Thursday, 1 May 2014

The continually shrinking conference paper

By Emma Head, Lecturer in Sociology 

This discussion was first posted on The Sociological Imagination, a blog that everyone interested in sociology should read. As is often the case with blog posts, comments on this discussion took place on twitter, not in the comments box.

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. 

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