Now I remember why I dislike academic conferences so much:
1. I don’t like having papers read to me (does anyone?).
2. I don’t like having one image projected on a screen and never changed for the 15 minutes when someone is reading to me.
3. I don’t like time hogs who use up discussion time: there is never time for discussion
4. I don’t like constant references to failed technology or unfamiliarity with projectors, computers, presentation software, or DVDs.
5. I don’t like that most presenters have no clue how to construct a text slide: your squinting audience is not proof that they are intensely interested. The fact is they can’t see what you wrote in your 12 point type.
6. I don’t like …, well, you get the idea.

The academic conference is a time-honored ritual that needs a facelift. Who could possibly think it is interesting to have someone read a paper to you? At least tell me about your research, like you were giving a lecture in one of your classes. I don’t need the citations and requisite references to this philosopher and that theoretician. TELL ME what you do and why it is important. Put the paper online so I can read it if you have convinced me.

For god’s sake learn to make visual presentations and how to run them. There are tons of websites that tell you how to do this and if you just use the simple rule that a picture really really helps get your idea across, you will awaken true gratitude in your audience. Don’t know what button to push to advance your images? You are not ready to face an audience.

The fact is, I am spoiled. I have been going to digital media conferences (SIGGRAPH, for example) and popular media conferences (Comic-Con, for example) for several years and there, performance is everything. You convince people of your ideas by demonstrating them, verbally and visually. You talk and joke and lighten up. They have billions of dollars at stake and they can do that. Why can’t we?

So here is my strategy for a much improved AAA meeting:
1. Have 3 sessions a day. That’s it. Sessions everyone comes to. Make them big, raucous exchanges. Have the presenters give examples of the most current ideas and most interesting trends in the field. Then open it up to discussion. A big, raucous, out-of-control discussion (with a great moderator to keep it semi-confined). Comic-Con style, people get in line at the microphone and are projected on the screen when they are asking a question. Nothing anonymous about it. As at Comic-Con, you would not be allowed to ask the presenters for an autograph or if you could have their baby.

2. Have the presenters in those three session do dynamic visual presentations designed to get people thinking. If they don’t know how to do this, I’ll show them. These should be prepared weeks ahead of time and refined by presentation date, not done on the airplane ride to the conference.

3. Provide a virtual conference online where those adored papers are posted and where everyone at their own time and place can read and comment on them. Have at least one session a day comment on the most interesting posted papers.

4. Have a big-name lecturer who gets people going and thinking. I remember the year Stephen J. Gould was there. The place was all abuzz after that.

5. Have Michael Herzfeld from Harvard be the Master of Ceremonies. I have never heard a more gracious, interesting, or smart discussant (he was the discussant in session 2-176 on Friday). And he has a great voice. I just hope he likes to sign autographs. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~anthro/social_faculty_pages/social_pages_herzfeld.html

6. Have Tom Boellstorff provide everyone with a metaphor so their presentations are more meaningful. He gave a talk on cloud computing (sounds dull, huh?) that was delightful and structured by a cloud metaphor and it all made sense. http://www.anthro.uci.edu/faculty_bios/boellstorff/boellstorff.php

7. Have Ruth Behar direct a photographer and/or videographer to record the whole thing and then post it online so we can all comment on it. Ruth showed her work with Cuban Jews (cool topic, eh?) and accompanied her talk with the most amazing photographs (taken by another photographer under her direction) and personal reminiscences. Ruth could direct it all and make it both beautiful and meaningful. Ruth Behar: http://www.ruthbehar.com/

8. Have a digital “film festival” in which everyone who wants can try to show their research in a one minute digital video. The model can be a video Faye Ginsburg showed by a man with ADD. It was brilliant and really immersed the viewer into his world. See Scott Logon’s work at: http://www.ligon-art.com/scottvideo.html (why aren’t we making videos like this????). Faye Ginsburg: http://as.nyu.edu/object/fayeginsburg.html

9. If there are still going to be thousands of papers, use an idea from SIGGRAPH (a very competitive, high-end, very technical digital technology conference): run a “Fast-Forward” session the first day. In this session, everyone has 30-60 seconds in which to present their main idea and get people to come hear their presentation. It is fascinating, funny, informative, exciting, and sometimes weird and it helps make conference planning easy. You also get to present your ideas to a huge audience even if they don’t come to your session. See it at: http://www.siggraph.org/s2009/performances_special_events/fast_forward/index.php

10. I could go on but other ideas, like getting the Family Guy  cast to read all the papers, just might not be practical but would be a lot more interesting and thought provoking. But now I remember why I don’t like the AAA meetings. Thanks for the memories…

Advertisements