Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Problem With Conferences

A scholarly conference typically consists of a bunch of talks, punctuated by coffee breaks. In these talks, people sit and listen to someone give a presentation, and then ask a few questions. Then we go on to the next talk. I love conferences for networking reasons, but I really don't like the talks, and I try not to go to them. I think Glouberman puts it well in his interesting book The Chairs Are Where the People Go (2011, kindle location 2013).

"If you want to read this person’s paper, you can read it on the Internet. This structure doesn’t just ignore the existence of the Internet, it ignores the existence of the printing press. It’s a medieval idea about how information should be disseminated—to imagine that if you want to know what someone thinks, you have to go sit in a room with them while they read out loud to you their thoughts...Finding out what someone has to say in their paper isn’t a reason to travel across the country and stay in a hotel room. A reason to travel across the country is to have conversations with people and actually form human relationships."

I endorse this point of view.

Now there are two kinds of conferences: small ones, which only have a "single track," and conferences in which multiple talks are happening once: multi-track conferences. Multi-track conferences are not so bad, because you don't have to go to a talk all the time. You can hang out by the coffee and meet people.

But I really don't like single track conferences. Here's what usually happens. A talk goes long, and the person in charge of keeping the talk on track is just another researcher. In other words, someone with feelings. If a talk goes long, or the questions go long, then they often let it slide.

Then the next talk is late. Then when the coffee break comes, the only reason to have the conference at all, somebody says they're cutting it short because the talks ran long.

So you're out there with your coffee getting into a great discussion with someone. Then somebody comes out and tries to hustle everyone back inside because the next talk is starting. I usually try to hang back, but end up being all alone. I sigh and go into the talk.


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