Next week I’m going to a two-day professional meeting, a chance for all my peers to get together and compare notes, discuss burning questions in our field, network and arrange collaborations for the coming year, and so forth.
At least in theory.
In practice, it’s:
- Two solid days of PowerPoint presentations, most just ten minutes long
- Forty-five minutes for lunch, two 15-minute tea breaks, and a generous 10-minute “stretch break/discussion time” each day, rather like primary school kids get to stop them fidgeting
- No informal get-togethers, poster session, dinner, or excursions at all
- A few “panel discussions” but with only one participant listed
I’m getting a bit weary of this model of conference organisation: packing as many unrelated one-way infodumps into the day as possible so everybody can get credit from their institution for presenting. In most cases they’re not sharing any actual new research or findings, it’s just a status update. Despite most of the presenters being curators of visual arts, I predict there will be lots of bullet-pointed text.
I’ll be talking about our moa project for ten minutes, just enough time to mention the 3D-scanning Kickstarter we’ll be doing but not enough time to answer more than one question about it. I’m at the end of a block of ten-minute talks which will inevitably go over time, so will have to choose between dropping the questions or stealing people’s tea break. (Telling people to keep to time in these things is useless; it requires the MC to actually cut people off before they’ve finished, which never happens, does it?)
Please, can we just toss this entire mode of professional interaction in the bin and set it on fire?
I know it’s easy to come up with suggestions, and good ideas tend to fall apart when subjected to the brutal realities of conference planning. Nevertheless, here are some possibilities:
- Six-minutes-forty-seconds pechakucha talks would be one way to keep people to time. And you actually have to rehearse for a pechakucha, which would be a nice change. Yes, it’s a bit more stressful, but (horrible statement coming up) people who don’t feel confident enough to give a pechakucha shouldn’t be giving public talks, or rather should be sharing their ideas in some other way.
- An unconference with no scheduled talks and spontaneously-assembled sessions would be a better alternative for this small group. Everyone says what they want to share, the schedule is put together with Post-It notes or on a Google-doc spreadsheet, and people gravitate to what interests them. Everybody participates.
- Having a particular goal: in my area, it might be thrashing out a joint statement on the trade in moa bones, collectively developed from discussions as a Google document, with everybody signing their names at the end. For others, it might be developing the initial concept for an app, or brainstorming an object list for a collaborative exhibition, or adding to a tips/trick list for Vernon, our database software. The idea is to produce something tangible at the end.
- Panel discussions that are actual discussions, where people argue with each other, rather than deliver mini-lectures in parallel. The chairperson should be actively stopping people, inviting contributions from the audience (comments, votes, thrown objects), intervening with questions of their own, and grilling panel members. Even the conventions of a formal debate would be an improvement: yes/no to a stated proposition, time allocated for rebuttal.
- Half the conference time—no less—devoted to networking, with empty rooms and projectors available for meetings and spontaneous workshops.
- Adventurous use of Twitter: questions taken from the projected twitterstream, sessions formed in response to questions using the hashtag, Twitter handles first and largest on conference badges.
- No conference pack stuffed with junky fliers and jellybeans, no comb-bound conference book. The programme should be a dynamic website, viewable on a mobile device (and loaner tablets should be available for people without sufficiently-smart phones).
- Sketchnoting for every session, by volunteers or even a professional, collected together as a PDF and sent to all the attendees as a memento.
These ideas wouldn’t solve all the problems of the traditional conference format, but in a small meeting, where collaboration is more important than formal presentations, they’d make for a more valuable use of everybody’s time.