Six principles for organising academic conferences in the 21st century

by Steve Fuller

After my recent keynote at the 2014 meeting of the British Sociological Association, I was interviewed about my views on the conference. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, I said that a large professional conference such as this one is a great place to catch up with old friends and hawk some book ideas to publishers, but rarely memorable for its intellectual substance. Generally speaking, only junior, relatively unpublished academics really need to go to such conferences to acquire visibility among prospective employers and colleagues. And, of course, it is also an esteem indicator to be invited to speak in plenary fashion at such occasions. Otherwise, there is little else to recommend attendance at an academic conference in its current form. However, the six principles below are designed to turn the conference into a unique sort of academic event well worth attending.

  1. A conference is a distinct channel – perhaps even genre – of academic communication. It is not a watered-down or zombie version of the academic print culture. It requires its own ‘peer review’ standards that do not simply trade on the conventions of academic writing. Thus, instead of abstracts, prospective presenters should send video clips of 1-3 minutes that convey what will be said and how it will be said.
  2. Presenters should be strongly discouraged from reading their presentations. More generally, presenters should be forced to make a special case for presenting material that is already available in print. The norm for conference presentations should be new material – unless a presenter hails from a field with which conference members are unlikely to be familiar.
  3. Presentations heavily reliant on Powerpoint should be gathered thematically into what are essentially high-tech poster sessions rather than be given stand-alone speaker slots. This may mean that a larger percentage of the space in the conference facility is given over to such sessions. Indeed, organizers may wish to consider that the explicitness of many Powerpoint presentations render the human presenter redundant. Thus, interested conference goers may simply be directed to a computer terminal where all the Powerpoint-based presentations are loaded, perhaps with recorded voice-overs from the absent presenters.
  4. In short, my ideal conference would have fewer presenters but who give stronger, fresher performances. Most of the texts associated with a conference would not be found in the thick book of abstracts normally distributed when the conference begins but in the social media streams that are generated during and after the presentations.
  5. It also follows that funding for conference attendance should not be tied to a formal presentation but to a requirement to make one’s participation visible, through the various forms of live interaction that the conference allows and social media enables to be documented. Among other things, this would have the effect of keeping most people engaged with the conference beyond simply the session in which they deliver their presentation, as often happens now.
  6. A large hall in the conference facility – perhaps where the book exhibit or reception is – should be open throughout the conference for the organization of what Silicon Valley calls ‘unconferences’, namely, spontaneously generated academic interest groups that are made up of anyone drawn to the topic. A noticeboard could be available where such groups could book rooms or tables in the conference facility for particular times. If the groups are especially well-organized, they might even record their meeting for archival purposes on the conference website.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. He tweets at @ProfSteveFuller.

Categories: Committing Sociology, Higher Education

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