Poster Sessions at Philosophy Conferences

Poster sessions are normal parts of conferences in the sciences and social sciences, but rare in philosophy. So rare, that some philosophers don’t know what they are. So, by way of explanation, they are blocks of time at conferences during which participants display large posters they have made describing their projects and discuss them with other participants—members of an audience roving around the venue—explaining their ideas and arguments and answering questions about them.

The Rocky Mountain Ethics (RoME) Congress, a large ethics conference held at the University of Colorado, Boulder, was one of the first to make regular use of poster sessions, seven years ago. The American Philosophical Association now accepts proposals for poster sessions at its conferences. What other conferences have them?

Since poster sessions are unfamiliar to a lot of philosophers, I asked Ben Hale, one of the organizers of RoME, to say a few words about them.

First a few points on the benefits to the author, and then a few points on the benefits to the author’s interlocutors:

(a)    Designing a poster offers the author of the poster an opportunity to pull her thoughts together coherently and to develop an idea without getting caught up in the wordsmithing aspects of writing a paper.
(b)    Structuring the poster can help immensely with clarity and argument. Since one has to be _extremely_ mindful of space, it’s a great time to cut the fat out of an argument and to keep it out of the eventual paper.
(c)     Standing beside a poster and defending a position to an interlocutor can be an extremely beneficial exercise in the development of one’s ideas. It can be really helpful for quickly and economically identifying gaps in reasoning, weakly stated positions, missing references, or possible objections to the thesis.
(d)    For the graduate student, the exercise of presenting a poster can serve double duty, in that it can also help the presenter prepare for later interviews and presentations.
(e)    There’s something very personal about presenting a poster and talking to another person one-on-one. Not only can this be quite rewarding, it can also be great for networking.
(f)     From the viewer’s standpoint, the poster offers an opportunity to scan through an essay or idea fairly rapidly and to engage in a discussion about any point in an article without having to struggle through tortured prose.
(g)    Poster sessions as a whole can offer one conference attendee the opportunity to get a basic sense of what many people are researching in a short time. It’s a great way for conference participants to get the lay of the land and to make connections with others who may just be starting to work in their AOS.
(h)    If they’re just dabblers or are curious about a topic outside their AOC, the poster sessions require little up-front investment for potentially a big return.

Philosophy is, believe it or not, ideally suited to the poster format. Though it’s true that there’s not much to show on a poster (in the sense that philosophy is light on imagery), the poster is essentially a rough-and-ready outline, so it’s perfect for presenting arguments and counter arguments. (The same problem with imagery can be said about Powerpoint, incidentally, but we’ve managed to do fairly well with that tool over the past several decades. The difference is that the Achilles heel of the Powerpoint is often that one’s presentations can get too wordy, convoluted, and long; but by virtue of their size, posters don’t suffer the same drawback.) Basically, posters are great, and we should be doing more of them at many other philosophy conferences. I use them in my graduate classes to help my graduate students figure out what they’re going to say before they set to writing their papers, and I think the entire class benefits from both the creation of the posters and the interrogation that follows the presentation of the posters.

I also asked a few people about their experience giving posters at the conference. Helen Daly (Colorado College) writes:

I enjoyed the challenge of organizing my paper into a visually interesting and immediately understandable poster. The format is so unlike an essay that translating one to the other was a difficult and helpful exercise for me. I also really enjoyed the one-on-one interactions during the poster session. Directly engaging with philosophers in that way seemed to get us into deeper issues much faster than the Q&A at a regular conference presentation would. And I found that many people who specialize in distant areas of philosophy were willing to stop by my poster, though they might not have committed to a whole session on a topic of peripheral interest to them.

This was the first time Joseph Chapa (USAF) presented his work in a poster format. He says:

It was a little difficult at first just to decide how best to present the material. That said, once I got started, I really enjoyed the process. The poster format lends itself to individual or very small group discussion with conference participants. As a result, I think it is an excellent place to present work that is still in progress or that still needs to be strengthened. Many of the discussions I had with conference attendees were quite helpful and will influence the final version of the paper.

Meanwhile, poster session veteran Molly Gardner (Bowling Green) offers some helpful advice:

I’ve given four poster presentations at RoME. The ideas from two of them eventually made it into publications (a journal article and an anthology chapter), and I’m still working on turning the idea from the latest poster into an article.  I have found that the posters are especially good for presenting nuggets of papers, rather than full papers.  If you can communicate an interesting nugget really well on your poster, then you’ll get lots of good feedback. 

Jake Monaghan (Buffalo) agrees:

When creating the poster, you have to really focus on the aspects of your project that are essential, because you don’t want to put your entire paper onto the poster. During the presentation, you have to be able to convey your ideas in an “elevator pitch,” because no one is going to stand in front of your poster for half an hour. Exchanges with audience members are more detailed and thorough, and allow for some back and forth, in part because there isn’t a line of people waiting to ask questions. This makes poster presentations challenging, but I think worthwhile. There is one downside: posters are expensive, which is something to consider given the (sometimes substantial) costs of registering for and traveling to conferences. Despite the extra expense, I’d be happy to see more conferences include a poster session.

In an interesting development, a number of poster presentations from RoME are getting an extended life at What’s Wrong?the blog of the Center for Values and Social Policy at CU-Boulder, where David Boonin (Colorado) has been posting video interviews with the poster presenters (along with other posts about the conference), giving a sense of what exchanges at the poster sessions could be like (though during the sessions there are many more people milling about). Below are the video interviews of the above four philosophers who shared their thoughts about the poster sessions.


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