It’s the end of the standard conference day. You’ve seen every session. Keynote. Panel. Three papers. Keynote. Three papers. Panel. Each session Chair has tried to allow time for discussion and most of them have succeeded – sort of. A very few people have managed to ask questions of the presenters. Some eager others waved their hands around hoping this would pressure the Chair into extending the discussion. It didn’t. The occasional loudmouth tried to butt in. Many more didn’t even bother to think of anything to say, they knew already there was no way they’d get a turn. You see, if you don’t get your hand up at the start of question time, it’s not going to happen.
I suspect a lot of people are like me. They listen to the presentation or paper and then have to think. When question time begins they just haven’t had time to put their thoughts together and so they can’t put a question or a thought into anything like a coherent sentence. It’s not till some time later that the ideas crystallise into a thought-thing that could have made a worthwhile contribution.
There’s something wrong with this style of conference. It’s not very interactive. It’s hardly a discussion let alone a debate. At its worst this kind of conference is more like primary school show and tell than an actual conversation. And perhaps that’s what its meant to be – the conference is just a place to present rather than discuss. The conference organisation is all about maximising the presentations, not the dialogue. Line ’em up, roll ’em out.
Some conferences do manage something other than this relentless through- put. The organisers sort the presentations in such a way that there are common threads for people to follow, and there is more of a chance for conversations to start in one session and flow on to another. Or they simply allow more time for questions – not that that necessarily allows we slow thinkers to participate fully.
If the conference is large, it’s pretty hard for everyone who’s actually had a thought-thing and who wants to have a say, even if there is more than the usual allocation of time. Someone runs round the room with a microphone and the pattern of conversation goes audience speaker audience speaker audience speaker. Occasionally this pattern is broken, but this is the dominant mode. This is not really a conversation. It’s too centrally mediated to produce continuities and to build up ideas.
Occasionally you do find a conference that gets the right combination of human size, time for discussion and format. The unconference for example brings people together to talk about topics that they declare via a pre-unconferene wiki or simply on the day. (If you want more detail, see a little clip about unconferences here). There’s little formal input other than what people decide to say at the time. This structure can of course end up with some people still doing the equivalent of a paper, but by and large the unconference allows much more time for interaction. The unconference is a design to promote collaborative idea generation and in depth exploration of issues not presentation churn. The unconference has been a bit prone to becoming corporatised and may have lost some of its edge…. It is however a far cry from the usual style of people just presenting their work for others to consider.
One alternative to the usual paper driven and paper dominated conference format is to flip the arrangements. Instead of all the time going on presenting, and much less on talking, the talk gets the biggest slab of time. The flipped conference requires people to write and circulate their papers well beforehand. These are generally posted somewhere online expressly so that people can scan the papers to make an informed decision about which ones they want to read in detail. They then sign up – also beforehand – for actual conference sessions which have set, restricted numbers. It’s a first-signed-up, first-attending system.
The flipped conference offers extended time for each paper, a limit on the number of people who are present and everyone has read the paper and has thought about what they want to discuss. If each session is an hour for arguments sake- and this is typical of the flipped format – then the paper writer gets five minutes to do an introductory pitch and nominate something they’re interested in discussing. Then it’s on to a round table discussion beginning with some questions and the paper writer’s preferred topic, before the conversation goes on to everyone else’s ideas and comments.
I’ve attended flipped conferences and they really do give time for people to have serious discussions. They seem to work best with a tight focus, quite smallish numbers of like minded people who are committed to writing on time and reading the papers well in advance. As a flipped conference paper writer you certainly feel that people have engaged seriously with your work, and you often get really helpful suggestions which allow you to make fruitful additions to your initial work. And as a flipped conference participant you have the time you need to consider what you want to say – and you get to have a say without worrying that you’ll never get a word in at all, ever.
However, that’s not what I’ve got in store this week. It’s the usual format – keynote, paper, paper, paper, paper… I’m not expecting a lot of feedback on my papers, and not expecting to say a great deal either….