Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why Are Conferences So Bad?

I'm sitting in a dark room with 13 colleagues who've gathered to talk about pedagogy. Or so I was led to believe. But now I'm not sure, because the guy at the front has been meandering around ... something ... for over a half hour now, and shows no signs of wrapping up. Painfully, we can see that he is on slide 7 of 12. The slides are so packed you can hardly read them - but I suppose it doesn't matter, because he can. And he does. Every word. Then he decides to show us something on the internet. When he opens safari, there's the site for my presentation, primed and ready to go. He blithely closes it and then starts rummaging around for the URL he's after.

It's like watching a "How Not To" video, all the way through.

The kicker is that all conferences are like that. This summer I explored both ends of the rigor spectrum. One required a 2500-word proposal plus citations and generated four sets of feedback. Reviewers graded us out of 100 (range of marks: 35%-98%) and said things like, "Although it was helpful to have a list of works cited, I would have liked a more representative bibliography. I'm not convinced these scholars are acquainted with the full history of GIS-based scholarship." Bibliography? Did I mention this was for the proposal? for a poster?

The other conference asked for a four-sentence summary and responded within 90 minutes of submission: You're in!

Both conferences were equally bad, and bad in the same ways. By bad I mean, principally, boring. Let me get this out of the way: most academics are nicer - more tolerant, more polite, more attentive, more forgiving, more generous - than I am. Regrettably, this chronic condition shows no sign of improving. In fact, the older and busier I get, the less forgiving I am of having my time wasted.

For instance, by being read to. I have reached my lifetime limit of sitting in a room being read to. I learned to read when I was 5 and I have a PhD in English. Reading is something I can do for myself. So, please. Stop.

If you can't stop, if for some reason you cannot imagine any other way to reach your audience (for instance, if you have spent your entire life in a media deprivation tank), then read. But for the love of all things holy, run through your presentation first, and if it takes longer than the 15 minutes allocated to you, it is too long. What to do? Shorten it. Yeah, that's right: take some stuff out.

Being timely would meet my minimum standard for conference presentations. Not everybody can be brilliant, but everybody can read a clock. If you're ticking that one off Ye Olde List of Lifetime Accomplishments, then I challenge you to the relevance test. Before you present a point-by-point elaboration of an obscure novel dredged from the depths of your field, stop and ask yourself this question: Who cares? Look, I'm sure the use of ellipses in pre-colonial Spanish poetry is fascinating, and I bet you're right that you can only truly understand its implications by contrast with post-colonial Spanish poetry's elimination of ellipses. I'm prepared to concede all of that. In fact, I insist: let me concede the technical details of your argument and give me the good stuff - the punch line, the implications, the reasons I should care.

Finally, a word to session moderators. Moderate! You are the only person in the room who can shut this gong show down. We rely on you to do so. No polite "2 minutes" signs passed along three times. Once: fine, even I can be that polite (or, I can try). But once those two minutes are up, clear your throat, stand up, and interrupt. Reach over and shut off the mic. Start to clap. Not only the other presenters, but every member of the audience will thank you for doing so.

Until that happy day, you can find me in the back row, where I'll be checking my email.

12 comments:

  1. I've been to some presentations as bad as the ones you describe here, which manage to be both too much (length and detail) and too little (scope and applicability) at the same time.

    But no, not all conferences are like that. I wonder if it's a saving grace of my field (environmental history & historical geography). It's par for the course to have well-illustrated presentations (a blessing of talking about landscape: it's pretty easy to illustrate this stuff! Photos, maps, artwork, data sets ...) - so the text is remains confined to the delivery of the presenter, not the powerpoint. (I even see this trickling over into the more conservative, mainstream historical conference settings: a trend toward roundtable discussions rather than three-papers-and-questions, and imagery now de rigeur.)

    Plus, the content is likely to be engaged in some way not just with the field's own scholarship but with policy, etc. Two recent standouts - an international conference in Copenhagen on env. history, and a week-long conference on PEI on measuring change on the Island - showed me that conferences are not something to be suffered through for a CV.

    You're welcome to join us for the annual summer school in env. history at St. Andrew, N.B. in May ...

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  2. Oh Heather, I love this -- your words will ring in my ears as I talk for 75 minutes in a row tonight at a public lecture ...

    I'm bored senseless at conferences too, and fuming mad that none of the presenters care enough about my time to make it worth my time to sit there: SIFT YOUR FUCKING MATERIAL FOR GOLD AND SHOW ME THAT. And you're right that no amount of peer review and rigor in the conference website helps cure Boring and Irrelevant Presentation Syndrome.

    People do not seem to care about audience. First, you have an audience. You needn't tap dance to make me happy, just simply consider your presentation from the point of view not of WHAT YOU CAN SAY ABOUT YOUR TOPIC, but rather WHAT DO I NEED TO HEAR?

    What to do? In our grad class, Linda Warley and I had a 'conference' as the final assignment -- our students wrote conference papers, and had to present them in a day-long event we organized. We coached them on how to write for oral delivery, how to dress, how to use slides, and how to talk. It worked, and where it didn't, we could at least offer real feedback.

    I do have to say, though: I read. I fancy myself like David Sedaris. He reads, but the stuff he's written down to be read is designed to be heard. My jokes are funny, my phrasings more elegant, my ideas more polished, when I write it out first and then read it. But then, I did win all the public speaking contests Kirkland Lake Ontario ever saw fit to hold.

    But reading needn't be evil.

    Going over time, though, is ALWAYS evil. Everyone, just stop that.

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  3. As someone who regularly presents at art history/visual culture conferences, there is no guarantee that images will liven up the presentations. Indeed, the image usually lingers on the screen while the presenter witters on about some obscure theoretical point. Sigh. I'm all for moderators/session chairs having those hooked staffs so they can just yank boring over-time presenters off the stage by their necks.

    And where can we get t-shirts printed with the tag "intolerant shrew"?

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  4. My endless sympathies. I think this must vary enormously from field to field, though, because in my discipline (linguistics) nobody ever reads their paper aloud, and nobody ever runs entirely over their time -- by which I mean, lots of people run into their allotted question period, but chairs almost never questions run more than 1-3 minutes past the scheduled start of the next talk.

    On the other hand, unlike literature (I imagine), linguistics talks can follow the presentation-friendly format of: here's some data; here's the problem presented by the data; here's my solution/interpretation of the data.

    I do sometimes wonder about reading papers aloud at conferences, though. Does anyone have an explanation of the motivation for this? It just seems so... pointless.

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  5. I too want the t-shirt tagged "intolerant shrew"!

    In seriousness though, I think the comments here are revealing. How do we learn to create and deliver conference presentations? (note that I said create in lieu of write and presentations in lieu of papers. Terminology is one place to begin.)

    The truth is that as long as we leave our grad students learning from us, we are in dire shape indeed, at least in those disciplines where we've cultivated a culture of reading, going over time, and presenting material not designed for oral delivery or *aural* reception and integration.

    We need to teach conference skills to grad students and colleagues alike, explicitly and through modeling. We need to take them seriously as professional skills. How do we translate ideas for oral delivery? How do we strike a balance between depth and general appeal? How might we effectively and politely put an end to a presentation that is over time? How do we ask genuine and productive questions of presenters? These are all professional skills to be taught and to be learned -- hopefully by more than just osmosis.

    I suspect we could go a long way toward teaching and learning them if we stopped for a moment and thought seriously about *why* we attend/organize/present at academic conferences in the first place.

    Maybe the next time I organize a conference I won't ask people to propose *what* they'll present on, I'll ask them *why* they want to present it.

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  6. This is nothing. You should see Socio-cultural job candidates read their papers aloud at interviews. While sitting down. And never looking up. At least in archaeology we made a dent on the practice of showing a slide of a sunset at the end of the presenation.

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  7. Why a powerpoint is necessary for a 15 minute presentation is beyond me. Yes, if you are talking about art, or landscape, some images to refer to would be sensible. In most other cases, you should be able to talk for 15 minutes without slides.

    More importantly, the lack of concern for audience concerns me greatly. I usually advise people that the 15 minute conference presentation is the academic equivalent of speed dating. The point is to present the most interesting stuff so that the people who are equally fascinated by the ellipsis in Spanish poetry (to borrow your most excellent example) will come up to you later and suggest going for dinner, or drinks, or a walk in the park to talk about all those details at length.

    If anyone thinks that the mere fact of having presented, as reported on one's CV, adds anything to their career progression or ability to get a grant, they are living in a fantasy world.

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  8. In my Masters program I became comfortable with talking in my presentations and became very proud of that skill. By the time I reached the half-way point in my PhD program, I found that I can't do that anymore. I can't just talk complex theory... so I started to read from a script.

    Mind you, I also really hate listening to people read their papers outloud. I agree that there's a reason why you have writing on one hand and presentations on the other. Reading and listening are two different processes. I tried to reach a middle ground by making my script for presentations more informal, more accessible for a listening audience.

    I'm giving a talk on a chapter of my dissertation in my department next week and yes, I will read from a script. I can't imagine talking about theory without it. Maybe I can after I defend and present my work at multiple conferences. But for my part I will look up from my script to make eye contact, ad-lib and elaborate from time to time and, most importantly, I'll keep it as brief and to the point as I can.

    I guess I'm all for charismatic speakers who can work off of general notes. But I also want to ask for some understanding for those of us starting out and who need a script! Or just don't have that charisma... or have language barriers because English or French isn't our first language. Keeping in mind, of course, that it's still important to make a script accessible and it's still possible to make a scripted presentation interesting.

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  9. Best conference I ever went to: IABA 2000 in Vancouver. Why? Not too many parallel sessions, everyone kept to time and was interesting, food was great and I saw my heroes. I wish that kind of synergy happened more.

    Best presentation: Peggy Phelan on the "Falling Man" photos. Smart, riveting and heart-breaking. I wish all papers were like that.

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  10. Mo: That's some genius level ideas.

    Update: I talked too fast in my talk last night and am experiencing a spiral of self-loathing as a result. The good news is I'm giving a version of that same talk again TONIGHT so I can aim to hit a higher standard ... Crap. When I get all judgy, it always comes back to bite me in the ass ...

    Helen: I think that's a fine plan you have -- it's what I aim for, too. For many of us, our words are our 'data' or our 'formulas' -- the words themselves are the research results we wish to share.

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  11. Great comments! Aimee and Mo, you give me hope for the discipline. But just in case, perhaps Claire and Weathering might send me a grad school application for your disciplines?? (Nancy and Venus: no need.) Helen, I am sympathetic to what you say, and in a less polemical frame of mind I agree with a friend who emailed to say, "I believe there IS such a thing as an enjoyable paper. But it asks for such a rare mixture of talents. One needs pacing, charisma, wit, style, à-propos, passion, and what else? Oh yes: freedom from the academic’s worst fear, the fear of losing control if you cross the boundaries of what you’ve been told is the 'right' way." Bingo.

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  12. The sad truth is that most conference presentations are terrible because people have nothing to say. The abuse of the format is just a symptom of the disease.

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