Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to do something exciting, familiar, strange, and, honestly, a bit surreal: attend an in-person conference!
The Visitor Studies Association (VSA) is an organization I’ve been involved with for over eight years. In 2014, fresh out of grad school—where I earned a M.A. in Museology and graduate certificate in Audience Research—I was the recipient of a student scholarship to attend the annual conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and formally step foot back into the professional world of research evaluation. That experience deeply impacted me. Across the course of three days, I soaked up sessions, eager to understand the range of ways the skills I developed through previous professional experiences, academic experiences, and internships, could be further refined and more broadly applied. I also networked hard, establishing relationships with colleagues who would later go on to become valued mentors and friends.
Fast-forward several years to summer 2022. It has been three years since my last in-person conference. It seems rather obvious, but a lot has changed since then, and I was a bit nervous for how this gathering would go. The last time I was at conference, I was steering the Awards and Scholarship Committee, seeking to welcome emergent talent to their first conference and help build for them the same experience I received back in 2014. This year, I arrived mid-way through my second term as an At Large Board Member; a role which I’ve tried to leverage toward supporting emergent and mid-career talent retention in the field generally, but especially amid the pandemic. This was also the first year where I wasn’t running an event, facilitating a workshop, presenting a poster, moderating or sitting on a panel, discussing a paper, or otherwise talking about a project. It was liberating.
I am aware that I was in the minority at the conference – to not have to stress over talking points or the font size of my slides. I didn’t take that for granted. Leaning into the conference theme of “Creating Space and Coming Together,” I prioritized being present at sessions and to continue conversations outside of hotel ballrooms and into coffee breaks, dinners, etc. And this, to me, was the true value of being back at the VSA conference (or any in-person gathering) again. The ability to have deep conversations with colleagues, to engage in lively debates about our practices (I am team even-numbered scale!!), how they align or differ across professional environments and roles, and generally reflect on how our profession has changed in recent years.
Sessions that resonated with me were those that questioned the role of evaluation and critically examined the powerful position an evaluator has to gather, interpret, and document the voices of their study participants. I saw this mostly in the sessions that spoke about recruiting participants for studies and how approaches or priorities have shifted over the years. Connecting with community where they are–not just where your study takes place–was a dominant theme. I also appreciated the more direct emphasis on enhancing the accessibility of study tools (e.g., being proactive with captions, interpretive services, designing with screen readers in mind). These concepts are not new, true; however, the discussion of them seemed to reiterate the need for the field to ensure that – as practitioners working with community-serving organizations–all are able to be represented in data informing decision-making about how they are engaged.
Though it has been a few weeks since I flew home from Omaha, Nebraska to Portland, Oregon, conversations started at the conference continue on across various VSA platforms; our Data Visualization Focused Interest Group has already helped me rethink the accessibility of some tables I’ve been designing for a client. I have some ideas to enhance recruitment and implementation protocol for a few other studies too. It will be two years until VSA meets in person again (it will be virtual next year), allowing time for more change and opportunity. I’m curious to see how that convening goes but am currently more eager to sustain all the energy, ideas, and deepened relationships garnered from this most recent conference.