The Right Way
What is the right way to structure a conference?
This is a question that comes up each time we commission and organize an event. The major decision is usually between invited and contributed speakers. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
The invited speakers are selected because they are known quantities. They will give a good talk. They will make us think. They are the premium brand in the market. Purchase them and you are assured of a high quality product and that people will come just to hear them.
These same speakers, however, form the inside club of successful speakers. They can fill a conference program, leaving little space for the newcomer or the outsider. That is a loss. For these newcomers bring new ideas and form the new generation that is our future.
When we plan a conference here at the Center, I press the organizers to favor the newcomers. I like open call conferences where anyone can submit a talk proposal. "How many famous old men do we really need on the program," I ask.
The result is usually a compromise. We invite a smaller number of academic celebrities and put out a call for more speakers. There is always that unspoken fear that erodes optimism: "What if no one answers the call?" Adding another invited celebrity reduces the uncertainty.
This background explains why I was so pleased when a past Center Postdoc, Serife Tekin, proposed a conference specifically devoted to newcomers. She settled on the formula "early career scholars" and proceeded to devise a format to lure them in. She was soon joined by Katie Tabb and the two of them became the principal organizers. Better said, they became the highly effective, hard-working organizers.
The subject area is philosophy of psychiatry. It is far enough from my expertise that I won't even try to explain the issues this conference will probe and prod. (Serife, Katie: Forgive me. It's better this way.)
Rather, what interests are two aspects of the structure.
First, each early career scholar will be matched with a more senior figure as a commentator.
The use of commentators was something we have avoided at the Center largely through my purposeful neglect of it. My early experience with commentators was mixed. Sometimes there would be a commentator who would give an incisive and illuminating commentary that informed us well.
Often, however, the commentator seemed to put little effort into the exercise and would have nothing of any value to add. This awful truth would gradually settle on the audience, as nothing unfolded over ten or fifteen minutes of valuable conference time. They would shift uncomfortably in their seats, waiting for the performance to complete. Too often, however, we had the worst case: a flustered commentator who had only then been given the manuscript or only then heard the talk and was now expected deliver inspired insight off the cuff.
So why do it? In this case, the commentators are carefully selected so that early career scholars could make a definite connection with someone better placed in the field. Some good must come of that. It is worth the experiment.
There was also a second experiment. In the sciences, poster sessions are common at conferences. They provide a space for scholars who didn't make the cut for a speaking slot. The poster presenters will summarize their research on a poster and, in the appointed place and time, stand in front of it and engage passers-by in conversation.
My small experience of poster sessions had been unpromising. In the few I saw, there was an air of desperation in the room. From a distance, the event reminded me of street vendors hawking bootleg copies of movies.
As I write these words, the Early Scholars Conference is well underway.
How is it working out?
It almost did not work out at all. A key organizer, Serife Tekin, had to drive down from Buffalo to Pittsburgh. It is a pleasant 3 or 4 hour drive along Lake Erie and down route 79. That is, it is so unless a mammoth lake effect snow storm strikes and dumps feet of snow over Buffalo. That is what happened. It was dire. The Governor has declared a state of emergency and road travel out of Buffalo and neighboring regions is blocked.
Serife made it, but her students did not; and a prized commentator, Jackie Sullivan, also couldn't make it from Western in London, Ontario. (All is not lost. Jackie will be Skyped in tomorrow.)
Serife's story was harrowing. As she tried to drive, road after road was blocked; and then she went to the airport to fly; and the snow kept falling; and the flight was delayed; and ... While this story unfolded, I kept seeing Indiana Jones squirming past snakes in some dark, underground cavern.
So how is it working out?
It's hard for me to say since this is not my field. It looks good. The room is quite full. There's plenty of energy and engagement amongst the participants. The commenting seemed to be done well. Or at least it was so in some cases reported to me.
The poster session was more interesting. We decided to put the posters in the main meeting room at the back. That was much better than having them in some side hall. Using the main room gives the message that this is a core activity in the core space.
The posters were all set up during a lunch break, while the participants were out on the town hunting for sandwiches.
The poster event was scheduled to happen immediately after the lunch break. This would be the time for participants to slip off quietly into the city. There is a great art gallery and museum within sight of our front door.
Would they show up? That was the test.
They did. Even before the announced start, there were people clustering around one or another poster, in animated exchanges with the presenter. As time passed more people arrived and the crowd became quite dense.
Afterwards, I caught one participant croak that she'd talked so much she'd nearly lost her voice. She needed some water.
This, I thought to myself, is a good thing. I'll be happy to see it again at another conference.
John D. Norton
|Revised 11/26/14 - Copyright 2012|