How often have you left a conference inspired? How often have you run a conference and been left wondering what people got out of it?
On the back of attending and presenting at plus 20 academic conferences over thirteen years working in research, I’ve spent the past near two years examining the role and value of conferences. Inevitably, this has got me thinking about how conferences can be improved.
From interviewing people for my book, the following three themes evolved.
1: It’s the delegates (stupid): look after them
Let’s start with the obvious but often overlooked: organisers need to design their conference around those attending. In particular when and where a conference is held will have a massive impact on who can make it, and therefore what will (and will not) be discussed. Weekday events are probably best in order to allow time for travelling, as well as generally being easier to attend for those with families.
Travelling to a conference can be demanding, especially if it involves overseas travel. Because of the effects of travel, those attending should be encouraged to have time to spare before the conference starts, if need be, to acclimatise to the new environment.
How often have you felt what I term “confy fatigue”: the point in a day’s proceedings where you start to feel tired, overwhelmed by the barrage of continual presentations, and struggle to maintain attention? At this point I try and escape the usually humid confines of the packed rooms. These are not ideal circumstances for learning and sharing knowledge, therefore delegates might want to drop out of sessions at such points. Conferences have a duty of care for the attendees; providing a hospitable environment for the attendee to live and work in is key.
"It might be useful for different disciplines to amalgamate for events. While this sounds like a logistical and academic challenge, it can take people out of their comfort zone, and encourage dialogue between diverse groups."
2: A little more conversation: get people talking
The lifeblood of a conference is not the presentations, but delegates talking. Meeting colleagues in person is an essential part of the experience, especially if they are from far afield. This can allow like-minded people to discuss common problems and share novel information. A fabled aspect is that “the real work” of a conference gets done in the bar. The chance to be able to do work in a convivial and relaxed environment is not to be scoffed at, especially as it is a place to make connections, catch up with colleagues, and devise new ideas.
There might be an expectation that conference will generate important debates, but to do so will necessitate bringing together people with different views. Unfortunately, conferences tend to have a poor record of this. By maintaining professional barriers, important discussion across disciplines gets easily lost. It might then be useful for different disciplines to amalgamate for events; e.g. bringing together a statistical and humanities audience at the same conference. While this sounds like a logistical and academic challenge, it can take people out of their comfort zone, and encourage dialogue between diverse groups.
Academics are fond of cliques, and if you are not from the same University, share the same academic beliefs or interests, then the conference can an alienating environment. This is more so if you disagree with prevailing wisdom. Effort should be made to allow people to raise their doubts in an encouraging and supportive environment.
3: What’s new in Baltimore? Conferences as a “knowledge enterprise”
Conferences represent a part of the “knowledge enterprise”, as one interviewee said to me. Conferences often generate noise, but a novel insight can pierce this and give people a memorable take home message. So it seems such an obvious point to share new knowledge between participants. However, how you do this when delegates have to submit an abstract up to a year in advance of the conference is not easy to see.
There might be the expectation for a conference to be a ‘game-changer’, rallying for a particular social or political cause. This is not necessarily an easy ask, and might require politicians speaking to raise issues to the political agenda and attract media attention.
Guest speakers presenting to a large audience are not necessarily always helpful. Small group work is often favoured, so it might be worthwhile to curtail some keynotes. People can be lost in large crowds and messages get diluted, therefore conferences might be better suited if they keep things small and parochial.
Are those who are prepared to break the traditional conference mould likely to reap dividends? Does this tally with your conference experiences? Use the comments facility below to join the debate.