The continually shrinking conference presentation

This blog recently featured a call for papers that reflect on ‘forms of intellectual meeting within the contemporary academy’. I thought that this was a timely request, which resonates with different concerns we can identify around how some academic events are run. For many researchers the costs of some well-established conferences are prohibitive. We are working at a time when sociologists are reflecting on mainstream ways of doing sociology and suggesting alternatives, for example, ‘Punk sociology’, or ‘live methods’. It seems appropriate that part of this reflection on the disciplinary project is also a questioning of how we arrange conversations between researchers, how we communicate with each other, and how we seek to engage wider publics.  I’ve been wondering if there is a wider sense of dissatisfaction with the standard model of workshops and conferences, the 20 minute presentation, often accompanied by a power point presentation, followed by five or 10 minutes for questions and discussion. I have seen events advertised where this seems to be the case, in one instance participants were asked not to use power point, in another power point and similar ‘tools’ were not permitted.

I recently received a decision on an abstract for a conference paper that has prompted me to think about some of these issues. I submitted an abstract for a paper that would be 20 minutes long, followed by questions. As is common with these kinds of events, the organisers have received far more abstracts than could fit into the programme. I have been asked to give my paper as a PechaKucha presentation where 20 slides auto-run for 20 seconds each, meaning each is talk is six minutes, 40 seconds long.  So, how can we understand this move away from the standard format, to this shorter, more visual, set-up? From the perspective of the organisers it might be a pragmatic move, a way to allow more presenters to talk about their work. There might be a profit motive at play here, researchers are probably more likely to attend an event if they are presenting, rather than making up the audience, and might be more able to access university research funds for this. Thinking instrumentally, a PechaKucha presentation and a standard one might end up looking very similar on a CV, so perhaps organisers don’t think that shortened papers will be a problem for the speakers.

I think there is also something going on here about the role of technology in academic events. For some conference organisers, it seems that technology is perceived as having damaged good communication between researchers – so, we get the ban on power point, or similar formats. For the event I hoped to present at the increased use of technology seems to be a kind of solution, though beyond the issue of oversupply of papers, it is not clear what the problem is.  On the PechaKucha website we learn that the format was devised by two architects and is a response to the problem of architects talking too much when given a microphone.  PechaKucha presentations appear to be designed for creative people to showcase their work in informal, sociable, events. On other websites these kinds of presentations are described as upbeat, engaging, and where the audience is on the side of presenter. There might be some problems with translating this format to academic events – not all topics are suitable for an ‘upbeat’ style, if the audience and presenter are all caught up in ensuring the format succeeds, does this become more important than the ideas being discussed? Do these kind of ‘hacks’ to the standard model of conference presentation put more emphasis (and pressure?) on the researcher to be a performer? Is this undesirable? And, what can you say in six minutes, 40 seconds – does this help researchers focus on their key argument, or is only a superficial exploration of a topic possible in this time?  My guess would be that the latter is usually the result.

I would like to hear from researchers who have used alternative formats at events – has this been a positive move? Is there a widespread sense that the standard model of conference sessions no longer fits into the wider culture of contemporary academic life? I think it is time to have some of these discussions. At conferences we often have a dual role, as both speakers, and as listeners. If we are going to rethink the role and format of academic events, we need to keep both of these in mind.  I would like to think of conferences as spaces for thinking and discussing ideas.  My concern is that if we start to think of presentations mainly as performances, the idea of the conference for a place for talking and listening might slip from view.

Emma Head is Lecturer in Sociology at Keele University. She is co-convenor of the BSA Digital Sociology group and edits the Sociology and Criminology at Keele blog.

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  1. Thanks for this post. It’s an important question.

    At this year’s BSA annual conference I consciously decided against Power Point and instead prepared a single sheet of notes for all attendees, given to them as they arrived so that they wouldn’t have to scribble (any?) notes, and could actually engage in the topic under dscussion.

    My choice was influenced by the fact that my presentation was on a very sensitive issue – female genital mutilation* – and needs careful handling as the topic is being discussed; we can’t assume this is ‘only’ of academic interest, or that no-one in the room will not have direct and perhaps very traumatic experience of FGM.
    [* in essence, an extension of this – http://hilaryburrage.com/2014/04/11/the-real-economics-of-fgm-its-much-more-than-wages – to examine the idea that FGM in western societies actually creates for some who experience it the very ‘underclass’ status which in traditional societies it is claimed a woman with FGM-status will avoid.]

    Also, I wanted to judge reactions and responses as we went along so that I could see where any gaps in the attendees’ knowledge might be (there were a few), and because I’d hoped for (and received) several observations which a more slick techno-style of presentation would have prevented.

    In other words, I wanted to take the opportunity to actually talk with, not just to, sociological colleagues during my precious 20 minutes.

    Imposing any across-the-board techno format on the presentation would have been exceedingly counter-productive. In fact, I don’t think I would have bothered to submit… but doing it in my own preferred fashion left me very pleased that I’d been able to present.

    So I guess some flexibility in presentational mode can be critical for some of us who want to share our work – and also for those who come to join the debate. Context is (nearly) all, in these things.

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