Thoughts on conference format
posted by Sonja Starr
Like most academics, I attend conferences fairly often, and enjoy some of them more than others. I wanted to share a few thoughts on format features that tend to make conferences a better experience from my perspective, and to invite commenters to share their views. I have enjoyed conferences that follow a variety of different formats, and I think format diversity is good, for reasons discussed below. Still, there are a few features that I tend to prefer and would like to see more often:
(1) The atmosphere should be genuinely conversational. That means that most of the time–and not just a few minutes at the end of a 90-minute panel–should be filled by discussion/Q&A that is open to everyone in the room. (I admit to hypocrisy here–when participating on panels, I often push whatever time limit I’m given. A note to moderators of any future panel that I’m on: Feel free to tell me to shut up sooner!)
(2) Assuming the conference centers on presentation of papers, there should ideally be an expectation, or at least a strong recommendation, that everyone in the room have read those papers. This facilitates goal (1), because the speakers can then talk for much less time or even cut out the intro talk entirely. It also increases the quality of the conversation, and means that speakers are more likely to get useful feedback.
(3) Participants should be given a reasonable chance to get to know one another, which generally means the conference should be pretty small in size and there should be social meals that don’t center on a presentation by a speaker. This makes conferences (a) more fun and (b) more valuable in terms of getting to know colleagues with whom you might collaborate in the future.
These goals are interrelated and generally favor similar kinds of conferences. In particular, I really like small conferences that consist of a series of workshops each focusing on a single paper, rather than panels. With panels, more time will necessarily be occupied by intro talks rather than discussion, and it is less realistic to expect everyone to have read the papers if they’re going to four panels each day with three speakers each. I am especially averse to panels that are held in front of enormous audiences in hotel ballrooms–when the room is smaller, it’s more likely that a real conversation will ensue. Another interesting format that I’ve enjoyed is the one used by the Constitutional Law Schmooze at Maryland: in each session, several people speak for no more than a few minutes each, serving basically as a conversation-starter, and thereafter each person who offers a comment is responsible for calling on the next person. The conversation thus proceeds in pleasantly disorderly fashion around the room, rather than always going back to the speaker/panelists after each question or comment as a normal Q&A would.
Of course, some of what makes a conference enjoyable is its subject matter and what speakers are invited–if the substance is interesting enough and the speakers dynamic and provocative, even panel presentations in crowded ballrooms can be worth attending. Also, I can see reasons that particular conferences might prefer to depart from some or all of the suggestions, and reasons that it’s good not all academic conferences look alike. If a conference is smaller, obviously that means that fewer people can enjoy and learn from it, and speakers gain something from sharing their ideas with more people. Some attendees might like panels, rather than workshops, because they enable them to basically browse a wider range of new ideas without committing as much time to each of them. Some conferences should be open to students, practitioners, and/or members of the public who might not have time to commit to reading a bunch of papers ahead of time. And there might be something to be said for having more or less everyone in a given field gather somewhere once a year–it could be a way of getting big, field-shaking conversations started. (If people aren’t dozing off in the back of the ballroom, that is!)
So I’m not arguing for uniformity–but I do wonder if there’s demand out there for more conferences of the smaller, more workshoppy sort. Commenters, what do you think? And has anyone attended a conference with a particularly innovative format that’s worth copying?