ALA Annual Conference 2012: Communities of Writing

July 10, 2012

Many of us who write or who spend time with writers are no longer naïve enough to think that it would be wonderful to meet every writer we have ever admired; writers—like anyone else—can be absolutely insufferable when given the opportunity to be full of themselves/ourselves. But when we manage to set our overinflated egos aside for at least a few minutes and listen more than talk, we discover the pleasures of being part of the formal and informal communities we create.

It has been several years since I was briefly and pleasurably part of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and a smaller fiction-writing group, but I’ve never been far removed from writers as colleagues, friends, and mentors—and yes, in some cases, tormentors. As is the case with so many other communities of interest, formal and informal communities of writers can often be the only means we have of sustaining our creative processes when long hours, days, weeks, or even months of effort seem to produce little of consequence for us or for our readers.

Meeting a variety of first-rate writers promoting their new releases, further marketing the book Lori Reed and I co-wrote last year (Workplace Learning & Leadership), and attending a reception for writers united under a single publishing house (ALA Editions) at the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference last month provided yet another reminder of how important these communities can be for those whose work is largely completed in long stretches of solitary effort. And how far-reaching our connections are even when we do not clearly see them.

At the heart of the reception was ALA Editions’ right-on-target goal of formally and cordially welcoming authors from Neal-Schuman to the ALA Editions stable of writers after ALA Editions acquired Neal-Schuman. More importantly, however, it provided an opportunity for writers and others associated with both publishing houses to sit together, share ideas, and look for the creative opportunities that our unanticipated connections might provide.

It doesn’t take long, when walking into the sort of small and intimate setting ALA Editions provided that evening, to recognize familiar faces: staff from the publishing house; colleagues associated with ALA Editions; and even a few from the latest addition to the ALA family. But the real fun began as we occasionally lined up to retrieve a beverage or small plate of hors d’oeuvres and play the read-that-nametag game to match familiar names with unfamiliar faces.

The winning moment came for me when I looked up from a name tag and found myself unexpectedly eyeball to eyeball with a writer—Esther Grassian—whose work influenced me tremendously while I was earning a Master’s degree and focusing on online learning a few years ago. Because it was an article she co-wrote (“Stumbling, Bumbling, Teleporting, and Flying…Librarian Avatars in Second Life”) that had attracted my attention as a student, I had no idea she also had co-authored two Neal-Schuman books with Joan Kaplowitz and would, therefore, be at the reception. Having met plenty of colleagues who write, I’m far from star struck when I meet a writer whose work I admire—OK, OK, let’s be honest: I’m always star struck when I meet someone whose work I admire, but I was trying (probably unsuccessfully) to not let it show in a setting where Grassian and I were ostensibly colleagues rather than writer-admirer.

She was gracious enough to sit with me and a few of the other attendees as we discussed our work, what we are doing, and what we hope to be doing over the next couple of years. And the magic continued as various people one or the other of us knew joined us at that table and become part of a brief and pleasurable evening when we could learn from each other. Consider possibilities none of us might have stumbled upon without those exchanges. And celebrate the wonderfully sustaining power of communities of writing.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: To Tweet or Not to Tweet

June 28, 2012

Although I was more intensely engaged in the twitterverse than ever before while attending the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference this week in Anaheim, I was surprised to find that at some levels it was a far different experience that participating in the recent American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) International Conference & Exposition Twitter backchannel.

Both conferences had streams of tweets that were virtually impossible to completely follow; there was simply too much content for anyone to absorb. And I was relieved to hear an ALA colleague who was dedicated to keeping up with it finally admit, halfway through the conference, that even she was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the flow. Both conferences also had a core group of tweeters who recorded and disseminated information about what was happening in conference sessions.

But one thing that was distinctly different between the two conferences was that ASTD members who were prolific at tweeting were capturing content from a teaching-training-learning point of view—live-tweeting from sessions to share information that the rest of us could later incorporate into our own workplace learning and performance (staff training) endeavors—while many of the more frequent conference attendees who were tweeting in Anaheim were producing a combination of personal tips about where to find the best conference freebies; sightings of keynote speakers and other celebrities onsite for conference events; personal observations about the experience of attending a conference with more than 20,000 other people; or, at an extreme edge of the backchannel, an overtly snarky set of observations—sometimes live and from sessions where the subjects of their criticisms were in the front of a workshop room or on stage in a crowded auditorium. Fortunately for those tweeters, none of their targets seemed aware of or inclined to respond to those criticisms in the moment as happened in a situation described by Cliff Atkinson in his book The Backchannel.

Anyone inclined to think the comparison between the two groups of backchannel contributors is unfair or an apples-and-oranges sort of effort needs to remember that members of library staff are increasingly finding themselves in the role of trainer-teacher-learner as a core part of their responsibilities to those they serve, as Lori Reed and I document in Workplace Learning & Leadership. Members of library staff also need to be as up-to-date in their knowledge of tech tools as workplace learning and performance practitioners need to be—yet there were signs at the ALA conference that we’re somewhat behind others in our acceptance, use, and promotion of those tools.

When Sharon Morris and I introduced a live Twitter feed via TweetChat into our “Ignite, Interact, and Engage: Maximizing the Learning Outcome” session at the conference, for example, one of the first tweets to go out from a session participant was one of amazement (and, we hoped, happiness) that we were encouraging our learners to incorporate Twitter into that learning experience.

There were signs elsewhere at the conference that others were not at all pleased by the presence of a Twitter backchannel and the use of the mobile devices that connect so many of us and those we serve without regard to geographic barriers. One conference attendee noted, via Twitter, that someone had yelled at him for tweeting, and another attendee reported via Twitter that she was told she shouldn’t be using her iPad during a general-assembly keynote presentation.

It’s obvious that we’re still very much in a state of transition in terms of how we use and accept the use of Twitter, backchannels, and tech tools in public settings. And I firmly believe we need to develop a better sense of etiquette—perhaps along the lines of something I usually do: asking those around me if my use of a laptop or mobile device to capture session notes and share them with others via Twitter will disturb them. I’ve never had a colleague turn me down, and only had one presenter—one who was going to give a presentation on e-learning best practices in a venue far removed from the ALA conference—defer.

Discussing this with a colleague at the conference, I found myself in the strange position of actually speaking up in favor of the tweeters—strange because, five years ago, I really didn’t want a cell phone or a laptop or anything else that I perceived as a burden/distraction rather than a resource, and I had little experience with social media tools. But colleagues, friends, and outright necessity have completely reversed my thinking, and I don’t believe it’s an understatement to say that those of us involved in training-teaching-learning—workplace learning and performance practitioners, library staff members, people involved in customer service in an onsite-online world, and many others—really can’t afford to overlook these resources if we want to be competitive and effective in meeting the requirements of our work.

My colleague’s observations about the conflicts between those using Twitter and mobile devices and those distracted by or resentful of the presence and use of tech tools and resources produced an interesting exchange. Perhaps, she suggested, we could resolve the conflicts by setting aside a special area during keynote addresses and smaller workshops for those who want to tweet. Perhaps, I responded, we could set aside a special area for those who want to be free of the presence of mobile devices and tweeters. For in an onsite-online world where the majority of those we serve actually appear to be ahead of us in their acceptance and use of Twitter and mobile devices, we might as well intellectually as well as physically make a clear and visible statement about where we stand in terms of meeting them where they are and prefer to be met—as unobtrusively, civilly, and respectfully as possible.

N.B.: To hear an extended (45-minute) conversation on the topic of Twitter as a learning tool at conferences, please listen to T is for Training Episode 101, “Instant Professional Development,” hosted by Maurice Coleman on June 28, 2012.


ALA Annual Conference 2012: Volunteers, Irresistibly Doing What They Do Well

June 27, 2012

Offering librarians a chance to provide information to their peers is like offering learning facilitators a chance to facilitate a learning experience for other trainer-teacher-learners: irresistible. Which is why the opportunity to serve as an Ambassador providing information to thousands of attendees at the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference that ended yesterday in Anaheim drew far more volunteers than we could place.

The role is simple: after attending a 30-minute orientation session online or onsite, conference attendees each serve a two-hour shift at a highly visible information kiosk directly outside the main exhibits hall or at the ALA Membership Pavilion in the center of that huge expanse of vendor exhibits. Working alongside ALA staff and paid greeters who live here in Anaheim, the Ambassadors were part of a seamless team that made life much easier for frantic conference-goers than would otherwise have been the case.

Watching those volunteer Ambassadors at work is to see artists engaged in their art. As is the case with any volunteer matched with an appropriate assignment, the Ambassadors were completely at ease, quick on their feet, calm under pressure, and amazing in their ability to find and share what their colleagues might not so easily have found without their assistance, e.g., locations for sessions; information about programs; pointers about how to take advantage of the free shuttle service that ferried attendees from the convention center to the various hotels where conference events were taking place; and, in a few cases, assistance in loading the conference app onto attendees’ tablets—which, by the way was spectacular for those of us who wanted not only to be able to track the sessions we planned to attend, but to also integrate our own privately-scheduled meetings into that central scheduling aide).

Even more worth noting is what motivates them—something that came to my attention when a colleague asked “What do they get?”, and I was temporarily flummoxed because those of us who recruited, oriented, placed, and checked in with them didn’t offer them anything tangible. The answer, however, is clear to anyone who has ever volunteered, worked with volunteers, and/or read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. There is what he calls Motivation 3.0—Motivation 1.0 is survival-based motivation, Motivation 2.0 is a carrot-and-stick rewards-and-punishment model, and Motivation 3.0 uses autonomy, engagement, purpose, and mastery—which was clearly on display among the Ambassadors as they worked with little supervision, were completely engaged in what they were doing, understood the purpose of the assignment they had taken, and felt comfortable in their mastery of the skills required to excel at what they were doing. And asked, as they left their shifts this year, how they can return to the assignment next year when the conference is held in Chicago.

It really was a stunning example to anyone interested in designing, implementing, and nurturing a volunteer program: trust volunteers, don’t micromanage them, provide them with work that appeals to them and uses their skills effectively, and they’ll match what you receive from the best members of your paid staff.

By definition, volunteer opportunities are going to attract those who are willing to provide something without expectation of receiving tangible rewards. But those oh-so-intangible Motivation 3.0 rewards will always attract a first-rate group of volunteers who excel at what they do. Serve the constituencies they have agreed to serve. And contribute to the continuing development of the communities we all so clearly crave.


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