How to Run A Conference
Bill Long 9/12/08
Conferences, like death and taxes, are an omnipresent part of American professional life these days. They provide opportunity for personal and professional enrichment, for enhancement of one's "contact list," for learning new material and generally, for figuring out what the "buzz" is among leaders in the "field." That is the potential upside of a conference. The reality of conferences experienced by most, however, is quite different. Conferences
often are drains on time and energy, with boring speakers and irrelevant topics, taking time away from the growing emails that are accumulating as one sits "trapped" listening to people drone on and on. Even conferences that seem to have a clear focus often go astray or become focused on an audience holding its collective breath to determine if the speaker will finally shut up before the next one is supposed to begin, etc. Conferences provide endless opportunities for parody; I wonder why no one actually has done that.
What Should a Conference Be?/ A Typical Conference
In a word, conferences should be occasions to maximize learning for the attendees. Maximization of learning means that people who come not only have opportunities to ask questions but have the sense of how things will "flow" and how they fit into this "flow." If this goal is taken seriously, conferences would be conducted far differently than at present. My proposal for how to do this is below.
A typical conference isn't organized to promote learning. It is organized to give a "forum" for "experts" from more than 50 miles away to say what is on their mind on a particular subject. There always are organizing principles to conferences, and they are usually designed by a planning committee or ambitious and capable individual who is him/herself building their career. Good conferences are particularly difficult to organize well when there are many speakers/discussants because each one of them comes from more than 50 miles and has his/her perspective on tons of issues. In order to try to keep this potentially raging diversity "in control," there generally is an "overarching theme" to the conference under which banner all speakers should fly. For example, in a recent conference I attended, the issue was painted broadly--Presidential Power in the 21st Century--and all presentations were supposed to fit under this title.
Well, this is where your problems begin. You not only have to divide the "big topic" into several "sub-topics," such as "Military Force in the War on Terror" and "Legal Process in the War on Terror," but you have to fit speakers into the categories. When speakers actually get up to address the audience, however, you realize that the individual sub-topics or panels are often occupied by people who really are dealing with completely different things. For example, in the conference I referred to, the first speaker addressed bombing as an instrument war while the second speaker talked about why she felt the US would pursue a multi-lateral approach in the future on national security issues. Huh? No connection. Then, the second panel acted as if the first didn't exist, and we were plunged immediately into the realm of whether "National Security Courts" should exist to try detainees in the War on Terror throughout the world. Inasmuch as each topic is probably a "world" in itself, and the speakers aren't always the most eloquent or lucid speakers on the subject, the audience feels pummeled or skewered by tons of jagged individual sentences that are lobbed/thrust at them/us without any sense that we are getting anywhere. But, of course we are. We are getting through the program and people are getting credit for continuing education or other things.
It is not as if the people organizing the conference are bad or short-sighted. Indeed, I have the highest regard for the scholarship and practical knowledge of the organizer of the just-mentioned conference. But, the problem is that learning doesn't happen. Or, if it does, it is desultory, fragmented, partial and superficial. So much talent is present in the room; to go through the motions of speeches and questions, when the reality is that probing and learning doesn't generally take place, seemingly is a violation of some law of the universe, though I don't know which one. There is a better way..
Pursuing a More "Excellent" Way
The most important point to realize in making a conference "work" is that participants are the ones who generally bring more knowledge about life than the speakers. Of course the speakers have expertise, and expertise that should be exploited, but the participants/attendees are really the important ones to take into consideration in the planning process. How? Through the development of an interactive process to effect conference learning. It consists of two steps: (1) The conference designers pitch the topic for the day and invite speakers with specific expertises or topics; and (2) On the day of the conference, audience members/attendees divide themselves into groups centering around the topics that interest them most and engage in a discussion, with the speaker on that topic in attendance. The discussion among conference participants would come before the presentation--and it would consist of discussion of what the attendees/participants understand about the topic and would like to know about the topic the expert is supposed to address. This 30 or so minute process should eventuate in focused concern, that should become the basis for some of the comments of the "expert." S/he should be good enough to be able to "think on her/his feet" to an extent, and the attempt to deal with real concerns not only will make the comments "relevant" but will ensure a living discussion and true learning.
One could develop this idea further, by allowing for conference participants to attend two discussions before the conference begins. These discussions will be required to stay 'on topic' but they would function as audience "buy ins" for what the speaker has to say. Since learning, for me, is really nothing more than a conversation, the function of the discussions would be to get the conversation going, to make sure that there is a same "page" that everyone is "on."
I think this proposal will benefit not only attendees but also the speakers. Speakers would realize what is, in fact, the truth: that they are only one of the conversation partners (important ones for the day, to be sure) on the topic, but that their remarks make most sense if they are "in the flow" with a smart group of interested listeners. It definitely would benefit the attendees, since there would have to be a sort of "buy in" or participation in order for things to go forward. Such a method would rein in the wilder and irrelevant ramblings of many speakers at these conferences which I think are reflective not so much of the fact that speakers are jerks as that they just aren't involved in a conversation with the audience. Thus, it is as if they are speaking into a dead phone in a sound-proof phone booth.
Why don't schools pursue a different understanding of conference? Mostly because, in colleges and graduate schools, very little thought is given to the ways that people actually learn. So, we continue processes that we have pursued for years, without ever asking ourselves if we are maximizing the skills of those present. In fact, of course, we aren't. Maybe some will arise in the future who are committed to a new model of conferences. I, for one, would like to participate in one such conference, almost regardless of the subject..