Sketches of conferensis

By Juliana Adelman

Conference season is nearly upon us.  Oh, the academic conference…  On the one hand they are vital means of communication, feedback, idea sharing and ‘networking’.  On the other hand, they are overly numerous, expensive, time-consuming and often disappointing.  I have to say that I recall my first academic conference with considerable fondness.  I was in the first year of my PhD and I went to Manchester for the British Society for the History of Science’s annual postgraduate conference.  I was so nervous before my talk that I couldn’t eat and almost lost the half a sandwich I managed to stuff into my dry mouth.  On the way back from lunch with a group of my colleagues, a rather indiscreet participant told my fellow panelist not to worry about her talk as the other papers in her session sounded horribly boring.  He meant MY paper, of course.  Just the thing to calm the nerves.  However, once the talk was out of the way, there I was, surrounded by other people who also liked the history of science!  Hurrah!  Shared esoteric knowledge is truly salve to the lonely postgrad soul.  Now I have (mostly) got over the pre-talk jitters.  I have moved to the dark side of conference organisation, full of budget spread sheets, orphan bank accounts with strange names, nagging emails (mine), whining emails (theirs), revised programmes, registration forms and conference packs.  To be honest, I much prefer sweating over giving a paper.

Anyway, I started this post because I think  it’s worth discussing the value of conferences to history (or academia) in general.  The problem with conferences, as I see it, is that there are so many of them that people have changed their approach to them.  I’m part of this problem, having recently organised one conference and planning two for this year.  You can hardly blame anyone for just going to see those talks that seem the most interesting or most relevant to their own work.  On the other hand I kind of resent breezing in to give your own talk and then breezing out again without giving others the courtesy of listening to theirs.  Of course sometimes this is unavoidable as most conferences are planned so far in advance that something is BOUND to come up in the interim.  But isn’t the point of a conference to ‘confer’?  Yet conferences often barely facilitate this and mostly it is through coffee breaks and lunch which often get squeezed as sessions run over time.  Although ’roundtable’ or discussion sessions are a good idea in theory, I’ve rarely seen them work in practice.  As anyone who has taught a seminar can tell you, it’s hard to get some people talking and hard to get others to stop.

As a reformed scientist I’d like to throw something out there…the lab meeting.  When I worked in a lab we had ‘lab meeting’ maybe once a month or perhaps every other week.  At the meeting two lab members would give a talk on their current research.  It was short and informal, the point was for the other lab members to make constructive suggestions and for the presenter to seek advice on particular problems.  It wasn’t totally casual as the PI (principal investigator) was always there and if he/she was also your PhD supervisor or boss you took it very seriously indeed.  This, I imagine, is what departmental seminars used to be about.  Now, however, they are generally about bringing in outside speakers making them a sort of single-session conference.  And we don’t really need anymore conferences.  Anyone for a lab meeting?

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13 Responses to “Sketches of conferensis”

  1. Frank Says:

    Ah yes the academic conference. Having attended quite a few over the years, certain patterns emerge. The panel speaker who refuses to leave the podium despite repeated frantic gesticulations from the chair to wrap up. But oh no, he/she has spent hours slaving over the piece and will not rest until the paper entire is read to an increasingly frustrated audience who feel for the other speakers as they will now have to cut their papers short. Then, we have the speaker with the dreadful monotone delivery of a typescript that we would have been better off receiving as a paper to read ourselves. My main gripe, however, is the parallel sessions format which can be very annoying as one tries to hop from one session to another to get to the papers which are most relevant to your research. The seminars can on occasion be entertaining bloodsports as an academic proceeds to mercilessly attack a speaker’s paper. One in particular comes to mind where a pedantic point of detail was raised repeatedly at the Q&A to publicly humiliate a speaker.

  2. Felix Larkin Says:

    Here are my few thoughts about improving the conference experience:
    • I feel one-day conferences are better than ones lasting two days or more. It’s impossible to keep the enthusiasm going beyond the first day.
    • The role of chairmen is critical – e.g. in setting the pace and tone of the conference, controlling the speakers, encouraging discussion and channelling the direction of the discussion. The choice of who is to act as chair is very important – it is not a residual function, to be assigned to somebody simply because they are senior or have nothing else to do at the conference or are on the organising committee or are nice people. You need someone is knows how to chair a meeting and is good at it.
    • Chairmen should be merciless with speakers who go over their allotted time. Speakers who abuse their position in this way are simply unprofessional, unfair to their fellow speakers and their audience. The microphone should be turned off on them.
    • Similarly, chairmen should be instructed to interrupt and terminate contributions from the floor that are too long or not to the point. It may be necessary to be rude, but there are tactful ways of cutting someone off. For example, interject with: “Sorry, excuse me, but do you have a question?”
    • Arranging for someone to give a brief formal response after an important conference paper is often a useful way of stimulating a useful audience discussion (the respondent should have seen the paper, or a draft of it, in advance).
    • Finally, I agree with Juliana that much useful networking is done at coffee breaks and lunch (or in the pub afterwards). Adequate time should be allowed for such things. I also agree with Frank about the frustrations of the parallel sessions format. I too hate that, for you inevitably have to choose between papers that you want to hear.

  3. dfallon Says:

    At 20, I suppose I’m approaching Conferences with an optimism that comes with new territory. Of the handful I’ve been to do date, I would agree completely with the points Felix Larkin has made above.

    The point in relation to Chairs rings true at any sort of public event, there is *nothing* more frustrating than a speaker than the floor who clearly feels a great injustice was done by not being on the bill, and will share their 40 minute planned talk with us anyway.

    The points on networking are very true too. It can be a bit daunting for the Conference newbie coming in the door, but you’re normally quickly but at ease by the chatting that comes with a break. That’s not to mention the handy tips one can pick up from those more in the know than yourself (In any aspect of life!)

    My first Conference was one hosted by the Military History Society of Ireland, at Collins Barracks. I think I caught the Conference bug there, but even at your first Conference (and one that could not have been better organised) you notice things like the annoyance of parallel sessions. Sadly, there is nothing that can be done about that, unless you want a four or five day Conference! I’ve no doubt I missed some great talks, to hear some great talks at that Conference, and the others I’ve been to since.

    “The seminars can on occasion be entertaining bloodsports”

    Some of the stories are legendary!

  4. dfallon Says:

    Ah, pardon a typo or three above. History, of all things, has melted my brain tonight. Microsoft Word is the culprit.

  5. Póló Says:

    I was intending to make a point, and I think Felix has raised a variant of it.

    I was at a regional economic conference in Durham in the 1970s where I really appreciated the format.

    The speaker summarised their paper in 10 minutes. A respondent, who was qualified and who had studied the paper, gave a 10 minute critique. And the debate was then thrown open to the floor. And it took off straight away.

    The benefits of this approach were that: the speaker had to condense their case (assuming they actually had something to say, and if they hadn’t this was very quickly apparent); the respondent identified the critical points in the speaker’s case and made it academically respectable to question them; the audience were seriously provoked by the end of the respondent’s contribution, and waded in with a vengeance.

    I thought it a great format, but have not seen it since.

  6. Póló Says:

    Addendum: I should have said that all the participants had the papers in advance and were expected to have read them.

  7. Póló Says:

    Addendum: I also agree with Felix on the remit of the Chair.

    Speakers who go over their time are engaged in anti-social behaviour, stealing the time of following speakers, or the networking, or wine-drinking, time of the audience.

    An 007 licence is completely in order on these occasions.

  8. puesoccurrences Says:

    First: apologies for altering the historical record and putting in the picture I had intended in the first place. technology failures mutter mutter

    Second: lots of great suggestions above for reforming the conference.
    I’m amused that almost everyone I speak to agrees about speakers going over. A 007 licence isn’t even the most extreme suggestion I have encountered. And yet it still happens. How to change this, I do not know. Maybe we need buzzers.

    @Polo: the idea of the pre-circulated paper, I suspect, has faded with the growth in numbers of conferences and numbers of papers at said conferences. And has also been the victim of the push for publication so people feel disinclined to share anything on paper except through a peer-reviewed journal or between the covers of a book. A shame, really. I’ve been to one pre-circulated conference on a similar format and it worked quite well. Leaving plenty of time for informal discussion.


  9. Patrick Maume Says:

    I disagree with Felix about the superiority of one-day conferences. It takes time to settle in and get used to people; a one-day conference is over before you have tracked down the people whose work you might be interested in or who might be interested in yours. It’s a bit anti-climactic, especially if it involves travel over a distance.

  10. Eoin Magennis Says:

    I cam eot this discussion very late. The issue of chairing sessions might be worth a thread on its own as it is probably the critical job for good conferences: (1) get to speak to the panelists beforehand – helps the nervous speakers and also yourself to make the point firmly about time-keeping; (2) get a bit of advice as to who the likely time delinquents might be and ask them to go last so that they don’t eat into the other’s time; (3) use the ‘5 minutes to end’ warning system – let the panelists know that you’ll be doing this [at a recent economics conference I was at the chair used their mobile alarm to act as the final warning]; (4) provide the speakers with some fair feedback afterwards – both on content and on the presentation skills; (5) when inviting comments/questions stress the need for brevity and that you’re keen to get critical points as well; (6) be hard as nails on ramblers or those seeking to score points – the ‘that might be better done outside the session’ phrase is one that is heard too rarely; (7) above all be polite but firm – a little humour helps but you’re not there to make new friends. Note to organisers – specialists in subject areas can often be the worst chairs even if they have the opening questions worked out.

  11. Frank Says:

    Eoin, the points you make are very interesting. An additional point struck me and that is to avoid allowing conference speakers to monopolise the Q&A period as they can easily encounter the panelists over coffee, lunch or dinner or at other conferences or college visits. Interested members of the public in attendance don’t have that privilege and often feel excluded as a consequence when academic questions are prioritised. Clearly, academic responses following papers do play an important part and shouldn’t be excluded entirely but they shouldn’t dominate proceedings. In short, the chair should seek out unfamiliar faces as well as known academics or conference participants among the audience to ensure a properly balanced response to each paper is achieved.

  12. Ida Says:

    I was at a conference recently where the chairs used a traffic-light card system to warn speakers when they were running out of time. Yellow for five minutes, orange for two, and red…. It worked really well, was uniformly understood and was easy to see. My pet conference bugbear is the chair who waves what looks like a blank piece of paper at me from the far side of the room. Don’t assume those specs are varifocals.
    Patrick, I agree with you about the length of conferences — you get a better chance to size up interesting papers or sessions when you network at the longer conference.

  13. Sacha Says:

    I’d like to use the cartoon accompanying your post in my Master’s assignment. Do you have the copyright details by any chance? Many thanks.

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