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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Steven Gross
8 years ago

Regular feature of the annual Society for Philosophy and Psychology meeting

8 years ago

And Experimental Philosophy UK workshops (though we do get pretty graphs to look at).

Bob Kirkman
Bob Kirkman
8 years ago

The Association for Practical and Professional Ethics has held poster sessions at its annual meetings for a number of years, now. Sometimes they focus on research into areas of professional practice of public policy that have particular ethical salience, sometimes on innovative approaches to teaching or engaging audiences in ethical deliberation.

Kelly Parker
Kelly Parker
8 years ago

The Society for the Advancement of America Philosophy (SAAP) has had a poster session option for quite a few years, though there aren’t usually very many. It seems to be an especially good format for younger scholars to share their work without the pressure of a full stand-at-the-front-of-the-room-and-sweat paper presentation. There were several excellent posters from undergraduates at the 2015 meeting.

Internet Reader
Internet Reader
8 years ago
Christopher Hitchcock
Christopher Hitchcock
8 years ago

We had a poster session when we hosted the Society for Exact Philosophy meeting in Pasadena in 2014. I (and others I’ve talked to) think it was a big success. Some advantages of presenting a poster:

1. You are not competing against others who are giving talks in the same time slot.
2. Someone who may not be willing to dedicate an hour to attending a talk by you may be willing to spend 5 minutes discussing your poster with you.
3. You get a chance to have a more in-depth conversation with people about your work than you would in a typical Q & A session.

Potential drawbacks:

1. We offered people the opportunity to present a poster if their paper was rejected as a talk. This had the effect of giving the posters a ‘consolation prize’ status. I’m not sure what the best solution to this is if one wants to be as inclusive as possible with the poster session.
2. Some schools will pay for people to attend conferences where they are giving talks, but not if they are presenting posters.

One tip for conference organizers: Put food in the poster area to lure people in. Crude, but effective.

Reply to  Christopher Hitchcock
8 years ago

I believe that in the sciences, the poster session is also the traditional venue for wine and beer, as well as snacks. I don’t know whether this is always conducive to the best discussions, but it is certainly conducive to attendance!

Alastair Norcross
8 years ago

If all papers rejected from the main program are offered a poster slot, it looks like a consolation prize. We don’t do that at RoME, though. The cut-off for poster invitations is quite high, and all papers offered a slot on the poster session have been judged worthy of inclusion on the main program by the scores of the (at least) two referees. Pretty much every year, including this year, more than half of all submissions are rejected outright. In fact, this year, many papers that scored well above the level of “good enough for inclusion on the main program” didn’t get a poster invite. We try to be as inclusive as possible, but there’s only so much space we can occupy for the conference. It’s a good thing that Boulder is such an unattractive place to visit in the summer, or we’d get even more submissions.

Anonymous Doctoral Student
Anonymous Doctoral Student
8 years ago

It seems to me that posters are by and large best suited for papers which are still very much works in progress. Talks appear to be best suited for papers that merely require some finishing touches to the details of the argument and its presentation before submission to a journal. Is this impression roughly accurate?

What can you do if you’ve been invited to present your almost-ready-for-submission paper as a poster? That is, what if you’re quite confident about the basic argumentative structure of your paper but maybe not entirely confident about some finer details, and you’re given the opportunity to present and receive feedback on essentially the basic idea of your paper? Aside of networking and maybe having an enjoyable time, is there any point to accepting such an invitation? Or would that simply be a waste of time, money, and of a poster space that could be occupied by someone whose paper is further away from submission?

Nick Byrd
Reply to  Anonymous Doctoral Student
8 years ago

Actually, I think posters are also uniquely valuable when it comes to presenting polished projects, lit. reviews, meta-analyses, and even dissertation/book length projects. After all, posters can deliver both the big picture and the finer nuances in one and the same space (think infographics). Also, many ideas that take a great deal of time to explain verbally and textually can be conveyed more quickly and perhaps more intuitively with imagery. Also, infographics/animations/videos/etc. are far more likely to be distributed with broader audiences, so they will probably have much higher “impact factor” than any peer-reviewed paper. They will probably also attract more attention on your department or personal website than a book cover or CV.

If this is right, then all kinds of philosophical projects can receive new life and perhaps become more palatable, accessible, and interesting in the form of a poster (or another medium, like video/animation). And if that is right, then the notion that the final form of a philosophical project is a peer-reviewed paper in an academic journal is…well, bad — not that I take anyone here to be explicitly defending this notion. It seems many philosophy projects — or the most promising ones, at least — deserve to be more than an essay that few people can understand/access.

I recently made my MA thesis into a poster (here). I tried out the infographic model in order to present certain concepts of visually, rather than textually or verbally. The hope is that the poster presents enough information to portray the important ideas and findings, but not so much information that you need to spend about as much time at the poster as you would reading the full paper. The poster lacks many details, but those details can easily be found in the thesis, so interested parties can still have their questions answered even when I’m not near the poster to explain. I’m presenting it this week, so I’m not sure how it will play, but I welcome feedback from anyone.