Positivity is the mother of conventions

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
American conferences have razzmatazz, but after witnessing one, AoC president David Collins prefers the British alternative

American conferences have razzmatazz, but after witnessing one, AoC president David Collins prefers the British alternative

You know the American Association of Community Colleges Annual Convention is going to be different when the registration process asks for your nickname to put on your identity badge.

In the end, the outcome, much like the event itself, does not quite live up to expectations - a rather modest collection of Chucks, Hals and Kips, with not a "Robber Baron" or "Hot Lips" in sight.

The convention, in Philadelphia, lasts from Friday to Tuesday lunchtime, although Friday is essentially a pre-conference day, given over to policy- making groups and committees. These cover areas such as technology, communications, equality and workforce development.

The event proper starts with an opening session on Saturday to honour individuals: there are times when there seem to be more people on the stage receiving awards than there are in the audience.

Needless to say, there is a great deal of jumping up and down and cheering, and a number of standing ovations for achievements that at our Association of Colleges conference in Birmingham would merely receive a gentle round of applause.

One hour and forty minutes later, we get the main speaker - author Amy Tan, mildly entertaining but not to the extent that the women in front of me are falling off their seats with laughter.

Behind a lady in the coffee queue, I heard how "awesome" the opening ceremony had been; in England, half the audience would have got up and walked out.

There may be more than 200 seminars and forums at the convention, but new ideas are few and far between.

"Work based Learning: a new opportunity for community colleges" is presented by yet another "outstanding panel". It describes how work-based learning "takes education right to the employee at the workplace and teaches in real time, during work hours using the work content itself to teach".

Support Services, by no means as extensive as those you would find in the average UK college, are nevertheless regarded as key to student retention. There's a long discussion on how we should judge whether or not community colleges are successful - although measuring the progress of students is never mentioned as an option.

There are some good ideas. A DVD designed to be an online information and training resource for staff who might come into contact with students with disabilities could well be modified for the UK.

On the whole, however, in teaching, learning, management, administration, student support - in fact pretty well everything - we in the UK are streets ahead.

So, if the Americans are offering so little in terms of ideas and practices, what can we learn from them? First and foremost is the unshakeable confidence and belief that they are doing a really great job.

Every presentation is "tremendous", every panel "outstanding", and every contribution acknowledged as if it has added something unique to the sum total of human knowledge. It is self evident to all those present that US community colleges are the best in the world.

Over the three days there's praise, praise, and more praise, with not a single negative comment or hint of criticism of anything or anybody.

Second, the convention is run for colleges, by colleges, with colleges. Unlike our AoC event, which usually gives platform time to each of the three main parties, there's a complete absence of politicians in the US version.

The event is quite simply a celebration of what is perceived as good in American colleges, and an opportunity for everyone to show support both for their colleagues and for the system.

Individuals are recognised and celebrated at every turn; plaques the size of small walls are handed out to alumni; and medals that wouldn't look out of place on the Olympic rostrum are presented to presidents nominated by students for their - needless to say - "outstanding" contributions.

Last, but not least, a lot of business gets done. Outside of the convention proper there are committee meetings, often taking place at 7am before the main conference opens, while groups of all shapes and sizes use the occasion to hold their own mini events.

There's the National Council on Black American Affairs reception; the business meeting of the National Asian Pacific Islander Council; the Future Leaders Institute reunion; and a parallel one-day conference of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges.

The whole event is clearly designed to make the most of the delegates who are present, with purposeful networking and business meetings, a reaffirmation of shared values, and a warm recognition of achievement.

Now that the jet lag receded, and my luggage returned from Terminal 5 (well, eventually), I'm straight to planning this year's AoC November conference. The message will be simple: let's forget our problems for three days, celebrate what we have, and tell the world how good we are.

If we were to add appropriate nicknames to the badges, the whole event could be . awesome.

David Collins is president of the Association of Colleges, and principal of South Cheshire College.

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