Friday, April 09, 2010

Conference pet peeves

Frequent readers may know that when I attend conferences, all of the pet peeves I've developed over 15+ years of attending those conferences come rushing back to me (I last wrote about discussants).  Some people contest the pet peeves (or parts of them) which is good, and maybe I am being too uncharitable.  I should also point out that my experience is that conferences are valuable primarily for the personal contacts you make, and the friendships you keep going by getting a chance to see people in person.  So quibbles about panels are less important.

Nonetheless, I feel we academics must be failing when so consistently in presentations we take fascinating topics and make them mind-numbingly dull.  This is by no means everyone, and certainly is not aimed at anyone in particular, but it happens too often.  I am not entirely sure why, though maybe it has something to do with our love of our own voice and opinions.  It might also have to do with the fact that such things are not generally taught in graduate school (I've have commenters occasionally say their school does it, but I think that remains the minority).  We would benefit greatly by a) taking only occasional glances at notes or the paper itself while presenting; and b) knowing when simply to stop talking.  I don't see any need for anyone to go past 15 minutes, and 10 might well be better.  A panel should be an interactive thing, with the participants and the audience, but they become lengthy lectures, and perhaps that is because we're accustomed to captive audiences where we talk for an hour or more at a time.  We say "one final thing" or "in conclusion," then talk five minutes more.  We even say "I'm going to make this short" and then go over time.  We seem to be aware of the problem, but can't stop ourselves.

See, I even made that paragraph too long.   But in conclusion...

So get right to the heart of the paper, the main argument.  Give the key supporting arguments/details and leave out the rest.  Then you can hand it over to the audience, where you might get the person who turns a question into their own five minute discussion of their own opinions.

That's enough ranting for one day.  Plus, I need to go over the presentation I give in about an hour.


Anonymous,  11:24 AM  

Greg-- I think it has in part to do with the nature of pre-conference activities, and the general model of the 'panel.' IE, people tend to write long pieces for their discussants to read, and then have to figure out how to get out of them for the talk.

We would probably do better to simply organize roundtables instead of panels. And, of course, we historians are much more likely than you poli-sci'tists to engage in the peevish behavior. I wonder, though, if that has something to do with disciplinary practices.

Personally, I would prefer 1500-word essays posted on a blog, or with comment press or something like that prior to the conference, and then discussed face to face at the conference.

By the way- it was great to meet you, and I agree that the best part of conferences, esp. those like SECOLAS, is in making those connections.

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