The wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he saw,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Why can’t we be like
That wise old bird?
– Edward Richards
At the last AIR meeting, the executive committee appointed me to be the new Jeremy, heading up the systems for the organization and making sure that the Association for Internet Research actually, you know, appears on the Internet and stuff. And oh, there will be blogs.
As part of this process, we have already begun to discuss the conference in Brisbane next year. There is a lot of new blood on the exec, and lots of folks who want to see things change. It’s natural in many ways; very few people get elected to any office by saying “I want to keep things just as they are.” We have also (re)started a listserv for members of the Association to discuss the upcoming meeting. Someone — probably Matt Allen — wisely suggested that we track that conversation but not engage in it. This is something I’m very bad at, and so I am sorta breaking the rules by talking about it here. Disclaimer: these are entirely my opinions and do not reflect the opinion of the executive committee. We will, as in the past, respond to whatever the will of the membership is.
One of the topics high on this list is whether to include some alternative form of presentation. At the last conference, we basically had three kinds of sessions: keynote presentations at the plenary level, roundtable sessions during the lunches, and — by far the most plentiful — the standard four-paper presentation sessions. It was a good conference. In fact, I think it was the best AIR conference so far.
But some among the membership want to provide alternatives. These alternatives include some things that members have seen work well at other conferences: interactive poster sessions, high-density panels, carousel presentations, roundtables, theme banquets, and walk/ride sessions (like blogtalk, or — in the case of Brisbane — a boat trip). In most cases, the intent is to get away from talking heads and toward salons.
Several people have floated ideas, and many commentators have shot these down. A common critique is that we have to do things that fit in with the academy in order to get jobs, tenure, etc. Paper sessions are notoriously a collection point for poor work in many social science conferences, and there seems no reason to replicate that here. Ironically, the other chief complaint is that we shouldn’t do things in our conference just because it works that way in the disciplinary conferences.
The latter criticism seems particularly misguided. First, just because other conferences do it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Indeed, interdisciplinarity is all about taking the best from our own disciplines, not starting with a blank slate. In most cases, when people present something, it is along the lines of “this worked really well at the last conference I went to.” Reducing ourselves to the least common denominator seems a mistake.
But also, I am concerned because of what the “new” attendees (those for whom this was the first or second attendance) said about the conference this year. They said it still had that “fresh feeling”; that it had not ossified yet. While there very good reasons to fix (that is, leave unchanged) some things, there is no good reason that the presentation format should be one of those. It strikes me that people proposing different approaches are all about keeping the conference fresh. There is, to my mind, a significant danger that AIR could loose it edge, and with its edge, its relevance. I am not suggesting we reinvent the conference writ large, but I do not see the harm in providing “experimental sections” that try a different approach.
So, I post this here, where no one will really see it, and hope that the discussion on air-meet does not prematurely close out the potential for doing interesting things with the conference. I know I wouldn’t want to travel half-way around the world to attend the “same old conference,” and I hope we manage to escape this trap.