Call me an unreformed social constructionist but I think language has power.
Calling these really cool new types of conferences things like “unconferences” “camps” and whatever just cedes the definition of “conference” to people whose primary goal seems to be to bore us to death.
What is the purpose of the conference?
There is plenty of evidence to support the cynical view that academic conferences serve the primary purpose of enabling individual academics to put something on their CV.
If that is your purpose in presenting, no wonder your paper is so dull.
Communication seems like an obvious purpose of a conference.
You go to a conference to communicate your research ideas to others who are interested in particular areas.
I suppose some people are mainly concerned with one-way communication — “This is what I’ve found. Isn’t it brilliant.”
But many are interested in discussion, debate, and developing their ideas through conversation with others who have read similar material and are studying related issues.
If that’s what you are trying to do, you present your 15 minute paper much differently.
My advice to treat the 15 minute conference presentation as speed-dating assumes that this is what you are trying to do.
Forget about impressing people with your review of the literature and talk about the exciting stuff you’ve found in ways that work for an oral presentation. Have the written version available for the people who are interested enough to want the nuance.
One thing that happens in so-called “unconferences” is actual real-time collaboration. Go read this Hook & Eye post. I’ll wait.
Didn’t you love that part where Heather says “imagine a conference where you wrote a book!”?
So, why not? Seriously.
If there is one advantage to travelling to a conference it is that you get to be in the same physical space with colleagues you otherwise only communicate with by e-mail or phone.
Why aren’t we using these opportunities to actually sit down and write things together?
At the very least, you could be actively using conferences to meet potential collaborators and have interesting discussions about potential future projects.
Self-organizing is possible at any conference
Maybe the particular conference you are going to has been organized in the typical fashion.
There are panels where people are giving papers. There are plenary sessions. The timetable is all agreed in advance.
You don’t need permission to skip some (or all) of the organized sessions.
You don’t need permission to do real work in the restaurant, bar, coffee shop, or an empty room down the hall.
You don’t need permission to get a bunch of people together to talk about collaboration or even to start writing a book together during the conference.
Give that paper in the regular stream
Present your material in a way that invites discussion and debate. Talk about your most interesting findings.
Worry less about impressing the big players and more about identifying potential collaborators.
Make it easy for people you’d like to work with to come up and talk to you at the end of the session.
Hell, invite them to meet you in the bar later. Tell them where you will be at lunchtime and invite them to join you.
Do your own advance organizing
Let the official conference organizers deal with the venue, hotels, publishers, etc.
You can organize the people you want to work with. Discuss in advance what you want to do and how this conference offers and opportunity to get together and do it.
Invite people you know and come up with ways of using the main conference to find more like-minded folks.
You don’t need credit, you need good conferences
Talk about it afterwards. Give the main conference organizers credit for organizing such a fantastic opportunity for collaboration. Don’t worry if they deserve it, give them the credit anyway.
If the buzz about this year’s big important conference in your field is about how collaborative and interesting it was, then next year’s organizers are going to be motivated to make it collaborative and interesting.
Go on. Stop complaining about bad conferences.
Start constructing the reality you want to have.