I swear I saw an elephant. There was not time enough to be certain before I was swept along by the crush of humanity in the great hall of the American Psychiatric Association’s exhibitor area, but I’m almost certain that there was a medium-sized pachyderm between the roller-coaster and the three-story brain.
It was 1999, and my experience with organized medicine was at that point limited to the APA’s annual meetings. I had attended several and enjoyed them quite a lot. I still do. The grandeur and scale are hard to imagine until one actually sees them firsthand and witnesses the immense opportunities for professional development. Despite the appeal and stature of APA, there was something more that I needed professionally. It was easy to learn a great deal by wandering the poster sessions or attending the workshops, but there was something a little too impersonal and anonymous about it all.
A mentor told me about an opportunity to attend the Association for Academic Psychiatry (AAP) annual meeting. He said that this was a very intimate group with a focus on the teaching and learning of psychiatry. This sounded much like what had been missing from my professional development, so I headed for Santa Fe.
It did not take long to realize that the AAP was indeed focused on the process of learning as much or more than on the content of what is being taught. The AAP “focuses on education in psychiatry at every level from the beginning of medical school through lifelong learning for psychiatrists and other physicians,” according to the Web page (1). There had been nothing quite like the AAP in my experience to that point. The AAP presented a new and exciting emphasis on how exactly one might teach a specific topic, on the way in which people remember, and on the options one has when given materials to impart, time, and learners. An unstated but critical additional result of the gathering was the passion the group inspired, the “lighting of a fire,” as Yeats is so often quoted. This enthusiasm led to new or renewed vigor and fervor for teaching, which could then be directly translated back to the home institution. It was apparent that the meeting was an enormous success for me when Saturday’s final session arrived and I had not stolen away for so much as a brief walk in the mountains!
Over the ensuing 7 years, my involvement with and appreciation for the many purposes of the AAP have grown and deepened. In addition to the importance placed on the mechanisms of learning psychiatry, there is also a robust career development objective within the group. Every gathering of AAP people represents an exceptional opportunity to create and develop a network of colleagues who will serve as mentors, confidants, coauthors, and advisers. The career development mission is made manifest in the AAP’s meeting program and Web page, but it is perhaps even more effectively advanced through the myriad informal and serendipitous exchanges that occur whenever two or more AAP members convene. Whether via teleconference, while giving Grand Rounds at a peer institution, or simply passing in the hall at another meeting, these encounters, along with the more formal and intentional ones, create the foundation for the career development mission of the AAP.
Yet another purpose of the AAP is to create a forum for like-minded psychiatric educators to address matters of collective importance and to brainstorm around issues of similar concern. The opportunity for this discourse arises from the delineation of sections and workgroups within the AAP, which then gather in person at least once annually at the fall meeting and as often as needed elsewhere in the calendar. There is also regular e-mail and listserv traffic among and within the subgroups. The 10 sections and workgroups include large areas of interest, such as medical student education, as well as more focused concerns, like executive leadership. Gathering together psychiatric educators with shared purposes has the effect of stimulating novel approaches to common problems while enriching the supportive network of educators who pursue similar goals.
Personally, my involvement with the AAP and my overall professional growth have been accelerated by leadership of one of the aforementioned sections and by commitment to the various committees and assignments that originate from the organization’s leadership. Any professional association has a steering or executive committee and any number of task-specific groups that in total comprise the inner workings of the organization. The AAP presents a substantial number of opportunities for involvement at this planning and operational level. My own work on the program committee has helped me better understand and appreciate the immense complexity of hosting even a modestly sized professional meeting. Likewise, serving as the medical student education section leader has broadened my awareness of the many dilemmas within modern medical student education and fostered a better appreciation of the pervasive anxieties and delights inherent in this career course. Fundamental among the many effects of AAP participation has been the cementing of my professional identity as a psychiatric educator through active involvement at this national level.
The purpose of AAP is to create, nurture, and sustain a cohort of teachers to shepherd psychiatric education through the coming decades. Its effects are wide-ranging, from personal professional advancement to enhanced mental health care for our society. Though it is unlikely that anyone will ever encounter an elephant or roller-coaster because of their participation with the AAP, if you are committed to psychiatric education, there is a lifelong home for you within this group.