Survive & Thrive at an Academic Conference, Outburst 2: How to Be an Audience

The main thing you will do at a conference is listen to other people talking.  Since this is the main thing everyone attending the conference will do,* it is worth thinking how to do it well.
In the sprawling assemblage of a large conference, there is a huge volume of information, a smaller amount of interesting analysis, and a very small handful of bright new ideas.  Your job as audience is to get a useful sample of the information, analysis and ideas; and to give the presenters some feedback.
How to choose sessions? Large conferences offer ‘streams’. These are like mini-conferences for particular sub-fields, and some people stick with a single stream for several days. This can work: I have known gripping arguments that flowed over several sessions in a stream. But it often doesn’t work. The stream may be little more than an administrative convenience - rooms and time-slots are allocated this way. You can only find out by trying.
A warning: don’t follow fame. A celebrity academic won’t necessarily give a celebrity paper. If you want a selfie with her, him or them, that’s good fun and most will oblige. But in choosing where to spend your valuable time, look for what’s intellectually interesting, above all.
Ideal conference, imagined by Raphael. Socrates upper left centre
That can be difficult, because – it’s the big paradox of these events - the official conference format actually discourages intellectual engagement.  Hundreds of 10-to-15-minute presentations in random order, punctuated by dignified speeches through a microphone on a distant stage: this is a long, long way from Socratic debate!
(Re Socrates: if you haven’t read it, rush to your friendly local library and borrow a translation of Plato’s Symposium. It is funny, a bit weird, and in the middle has a fabulous theory about sex.)
Most of the intellectual work of a conference happens after the formal sessions, or before them, or instead of them. In the coffee shops, in the corridor, in the sitting-and-waiting areas, at lunch, at dinner, over breakfast, in the park outside, very occasionally in a bedroom, more often in a committee room. I once went to a big international conference which had not got the message. There were no informal meeting spaces and there seemed to be just one small café on-site for thousands of delegates. The conference dispersed to get caffeinated.
The formal programme still matters. It provides most of the useful information; and it provides hundreds of launch-points for informal discussions. So choose a bunch of sessions and go to them.
Choose, mostly, sessions on topics related to your own work, your teaching as well as your research. That’s not selfish: you are most likely to give presenters useful feedback in fields you know. But pick at least one intriguing session that is wildly irrelevant (‘Nesting Behaviour of the Lesser Damwort: A Foucauldian-Materialist Analysis’). You might get an intellectual jolt. Or you might have a nice horror story to tell when you get home.
Take a seat. (San Francisco 2009)
OK: you front up to a session and take a seat. However shy, do NOT sit at the back. There is nothing worse for presenters than speaking to seven rows of empty chairs in front of two rows of listeners clustered like frightened sheep near the door. The presenters don’t have the plague! And you are not going to walk out anyway, you are much too polite.  So stroll up to the front, take a seat there and encourage others to join you.
The session begins a mere six minutes late, when the chairperson and the tech helper have got the computer connected and someone else has decoded the light switches.  What do you do now? Sit back and listen quietly, right? Wrong! If you want to relax, go to the bar down the road, order a Sidecar and listen to the neoliberal music, no-one is stopping you. You are at this conference to learn, dammit, and all the educational research says that effective learning is active not passive.
Active listening: pen, computer, mind. (Costa Rica 2011)
So sit forward and listen actively. Take notes with that excellent conference pen on that handy conference notepad, or give your computer a workout. Don’t use a tablet, it’s bad for your back. I generally take short notes, just idea-sketches; but I regularly write down useful names, figures and dates. Engage with your mind: test the ideas and claims as they arrive. This may suggest an immediate question.
At question time, don’t be shy. If there’s vagueness, ask for clarity. If you have reason to think that part of the presentation is wrong, you can say so. In fact you should. Building knowledge is a collective process. If everyone remembers that, there’s no need to be aggressive, or for the presenter to be defensive.  A question or comment will signal that you are interested in the topic and want to talk about it. Many a good discussion has begun, literally, while people are gathering up their conference bags and moving out at the end of a session. Carpe diem: Snatch the day!
(*Except the poor conference convenors, who are usually so stressed that they don’t get to hear the talks.)
NEXT EPISODE: How to Give a Paper.  Coming Soon!

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