Sunday, April 10, 2011

What makes a great conference?

I'm not yet home from Theorizing the Web 2011, just sitting in the Starbucks at the Marriott wondering what it is that made this conference so awesome. Because it was awesome: I ran out of paper in my notebook from writing so much down.

I'm thinking it's the grad students.

I go to a lot of conferences and, if I may be frank, was rapidly becoming disenchanted, nay, jaded, about the whole system.

What makes me jaded about conferences:

- The panels are unfocused, so usually there's only one paper of the three--or, god help me, four--that I actually want to see
- There are way, way too many concurrent panels, so that the conference has 400 people at it, but each session has 4 people presenting to 7 other people
- The panels start and finish late, throwing off my eating / peeing / time management
- The papers run overtime
- The speakers read excerpts from an article, so it's too dense and too long, and hard to decipher
- The speakers have prepared their presentations on the plane, and it shows
- The panel chair won't actually stop papers that run too long, so at the end, there's no time at all for questions
- There's never enough break time to actually talk to people and network
- There's no food, so when there are breaks, everyone scatters to the wind: no time to actually talk to people and network
- Sometimes, people won't talk to you if they don't already know you
- Often, people skip out on vast chunks of the conference to do the meeting and networking they otherwise have no time for

What was awesome about TTW2011

- The panels were very focused
- People actually attended panels, and the keynotes, for the whole day. My paper was in the last session of the day, right before the keynote, at 5pm, and there were 40 people attending.
- All the panel rooms were in one hallway, leading to group cohesion and chance conversations
- It was one day long.
- People were very friendly: I suspect this might be because of Twitter, which breaks the ice. If we follow each other online, I'm more likely to walk up and introduce myself, because you've already indicated some sort of interest in my acquaintance, or my work.
- There was food in the morning, and food at night. And a party with a live band and beer in Rubbermaid-bucket coolers.
- Most importantly, perhaps: people put a lot of effort into their presentations, with the result that they were professional, and clear, and on point. Some even managed *funny*.

I am impressed at the level of smarts, research, and preparation of all the talks I went to. Did some people learn the hard way that 42 slides take more than 15 minutes to discuss? Probably. But the slides were really, really good, so I assume that's a rookie mistake of over-ambition, which I'm kinda inclined to forgive readily.

(It's very easy for me to tell other people they went overtime: we only had two speakers on my panel, so co-panelist and I had the luxury of 25-30 minute presentations, with still lots of time for questions--and what great questions!)

So. The upshot is this: I'm going to go to more conferences where graduate students predominate on the program. In new media studies, where something new in the tech or theory or cultural realm pops up on the radar almost faster than the speed of scholarship, it makes sense already to see what the kids are up to. Beyond that, though, I think grad students just put more effort into their papers. As a result, they present better work that's more valuable to me in my own research, and that's the point, right?

Professors, do you think we can step up our game?