Alternative conference presentations

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.

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  1. Posted 10/17/2005 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    none of the suggested changes have anything to do with ‘edge’ as far as i can tell. primarily what they have to do with is, ‘saw it done otherwise elsewhere, liked it’. then they say they liked aoir too.

    aoir has to maintain its relevance through having good research. one way to drive away good research is to keep changing the rules for researchers. right now i know, you know, and everyone that wants to know, can know that to go to aoir you either need to have a 750 word paper or artistic proposal that passes muster, or a panel proposal that passes muster. end of story, they’ve known that for 3 years. they know passing the level is a promise of future quality, and like all conferences, some people produce that quality, some do not. however, they know what counts, it is clear. they also know from that, what they get, they get to present their work. that’s good.

    now, let’s say, we change the rules. then next year, lets change them again, and lets change them at anyones given whim. then what we end up with is irrelevance. it happens, and if it happens to aoir, it didn’t start with me. in fact, my voice and steve’s voice and several other voices were raised many times in opposition to the ‘continual change’, ‘reinventing the wheel’ idea. i gave one good reason above, it is not the only really good reason, believe me.

    granted, there are interesting things to do, but the key here is to know first how to do a good aoir conference, then instead of arbitrarily saying ‘let’s try x’ first you discuss it with the members on air-meet, then you really think about the work involved in making the change and what it implies not just for the ‘creative spirits’ but in real terms for the organization, the members, and the future. then you think, who will this upset, and you have to think deeply about this, because there may be many layers of hidden power dynamics that have been balanced in the current design which you might not yet see, and once you’ve really decided to do something, then you have to do it, and that is when things get difficult.

  2. Posted 10/17/2005 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    keep in mind here that i am only talking about the academic program. the entertainment, localization of the conference, non-academic side should be as wide open as we can get it and not lose money. so river cruise, cool, taking a bus to lone pine to watch people scare koalas by holding them and getting peed on, cool, eating good food great, i’m hoping for asian fusion myself like thai mudbugs, but it will prolly be staid conference food with local flair, ‘sok. that is the mix that the exec was aiming very strongly toward.

    your exec might differ, but as far as i can tell, you are doing the same thing the last 3 have. let’s remake aoir in our image, and then slowly you come to terms with the idea, as execs, you don’t change things the way you dream them to be, but you only actually respond to the members needs, not really even their desires.

  3. Posted 10/18/2005 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Sigh. My response to follow, both on Planned Obsolescence and on air-meet. I’m totally with you.

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