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Academic conferences – do we need to shake them up a bit?

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One of the great things about my job here at the Hutton is that I get to attend academic conferences. They are a way to disseminate our research, meet and learn from people who work in the same field and gather new ideas and perspectives.

The basic format of conferences that I have attended is a series of 15-minute presentations (usually accompanied by PowerPoint), organised into sessions of four to five presentations each followed by 3-5 minutes for questions from the audience. There are usually several parallel sessions, so conference attendees must decide which talks interest them most. These sessions are the main way to present and share information, but there are also presentations that everyone attends (‘plenary’ sessions) and poster sessions.

I think this structure has become too engrained, and we should think more about how we ‘do’ conferences. Is it good to rely on this structure of 15 minute presentations followed by three minutes for questions? What stops us from trying something new?

From my experiences of ‘people watching’ during conferences I’ve noticed that that while some listen carefully to the presentations and participate in subsequent Q&A, the majority sit passively. The real value of this type of conference often seems to come from the coffee breaks where you can speak and get to know people. It’s these special moment when you can share ideas that make conferences most worthwhile.

I wonder what a conference would look like if it got everyone engaged and excited all the way though, and you had the chance to talk and discuss more during the main sessions. Wouldn’t this be a better way to improve our research and make new connections?

I’ve been thinking about how we could achieve this for a while. In the ‘(un)conference’ we organised for our TESS (Transition to European Societal Sustainability) project, we tried to do this by (i) giving more time for group discussions, (ii) using ‘flash’ (quick) presentations, and (iii) facilitating activities to get people talking and thinking outside the box. For example we asked the extremely talented Emily Hinshelwood to be our resident poet for the day, see a video of Emily’s summary poem here. I think we did well in getting people talking, and we got excellent feedback. What was good was that the sessions were interactive so people didn’t have to sit and listen for too long at one time.

Another excellent conference that I recently attended also did really well at promoting discussion. This was the 2015 Transformations conference themed on ‘People and the Anthropocene’ that was run by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in October this year. It involved around 250 researchers from a wide variety of disciplines.

One of the things that made this event so special was its innovative structure. The organisers were quite selective with the presentations, so the conference wasn’t too ‘presentation heavy’. Because there were only ever 4 sessions on at the same time, you never had to miss much. Each morning at 10am there was a cello recital to focus people minds and get them ready for the day. This was beautiful and everyone I spoke to loved it. Each session had big audiences, and included a participatory exercise to make them more interactive. However, every session was a little different.

Examples included:

  • ‘Mash-ups’ (which my presentation was part of) were sessions of 4 x 7 minute presentations followed by facilitated group discussions and then plenary discussions.
  • ‘Speed-talks’ were 4 x 7 minute presentations followed by ‘meet the speaker’, where each speaker would go and stand in a part of the room and those who wanted to talk to them about similar topics would go and speak with them in groups.
  • ‘Deep conversations’ were short presentations that were designed to ‘get deeper’ sometimes using games and roleplay as a way to explore ideas and develop empathy with other peoples’ views.

This conference gave me an opportunity to speak to people who I wouldn’t normally speak to, and the participatory sessions helped me to have more meaningful conversations than I would normally expect. I think it offers great ideas and examples for other conferences.

I realise that everyone has their own preferences and approaches to learning and engaging but I’d like to challenge conference organisers to shake up conference formats. Let’s open them up, make them more participatory. I think this would better meet the aims of most academics: to discuss ideas that are important to our research, learn about other peoples’ research, and get feedback about our own. I think the reason that we tend to stick to established formats is that doing something different often seems more difficult: it takes more time, breaks established routines, and needs different skills. It may seem easier to do something familiar and there is less risk that it will go wrong.

My research looks at how to think about and manage natural resources in a more sustainable way. Part of this challenge entails finding new ways of working with people and engaging with both the heart and not just the head; why can’t we start doing this at conferences too? Conferences should be a great place to learn and put your work in perspective, but whether or not they achieve this depends on their structure, and the extent to which they create opportunities for in-depth dialogue.



Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



nice post

Nowadays there are many scientific people, in particular students, involved in academic life and having conducted their scientific research into a certain subject or from my experience as it was with my assignment which I completed as an introduction to my research, it is not an easy to find and attend any academic seminars or conferences to introduce the outcome of the research. That is why the only way out to bring the idea to the audience is to publish your work in academic or scientific journals. I suggest that more and more academic conferences were held with each year.

Conferences: Telling people who already know stuff they couldn't care less about.

Totally pointless.

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.