The Point and Practices of Conferences


Christy Wampole (Princeton) lays out a series of complaints and concerns about conferences in the humanities, including:

We have sat patiently and politely through talks read line by line in a monotone voice by a speaker who doesn’t look up once, wondering why we couldn’t have read the paper ourselves in advance with a much greater level of absorption.

We have tried to ignore the lack of a thesis or even one interesting sentence in a 20-minute talk.

Our jaws have hung in disbelief as a speaker tries to squeeze a 30-minute talk into a 20-minute slot by reading too fast to be understood.

We have been one of two attendees at a panel…

We have passed or received notes during a particularly painful session that read “Kill me now.”

There are more in her column, “The Conference Manifesto,” in The Stone at The New York Times. (On a related note, see Mallory Ortberg’s “Every Question In Every Q&A Session Ever,” in case you missed it in the Heap of Links last week.)

Wampole then raises the question: “What is the purpose of the conference?”

What has caused us to organize these things year after year without questioning their basis? Is there another way to reformat the conference or do away with it altogether, replacing it with something more intellectually, professionally and socially satisfying for everyone? What are our real motivations for organizing a conference? For attending one? To burnish our résumés? To network? To get a sense of the current work being done in our fields? If, as many scholars confess in private, it is an easy way to see all of one’s friends conveniently or to meet new colleagues, should the conference then be replaced by a less formalized gathering?

These are questions worth asking. There are better and worse conferences. Many (but not all) of the best I’ve been to are small, highly focused, and involve everyone reading everyone else’s paper in advance so that no actual talks need to be given. The political philosophy workshops I’ve taken part in at the Joint Sessions of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) are models of this. Some larger conferences also manage to provide a valuable experience, usually ones that involve commentators on the papers and whose organizers put in the effort to encourage a sense of community among the participants, which has been my experience at the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME), for example.

Wampole offers some suggestions, most of which I agree with. But there is a more general point that is helpful to keep in mind, as both conference attendee and conference organizer (and pretty much in every professional interaction you have): philosophers are people, too. So they get bored, they require non-intellectual stimulation, they can be more or less motivated to do what they’re supposed to do, they have feelings, they have other things going on in their lives besides your work (and theirs), and pretty much all the findings in social psychology about situations and biases apply to them, too. They may know and care more about philosophy, but pretty much in every other respect they are just like ordinary people.

 

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Greg Littmann
Greg Littmann
6 years ago

Listening to a paper is generally not as useful to me as having a chance to read a paper and then discussing it with the author. Likewise, the comments I get back from people who have read my work are usually much more useful than those I get from people who have just listened to me talk about it. Even for those who prefer to listen to papers, I would have thought that it would make more sense to provide them with a canned version of a talk to listen to at their leisure and rewind at will, followed by a live discussion with the author.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

OR we could do things like Political Science does that doesn’t restrict the paper to 3000 words (what a useless length!) but precirculates papers and expects everyone to read the papers beforehand, asks for a 10 minute presentation and then nothing but lively discussion afterward. Of course when people don’t read the paper beforehand it can become worse than reading monotone for 20 minutes but when people do read the paper, even jut skimming the paper and then narrowing in on a part of the paper they find most interesting, this format works very well.Report

HK Andersen
HK Andersen
6 years ago

The structure of the schedule of a workshop or conference can do a lot to facilitate the kinds of interactions that really happen when people are in a room together physically. Leaving ample room for Q&A and discussion is an example. I take one key goal in organizing something to involve facilitating the occurrence of the kinds of discusions that tend to be really interesting and worthwhile, and that only happen or happen much more easily when people are all there in person. This also can guide what one chooses to attend: some ongoing conference series seem to involve lots of great discussions with interesting people, and it makes them worth the travel time.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

Let me suggest, only slightly tongue-in-cheek:

(1) If you have reason to think that a speaker is a sufficiently poor communicator that their talk will just be read out in a dull monotone, don’t go to their talk (personally, I’d strengthen that to: if you have reason to think that a speaker will read out their talk, don’t go to it, but tastes vary)
(2) If you have reason to think that a speaker is sufficiently incoherent that they will give a twenty-minute talk without a thesis or any interesting sentences, don’t go to their talk
(3) If you have reason to think that a speaker has sufficiently poor time management that they try to cram a thirty-minute talk into twenty minutes, don’t go to their talk
(4) If you have reason to think that a whole session or whole conference will be dominated by speakers who fit (1)-(3), don’t go to it.
(5) If you can’t find conferences in your field that avoid (4), change to philosophy of physics. The majority of phys-of-phil talks I go to are at least passably well presented and reading papers is very unusual. Also, we have cookies.Report

Margaret Atherton
Margaret Atherton
6 years ago

Well, I do want to say first of all that I have been to many excellent and rewarding conferences where people have read their papers. Indeed, I tend to prefer them to presentations that either feature power points that can whizz things before your eyes or talked presentations which go well over the time limits. But I do want to give a shout out to the first class workshop on Locke held at Western and organized by Ben Hill and Jessica Gordon-Roth. Its desirable feature included: circulating the papers ahead of time, accompanying the précis of the paper given by its author with a prepared comment, lots of time for discussion of the paper, and lots of time to mingle between papers. To deal with the complains expressed here, this is the way to go.Report

anon lady grad student
anon lady grad student
6 years ago

I agree with David Wallace, though let me point out that there are many cases where we are (at least practically) forced to go to lots of terrible talks. My department’s colloquia over the past 4 years have been dominated by famous people giving some of the worst talks I’ve ever seen–no thesis, reading papers in monotone (or: mumbling them down to the paper, so that no one in the audience could even decipher a word they were saying), reading papers that had been in print four years prior, etc. While the faculty might at least have the option to invite better colloquia speakers (which, to their credit, they’ve been doing–inviting more junior people who are generally a bit more “with it” with respect to what it takes to give a decent talk), the grad students are simply stuck. And we have *a lot* of these talks.
So I’d also suggest that departments with active talk-lives think harder about who they invite and the structure of their colloquia (I would prefer fewer colloquia, making them mandatory to attend for at least the grad students, and making them all pre-read).Report

Zara
Zara
6 years ago

The best practise in giving talks is to treat yourself as doing something very much like teaching a graduate class. Maybe the first class of the term, where you can’t expect everyine to have done some preassigned reading. I think that there’s a consensus that reading directly from a prepared text is not a particularly effective way to teach a class — and this is, I conjecture, a special case of the more general fact that reading directly from a prepared text is not a particularly effective way to communicate most kinds of ideas.Report

Wendy Donner
Wendy Donner
6 years ago

I love going to academic conferences. I have certainly had my share of listening to monotone speakers or speakers who read their papers too quickly. But this is far outweighed for me by the numbers of papers where the speakers have obvious passion for their ideas and arguments. I can’t count the number of times that the ideas expressed in a conference paper and the Q & A have sparked my own inquiries and led to my next project.
I lament that so often the audience numbers at great papers are small. But I have also learned that small audiences can lead to better dialogue.
I lament that now, unlike some years ago, speakers sometimes are uninterested in continuing a dialogue after their presentation is done. They have done their work, they have their line on a cv, and they shut off.
I don’t understand why people so strongly encourage power point presentations over reading. In my experience, power point talks are often rambling and disorganized and speakers go over the time limit. At least if you read a paper, you can say exactly what you mean to say.Report

Jonathan Livengood
Jonathan Livengood
6 years ago

I seriously dislike it when people read papers at conferences. But my dislike has very little to do with the fact that something is being read to me. My dislike has to do with the fact that it is an academic paper being read unmodified — without any thought given to the differences between sitting down to read (at one’s own pace and with plenty of opportunity for backing up to get clear on the difficult points) and sitting down to listen (at the speaker’s pace and with no opportunity for backing up). If you want to read something at a conference, don’t read your paper as it stands: an academic paper (even a really good, well-written one) is almost never in the right form to help an audience gain real understanding when read straight out. If you want to read something at a conference, first rewrite your paper while specifically thinking about how an audience will *hear* it.

PowerPoint is great when it is used well. When images or diagrams are central to the topic, as often happens in philosophy of science and experimental philosophy, PowerPoint is an excellent tool. When PowerPoint is used sparingly, to highlight key claims or lay out important arguments, it is great. Sometimes, the same effects may be achieved with handouts, though handouts are a bit more wasteful and are typically not so good if you want to make extensive use of color. Mostly, PowerPoint is meant to be an *aid* or *supplement* to a presentation. If you can really understand the whole presentation on the basis of the PowerPoint, then it is no better (and possibly worse) than reading a paper word-for-word.Report

Minh Nguyen
Minh Nguyen
6 years ago

Maybe I’m old school. I have no problem whatsoever with people reading their papers. I like to hear the speakers’ most careful and considered formulations of what they want to convey. Which is not to say that their presentations cannot in some cases be enhanced by, say, an accompanying PowerPoint.Report

Nobody Important
Nobody Important
6 years ago

When the presenters are a little more professional, conferences can have some wonderful moments. One of the first I ever attended was a small two-day conference on emotions. On the second day Peter Railton came up and used a few simple, and elegant printed slides as visual aids to help explain the location of emotions in the perceptual process.

During the Q & A session, someone asked Peter a question about the place of beliefs in the process, so he threw up a slide he’d drawn by hand just the previous evening– as if he’d anticipated the question. It was a delightful bit of accidental showmanship, but I have to admit I’ve seen no presentations in any conferences since of that caliber (although that may not be saying much– the conferences I’ve been to since are barely a double-digit number, as I’m still an MA student).Report

elisa freschi
6 years ago

Solutions to the perennial problem of boring conferences and interesting after-conferences have already been proposed. See the link below, for instance, for the proposal of having a coffee-break like conference, with engaging discusssions and no boring papers read in a defensive manner. Why don’t we all encourage or participate to such conferences?
https://asiaticacoffeebreak.wordpress.com/faq/Report

Sebastian Luft
Sebastian Luft
6 years ago

For me, conference are summit meetings of great minds. So much of our time as professors is spent teaching basics to undergraduates (there’s nothing wrong with that, mind you!), so to finally see and interact with other great minds on topics we research on together, is great, hands down. Conferences are tiring, getting there sometimes burdensome, sometimes there are boring speakers, but this is far outweighed by the positives. Even if a paper is boring or doesn’t seem to make a very significant point (or no point at all, seemingly), I also feel a certain obligation as a participant to challenge the speaker by asking the right questions. Many so-so talks can really be turned around during the Q&A. As for speaking modes, I am agnostic, but do witness a lot of *really bad* power point presentations. PPT is good when it’s done right. And a talk read off doesn’t have to be boring at all if the speaker modulates his/her voice.Report

Ian Kidd
6 years ago

My new rules are (i) everyone gets an hour to present (ii) with generous 30 min coffee breaks (or 90 mins for lunch) and (iii) everyone is explicitly encouraged to chat and talk during that ‘down time’. So far it works really well: granted, you there are fewer talks, but there’s less crowding.Report

Izzy
Izzy
6 years ago

Echoing Wendy’s sentiments, I also love conferences. My favorite part is the Q&A section. I can think of only a handful of things I enjoy more than talking philosophy, and at conferences I get the opportunity to do that with professionals who are passionate about their work. It’s true some speakers are better than others, and some topics are more interesting than others, but one can also be discerning about which sessions you attend. As with any public event, there’s always the possibility of a bad turn out, but nonetheless, some of my fondest memories are from the lively Q&A and post-conference discussions. It’s also a great way to meet the people who work in philosophy. It humanizes an otherwise isolating experience of reading papers by academics from across the globe. It can also be extremely nerve wracking, particularly if you’re presenting, but it’s partly for that reason it’s one of the most exciting things about the profession (for me).Report