthwhile. It didn’t take me long to remember what it was like beforetimes when we met at this conference, went out for dinner and drinks, had coffee, and socialized and laughed. This is where the true value of any conference lies, and that value was high this year.

I love my colleagues from AEA — from fellow professionals to the AEA team — it’s a wonderful community. While Zoom and Twitter have helped keep us in touch, nothing could have replaced virtual hugs with real ones. The real ones felt really good.

Quality

Maybe it was the pent-up hopes for what I would learn, but I felt this was largely a letdown. While there were some excellent talks, far more of the ones I attended were poorly organized and delivered. On multiple occasions, I had to re-read the abstract to see if I had mistakenly gone to the wrong talk because what I heard bore little resemblance to what was presented.

On one panel, it wasn’t until the 55th minute (of a 60-minute session) that the speakers touched on the key issue they had described as central in the submitted abstract. Far too many broad statements without specifics were used in too many talks. The speakers themselves were very good at speaking clearly; it’s just the content wasn’t there.

Much effort has been put into providing tools and resources for speakers over the years; it’s disappointing to see such poor use of slides, presentation methods, and an overall lack of organization.

Is it that we’re out of practice? I know I was. While my talk flowed alright, I found myself a little short on time, having not navigated taking questions as I went along as well as I’d have liked. That’s uncharacteristic of me.

Maybe we all need to be a little forgiving this year.

Ideas, Small Things / Big Roles

What I gained the most from were small things that had big impacts. Perhaps this is what the conference might want to emphasize in future events: big and small ideas with impact. My conversations with colleagues pointed this out.

For example, what if we could quantify our impact and import and adapt that formula to different situations? This was what John Gargani posed in one of his talks. My colleagues Andrew Taylor and Ben Liadsky asked us to consider the importance of relationships in evaluation. Both of these are small things with huge implications if considered. Grand gestures and elaborate models aren’t usually what moves people: simple ideas and connections with others are.

I also came away with a reminder that conferences are not just about content, but connections. Of course, I knew that already. But it’s one thing to think about a profession and your colleagues in the abstract at a distance, it’s another to sit down with them, share a meal, a laugh, an insight, or ask questions together. This is why we gather.

I hope that Indianapolis for Eval23 provides a backdrop for a gathering where we bring out the best of coming together and make it even better.

See you then.

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