Sunday, November 25, 2007

Coming back up for air

I'm always impressed by people who can go to conferences and blog about their experiences during the conference. I typically find myself struggling to fit all of the conference-related activities into each day. And then there are the conferences with long travel times (20+ hours to Montevideo, Uruguay, for example) and jet lag to contend with, during which I consume mass quantities of coffee in a sometimes vain attempt to stave off narcolepsy (despite the fact that I'm not much of a coffee drinker). Maybe next time I'll take a bunch of decongestant, instead.

Presentations, be they oral or poster, are always curious things. Oral presentations are often a complete waste of time. My understanding is that, once upon a time, oral presentations at scientific meetings involved people reading their papers to the audience. While, on the surface, this might sound dreadful, upon further reflection I think this is a better approach. For one thing, this would greatly reduce the number of oral presentations. For another, it could (note the conditional) engender more discussion among the participants. Right now, presenters try to make their points in a few slides and questions are basically at the end. There's no time for serious questions, clarifications, or the like, so questions tend to be of the "got ya!" or the "let me tell you about what I've done that may relate to this" varieties. And those are the good talks -- the bad ones are those that are incomprehensible or those in which the presenter hasn't confined him or herself to a few slides and everyone is at the mercy of the session Chair's ability to cut the speaker off so that they can make the next coffee break in time.

Posters are sometimes better, but they unfortunately try to serve two purposes. One purpose is to provide a forum for more embryonic work, often that of students. The other is as a "booby prize" for submissions for which oral presentation wasn't justifiable but which were still above the "ramblings of a crackpot" cutoff used for rejections. So, one's first task is to find those posters that one is interested in and then locate the author (who may or may not be there at the moment). If you're lucky and do both of those, odds are the author is in the middle of talking to someone else and then you have to decide if you want to listen to the last five minutes of that conversation, trying to understand what they're talking about, before you finally ask the author to essentially repeat the whole conversation with you.

So, what's good about conferences? They're basically the only place I can go where I can meet and talk to people who are interested in the same things I'm interested in, research-wise. I can have research for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night drinks. I can sometimes make contact with future collaborators. I can get ideas for the next thing I'd like to do. I can be re-energized to continue to find ways to carve out space for research in a life with plenty of family, administrative, teaching, and service demands.

I'd like to run a conference in which oral presentations are done in a more old-fashioned way, where papers are read and discussed in a seminar format. That way, we could all go through each other's research with a fine-tooth comb. What a frightening prospect! Anyway, back to seeing if I can bring the number of unread emails in my inbox below 50.

No comments:

Post a Comment