Lectures at Conferences – again!

A while ago, there was a discussion on Twitter about the role of lectures at academic conferences and whether more sessions should be discussions or interactive. There was some discussion around the notion of providing active learning opportunities at conferences. Michael Seery has waded in  (http://michaelseery.com/home/index.php/2015/11/why-i-love-the-lecture-at-academic-conferences/) as has Anna Wood (http://learningfrome-learning.blogspot.com/2015/11/lectures-at-conferences-good-or-bad.html). Sometimes the 140 character format of Twitter is insufficient!

I’ll be honest, I’m a notorious fence-sitter when it comes to things like this. I can see it from both/all sides pretty much simultaneously and find that my general dislike of the format of scientific conferences colours my view considerably. I’d refer you to this blogpost by Jan in the Pan (https://brainthatwouldntdie.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/surviving-academic-conferences-without-crying/) for further hints on why conferences can be tough going.

But what of lectures at conferences. Well, I think the format of any presentation should suit the purpose and goals of the presentation. If you are a world-leader in a field and are invited to a conference to present your work, you are expected to deliver a summary of the highlights of the work in an accessible format for the audience.  There is likely no obligation to open up the session to a discussion of the work (beyond the standard questions format) or include activities to help the participants ‘get it’. But there is very definitely an obligation to present competently, concisely and thoughtfully.

If, on the other hand, you’re leading a session on a new method that has sufficient time to allow for discussion or other interactive means to illustrate why the new method is really good, you should probably do it. I wouldn’t say you are obliged, but in some fields and for some topics it would be odd not to.  So if you’re going to do a presentation on why we should use personal response systems in teaching, you probably need to use that system in the talk. Again though, there is an obligation to design your session in a manner that is fit for purpose and respectful of the conference aims and audience.

See, there is no excuse for poor presentations in any context. From teaching undergrads through to the most nerve-wracking conference presentation in your life: if your presentation does not have a clear purpose, don’t bother giving it. If that purpose is learning, persuasion, or scoping out what is felt or known, you’re going to need something a bit more than standing talking over slides. If the purpose is conveying information, you’re probably OK with slides but please (for the love of all that is good in this universe), devise them kindly and with the audience in mind.

From other parts of the discussion I conclude that academics, like students, do like to just sit and ‘listen’ to presentations from time to time. That’s probably OK, conferences (and full days of classes) are tough and it’s nice to be able to disengage from higher level thinking for a time. And if you’ve got a great presenter, you’ll be compelled to pay attention.

At no point, however, should the format of a conference force a presenter into one format or another. There should be freedom to present in a manner that suits the presenter’s topic, style and circumstances.  We already give up some presentation styles when we submit abstracts, picking between poster, workshop, long presentation, short presentation and ultra-short formats. We know that we’re not going to conduct a discussion in a 5 minute oral byte, and we pick posters where we hope for engagement with the most interested in the work. But when formats are forced, such as Pecha Kucha, promoting a poster by some kind of lightening talk, or making a ‘flipped format’ compulsory rather than optional, a lot of the value in the presentation is lost.

Flipped lecture format at conferences requires the presenter to carefully and thoughtfully prepare the pre-lecture resources and activities. Pecha Kucha usually requires more slides than a short presentation needs, and doesn’t allow for detailed descriptions of data sets (putting the same graph up for 10 slides to satisfy the format seems superfluous). Poster sessions are often aimed at students rather than academics, and poster sessions where the main questions come from the poster judges are pretty contrived as well.

So I’m sitting on the fence on the whole active vs passive conference stuff. I’d just like people to do better at presenting regardless.


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