Saturday, July 4, 2015

Academic Conferences

Recently, there has been interesting discourse on Twitter and on blogs and 'good' and 'bad' behaviour in academic conferences. I can only add a few more words on the subject as it has been surveyed rather comprehensively by others. A blog by Will Pooley stresses the importance of a shift away from negativity to trying to affect positive changes ('quit complaining and start changing'). Another group of academics similarly stressed a change towards the positive, enumerating 'good' conference questions rather than bemoaning the 'bad' ones. It includes the phrase 'paperbomb' which I think brilliantly sums up the behaviour of some conference attendees when it comes to the Q&A sessions. The links to both can be found here:

However, while attending a recent conference, some behaviour was disappointing to me and I think we may still need to highlight poor conference etiquette if we are to change the system. (*this is not in anyway an indictment on the conference I'm attending, which is wonderfully organised. However, the behaviour is representative of that which we all encounter at all conferences!)

Ultimately, I am conforming to Pierre Bourdieu's concept of social habitus: the notion that rules of conduct are only codified when they are being flouted. Thus, we must continue to call out bad behaviour in order to instill better behaviour. 

Much of this may well stem from a gap between the treatment of junior academics by those more senior. As Pooley notes, this may reflect 'fundamental inequalities of the university system'. Junior academics still feel the pressure to present at conferences for future job prospects, whereas senior academics have a more relaxed approach to conferences. Below are just some observations. 

  1. In a Q&A session with two young academics and one more senior, one attendee praised the style of the senior academic, applauding them for "speaking to the audience which others were not doing". That felt like a unnecessarily direct dig at the other speakers at that session. Yes, there are academics who can stand up with no notes, no Powerpoint, and speak to the audience in a natural way. That does not mean that it is any better than someone who does have notes, who does use additional aids (handouts/slides/etc.). What is the point of a comment which seeks to embarrass and belittle others?
  2. Of course, there was the dreaded yet standard 'question as statement' which really only serves the person asking the question rather than being of benefit to the speaker. If you insist on commenting after every session, than I suggest that you give a paper too!
  3. There is always the question of time-keeping and the role of the chair. Yes, it is frustrating when a paper goes over the alloted time, even more so when the paper is really interesting but no time remains to develop the conversation in the Q&A. However, what is worse is when those in the back of the audience gumble and mutter 'stop, stop'. The chair is the one in charge, and as much as failed time-keeping can be frustrating, respect must be upheld!
What I have particularly noticed is that many of the transgressions of what we consider proper etiquette were committed by the more established senior academics. Now, cutting remarks, questions as statements, can equally be committed by junior academics. This can be especially true in a competitive envirnoment where postgrads can feel the need to one-up each other or cut each other down in order to show off. However, often I am left wishing that senior academics could look back and remember what it was like to be a graduate student or ECR - perhaps then conference behaviour would improve.

But in the favour of balance, perhaps we should also come up with some of the sins of the presenters. Presenters too are guilty of conference faux-pas, some of which directly lead to the 'bad' reactions of the audience! Here are just a few of my pet peeves:
  1. Timekeeping: It is so important to keep to the time limit. People who are there to hear you speak likely want to ask you questions and engage with your work. So time your papers! I think that postgrads and ECR's are quite good at this, but there may also be the idea that if you fill in more time, then maybe you can avoid the tricky questions! 
  2. PowerPoint: A visual presentation has to engage the audience. Medievalists can be guilty of throwing up images from manuscripts, but it has to be deployed in an effective and useful manner. A reproduction of a manuscript page which is illegible from more than a metre away probably isn't as useful as an enlargement of the relevant part. 
  3. Handouts - if you're going to use them, make sure you have enough for everyone. Also, one of my pet-peeves are handouts solely in Latin with no translations. This either assumes an elevated knowledge of the audience or projects a sense of superiority. Also, not everyone can read Latin as quickly as others - translations into the language of the conference is inclusive and doesn't exclude anyone, or make them feel inadequate.
Of course there is the question of style and delivery, but that it not for me to say! Everybody is different. All I would say is to be yourself, and for the audience to be respectful and sensitive to each speaker!


  1. Really interesting -- thanks for writing! Thankfully, I've never had the outright vicious kind of question, although I've had one or two that are very much in the 'pointing-out-problems' style as opposed to gently gesturing towards solutions ...

    When it comes to asking them, I always try to write my questions down before asking them for precisely the reasons you mention above. I find it really helps to avoid asking the kind of question that meanders on for almost as long as the presentation and then peters out in with the summary statement, 'so ... yeah'.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. That's a great point about writing your questions down - definitely keeps it on topic!!


Please add your comments below. Comments are moderated for spam and offensive language.