flipping the conference: experiences from the Temporal Belongings project

This is a guest post from Michelle Bastian (University of Edinburgh)

In response to Pat’s recent call to flip the conference format, I wanted to share some of my experiences from the Temporal Belongings project. Our focus is on exploring the relationship between time and community and starting from our first meeting in 2012 we have tried to bring our research topic into the heart of how we do things. That is, rather than just talking about time and community, we have also experimented with our own ways of being together in time. Inspired by facilitation training from Cliodhna Mulhern which I undertook as part of my involvement with Transition Liverpool, I developed a hybrid framework for the event that addressed three key issues:

1. Recognising that a workshop constitutes a temporary community
Too often we treat attendees as a collection of individuals and do very little to help build a shared sense of who is in the room, what their interests are and how we might work together to explore the workshop theme. To avoid this, bios were shared online prior to the event, these were tagged with keywords so that it was easy to find people with related interests. Everyone also sent in three key texts related to the conference topic to create a shared bibliography. A wordle of authors allowed people to see which approaches were influential amongst the group. At the event we had a generous amount of time to introduce ourselves and discuss expectations and fears.

2. Emphasising analysis over content provision
Flipping the usual practice of letting presenters overrun and retaining tight control over the question time, presenters were strictly timed and discussion time was much more generous. We had short keynotes (30 minutes), even shorter papers (5 minutes) and at least half an hour for discussion in each session. Importantly rather than focus on the speaker by moving to a Q&A, we instead talked in groups about how the presentation related to the attendee’s concerns and interests. This allowed the content to be integrated and analysed in a multitude of conversations rather than a narrow back and forth between the presenter and their audience.

3. Taking time to develop a synthesised response to the workshop theme
At least a third of the workshop was devoted to activities that allowed participants to step back from the details of the presentations and begin to ask what it all might mean. This included conceptual mapping to develop a sense of emergent themes, open space to explore participant proposed questions in greater depth and world café to iteratively develop a shared understanding of what we had all learned. (More info on these activities, as well as outputs, is available on our website).

Despite a lot of nerves going into the first event, the response to these experiments was so positive that I’ve continued to use this approach in the eleven or so events I’ve organised since then. Collated feedback from subsequent events suggests that people really appreciate the extra time for discussion. In fact many of the suggestions for improvement ask for even more time to talk. I’ve yet to have anyone ask for more presentations! Attendees also comment on how well the methods work for an interdisciplinary group. They enjoy meeting such a wide range of people from so many different backgrounds and actually having time to explore ideas together. Shorter presentations seem to facilitate this. If a talk doesn’t seem related to your work, or goes over your head, you can be comforted by the fact that it will probably only last for 5-6 minutes.

Of course there are some drawbacks to consider. These events can get noisy, with 20-30 people talking in groups, sometimes in the same room. So people with hearing difficulties can find it uncomfortable, as well as others who find noise distracting. There are also always one or two people who miss having a Q&A session with the speaker and I’ve yet to develop a good answer to this. Perhaps most importantly, these methods aren’t foolproof. I’ve been to events that claim to be open space but are run without regard for the underlying ethos that inspired its development. These kinds of events can end up feeling too corporate (or too much like high school). Running a collaborative event also requires a lot of careful planning. Facilitators need to consider shifts in energy, managing the flow from one activity to another, how to allow for the different stages that groups pass through and also not sticking too rigidly to a plan that isn’t working out in practice. All this suggests a better recognition of the distinct skills and experience needed for facilitation and particularly the worth of paying for this expertise if need be. Even so, seeing groups of people linger after an event, sharing contact details, not quite ready to break the new connections they’ve made, or having people tell me that they didn’t know an academic event could be this interesting, fun, and enlightening make it all worth it.

Recommended Reading:
Chambers, Robert (2002) Participatory Workshops: A Sourcebook of 21 Sets of Ideas and Activities. London & New York: Routledge
Holman, Peggy et al. (2007) The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource to Today’s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
Owen, Harrison (2008) Open Space Technology.: A User’s Guide. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler
Impact Alliance’s A Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Workshops. Available here
This blog post by Nancy Dixon: Guidelines for Leveraging Collective Knowledge and Insight

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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