The Ideal Conference


Let’s figure out what the ideal moderately-sized academic conference with, say, 30 to 40 participants, would be like. There are various factors to consider, including, but probably not limited to:

location, timing, participants, conference structure, breadth of topics, advanced preparation, materials for participants, session formats, conference norms, policies, costs, publicity, on-site management, accommodations, amenities, accessibility, technology, duration, meals, extra-curricular activities, publications, post-conference follow-up, etc.

Conference-goers, what do you like, or dislike, in regards to some of these (or other) aspects of conferences?

(modification of a photo by Simon C. May)

(modification of a photo by Simon C. May)

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Brandon Boesch
4 years ago

I just attended the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice conference at Rowan University, and two things I’ll note that were really great about this conference:

1. All meals were provided with registration.
At conferences without meals included, I always feel the need to be strategic and do things like not go to the bathroom right before lunch so as to avoid missing being a part of the groups making decisions about where to go to lunch. In addition, when everyone is eating in the same place (e.g. a cafeteria) it provides the opportunity to find (and/or corner) someone you want to talk with–which can be a rather challenging task in the post-parallel-session-pre-lunch-hallway-congregating, if the person in question didn’t go to the same session as you.

2. Cheaper housing was available on campus.
This is especially nice as a graduate student. My department does a really good job of funding grad student travel, but it rarely covers the expensive hotels. It’s really nice to have a reliable and cheap place to stay which is close to the venue. I feel that it’s also conducive to more interaction, since everyone is staying in the same place and so groups can go to bars and travel back together.

The SPSP was not the only conference where I experienced these features, but it is fresh in my mind and I thought a couple of times about how much I appreciated this set up. Report

Kate Norlock
4 years ago

I’m glad every time I see a conference announcement that includes the statement, “There will be a quiet room available throughout the duration of the conference.”
Readers interested in the OP because they’re planning a conference may also appreciate Shelley’s post at http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2016/04/universal-design-and-conference-accessibility.htmlReport

some person or other
some person or other
4 years ago

1. I think it is pretty reasonable to think that there is no answer to this question because lots of things that differ across all these dimensions can be good/productive and so we should just be pluralists about it (yes, I know that you might have a wildly disjunctive ‘ideal’ but I don’t think that is the spirit the question was being asked in).

2. That being said some things that I’ve really liked at smallish conferences: a) when there are junior and senior faculty and grad students and everyone is treated as on equal ground (e.g. senior/famous people don’t always get called on immediately, aren’t allowed to dominate the discussion, make an effort to talk to junior people, don’t exclude junior people when they go to meals, etc.); b) when workshops or conferences are designed to bring two (or more, depending on size) subfields together around a particular issue that is relevant to both subfields (e.g. philosophers of science and epistemologists getting together to discuss something that is taken seriously in both fields, but perhaps in different ways/without as much interaction between the two as might be desirable); c) if there are official conference meals, making them affordable for whoever the least likely to be able to afford them are, so that everyone can participate; d) when conference organizers make an effort to get a diverse group of people involved in the conference; e) if the conference is general/not restricted to one topic or subfield, I think it is better if it is pre-read–I often have a super hard time following talks in areas I’m not that familiar with, and less so within the areas I work in, f) if the conference involves some kind of review of submissions (rather than being invitation-based, which I don’t think is bad unless it becomes the standard), that there is a very clear description of how the review process works, whether it is anonymous at each stage, if not why not, etc.

3. More generally: I’m not claiming the post here made this mistake, but I think that philosophers often think about this question solely in terms of conference organization instead of as also being about how we as participants can help shape and mold the conference/workshop itself. So I guess I’d say another thing that I think makes conferences/workshops go really well is when participants are thoughtful about not being jerks, about including junior people, about not hounding senior (or junior!) people for attention/dominating their time/not letting them break and rest after giving talks, about offering help to organizers in various ways, about giving constructive feedback, about thinking about giving official comments as a way to start a constructive discussion rather than to show off or to tear the paper apart; etc., etc.

4. Also, what Kate said, and also, I really, really, really hate it when things aren’t run in a timely fashion (or when we aren’t given warning that they will not be). Report

Dale Miller
4 years ago

The older I get, the more that my enjoyment of conferences depends on the distance between my lodging and the conference venue. APAs generally rate well on this dimension, at least. Report

Eater
Eater
4 years ago

For me the most valuable part of a conference is often the time spent at the dinner table. Having nice arrangements for dining is wonderful and makes your presence at the conference not only seem appreciated, but it allows you to chat with others in a more comfortable setting where everyone is on a more equal ground.

In short, I like nice meals. Not only because I like to eat, but because I feel it gives everyone a real chance to talk more comfortably about work and to make more lasting impressions and connections.Report

Fabio Gironi
Fabio Gironi
4 years ago

I strongly believe that conferences are a vestigial remain from a time (say, the late 1800s) when exchange of ideas between academics working in the same field was far more difficult and slower than it is today — with telephones, email, skype, facebook, and whatnot.

Therefore, the very structure of a conference should change, to reflect the change in function: assuming that no amount of emailiing or skype calls can really replace face-to-face conversation, especially among more than 2 people, the aim of conferences should emphasise the social aspects over the frontal lecture let-me-read-out-loud-you-what-I’ve-been-working-on aspect.

I recently organised a conference which, while by and large orthodox in its structure, put a lot of emphasis on non-lecturing time: so lots of Q&A time, generous coffee breaks *after each paper*, no more than 4 papers a day, a conference dinner, and a long allotted time for a final roundtable for free-wheeling discussion.

Let’s be honest: how many people *really* listen when forced to sit through 6 or 7 papers per day? No-one keeps their attention focused for more than, to be generous, one hour without breaks in between. I have been to more than one conference where pre-eminent philosophers in their field (and keynote speakers!) were doing crosswords, watching live sport, or facebooking during some other speaker’s paper (I saw them while sitting behind them). No-one, no-one enjoys hours and hours of sitting and listening to someone reading out loud. Especially when you could’ve asked your colleague to email you the paper and read it in your armchair at home.

Conferences are still necessary and could be pleasant and productive occasions for intellectual exchange, but the very idea of a conference should be revised.Report

Tom
Tom
4 years ago

Man, everyone’s thoughts are so much deeper than mine. But oh well.
(1) Coffee I actually want to drink, lots of it. Oh, and enough time to drink lots of it. 30 minutes isn’t enough.
(2) If the conference has a dinner, please have an option for good-but-bland-as-hell food. I’ll be eating out for the duration of the conference. My digestion will be wildly out of whack. If you force me to eat food that does further weirdness to my stomach, everyone on the airplane ride will hate you.
(3) Rooms at room temperature. This is crucial.
(4) This one’s actually kind of deep. I was at a conference once where things magically got reversed when the Q&A started — senior folks asked straightforward clarificatory and edificational questions, `deep’ or `hard’ questions were left to the junior folks. That was a lot of fun. Ok, not so deep after all.
(5) Loud, clear invitations to local pubs should follow the last official event of the day. And there should be several people waiting around who know how to get to said pubs.
(6) Danishes aren’t breakfast. Oatmeal or sausage or eggs are breakfast. Danishes are good, don’t get rid of them, but don’t call them breakfast.Report

upstate
upstate
Reply to  Tom
4 years ago

Thought (6) is perhaps the most important though in this entire thread. I don’t think I have ever been to a conference with a proper breakfast. I’ve always been confused as to why no one else seems to care about this. I can’t do philosophy with nothing but pastries in my belly.Report

Rutabagas
Rutabagas
4 years ago

The MANCEPT workshops in political theory is a much larger conference, but I really like the way it’s run: you apply to a workshop on a particular topic in political theory, you commit to attending all of the sessions for that workshop (& sometimes papers are circulated ahead of time), but you can go to other workshops’ sessions when yours isn’t meeting. It combines the positives of working with a small core group with the positives of getting to think about lots of different topics in political theory. I bet you could replicate it on a smaller scale, too.Report

Sara L. Uckelman
4 years ago

There were two things that the Dagstuhl research seminars in computer science and informatics do that I really liked: First, there are assigned seats at lunch and dinner, which mean you’re always rotated around and sitting with and talking with other people. Second, we were fed, housed, and talked at in the same location, and this location was relatively isolated from anything else. So there was a ton of extra time in the evenings when people just hung out — talking in small groups, walking in the gardens, cracking open a bottle of wine or all eating ice creams. So much more useful stuff happened in those periods than in the actual conference part.Report

Katie McShane
4 years ago

Name tags, in a large font, that people actually wear. I have severe problems with face recognition and plenty of people have trouble recalling names. Name tags make it much easier to navigate the social side of conferences. Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  Katie McShane
4 years ago

Yes. Or, if we can’t manage that for some reason, everyone stop looking offended when I have no idea who you are. Or when I ask for your name 15 times during a two day conference.Report

Lisa S
Lisa S
4 years ago

There are substantive differences between the logistical challenges of large conferences with parallel sessions, and smaller events where everyone is together for all the sessions (workshops). The best workshop I have ever been to was super-intense in the morning, going from 830-1230 discussing read-ahead papers, but then afternoons were left to an array of structured and unstructured outdoor activities in the beautiful setting, and dinner was communal. And then it started again. I learned a lot, had great discussions about philosophy both in and out of sessions, but also got the blood circulating. I felt that for a few days I was living the perfect life. If this could be done at a larger scale, that would be fantastic.Report

Phil
Phil
4 years ago

An open call for papers to allow participants who are not part of the social group of the organizers is crucial. There are too many invite only conferences which only maintain established hierarchies. Report

Please don't read
Please don't read
4 years ago

Seconding what others have said, the custom of reading a paper is dreadfully boring and a waste of everyone’s time in the electronic age. Presentations should aim to be engaging. I personally enjoy a “chalk talk” as one might deliver to students in a classroom, or a “TED Talk” type format. Conferences are an opportunity to teach something to an audience that is actually interested (ideally) in what you have to say, where you can assume some level of background knowledge (or at least a higher level of general intelligence). I don’t know why more people don’t treat them that way. Perhaps some find it condescending to “teach” one’s peers, but I find it refreshing in the rare cases where presentations are approached this way.
Also, questions during Q and A should actually be questions, not mini-lectures. There is nothing more annoying than a questioner holding court for five minutes, ending with “there’s a question in there somewhere.” Do us all a favor. Find that question in there and ask it. Then sit down. Report

another some person or other
another some person or other
4 years ago

I think the most important ingredient of a successful conference is a friendly, civil, respectful atmosphere. Nothing can ruin a conference like hostility, even when it emanates from just a few people.

As it turns out, I recently attended 2 different conferences with just this sort of respectful atmosphere. People were asking questions because they were curious about projects and not because they wanted to sound smart. Conversations were happening during breaks that were rich and engaged. Praise was even doled out. I’m not sure whether the organizers worked some magic in there or whether they just got lucky with who they invited, but it made all the difference.

I also appreciate it if women are represented at least proportionally to their representation in the sub-field, both on the speaker list and among the invitees, though I realize there is likely little organizers can do to influence the latter. I know many all-male conferences have been prevented through the efforts of the Gendered Conference Campaign, but I still see so many conferences with less than 1/5 women speakers, sometimes much less, and in sub-fields that have higher representation than the discipline as a whole. Greater gender parity reduces the chance that women will be socially isolated or, what definitely happens, the object of sexual attention they’re not interested in. Frankly, I also think greater gender parity tends to improve the atmosphere of the conference as well (though not always, of course). Report

Ian James Kidd
4 years ago

Some rules that, in my experience, work well for small events.
1. Never start before 9.30; never finish later than 5.30
2. Start +30 min later for each day of the conference (so, eg, 10am on day two) to offset conference fatigue.
3. At least one hour for PGs, 90 mins for keynotes.
4. No parallel sessions.
5. At least 30 mins for tea/coffee breaks.
6. At least 60 mins for lunch.
7. Provide water and juice and fruit as well as tea, coffee, and biscuits.
8. Never go more than two hours without a break.
9. Ideally, everyone sleeps, eats, and conferences in the same venue (admittedly easier with small UK collegiate universities!)
10. Badges disappear after day one; so on day two, make available sticker-badges.

Plus the many excellent points made above, by the BPA guidance on chairing seminars, the BPA-SWIP Good Practice Scheme, and so on.Report