Flip the conference!

14th century painting of lectureDisclaimer: In this blog post, I not un-ironically level an academic critique of the way the academic conference has lost sight of its competitive advantage.

Critics of the modern classroom like to offer a picture of two classrooms separated by 700 years of history. One half of the image is a painting of a 14th century lecture hall with a professor garbed in elaborate robes delivering knowledge from on-high to students diligently assembled in rows. The other half of the image is a photograph of a 21st century lecture hall with professor garbed in somewhat less elaborate robes delivering knowledge from on-high—now with the assistance of visual aides and surround-sound systems—to students diligently assembled in rows. “Let it not be said,”such critics say, “that the classroom of the 21st century hasn’t improved in 700 years. Look at this sound system!”At which point the sound system inevitably malfunctions, a help request derails the lecture, and one leaves the lecture hall thinking that we students may have gotten the better deal for escaping another staid presentation, while also having somehow lost out in the long run.

Academic conferences have ossified in similar tragicomic parody of life in the 14th century (had science been flourishing then). Yes, you can now tweet at conference followers, ‘like’a session on Facebook, Pinterest photos of presentations-in-action., etc., but once a session’s doors close, you’re confronted with the same speaker, pressed to stay in your seat by the force of hundreds of years of socialization under a one-way communication regime (unless, of course, you’re live-streaming from home).

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, there will be multiple speakers. Each of these speakers delivering quarter to half hour talks—the saving grace of such sessions being the variety of different speakers who ascend to the dais as if surfing across time the wave of one-way information transfer. On even rarer, but confoundingly popular occasions, there will be too many speakers for you to count, each delivering half-minute to five minute “lightning talks,”named not for the awe-inspiring wonder of electrostatic discharge from ground to heavens, but for the fear-inspiring jitters instilled by a gathering storm that you see on the horizon and know, just know, that no matter how fast you walk, you’re not going to make it back to shelter in time, and oh well, you suppose you asked for it by heading out of doors in the first place, but darn, you thought you might have dodged it, and, really, you’d rather not get drenched, not now, but then the storm is upon you…and only by the time you walk out of the room, nerves addled, your few notes illegible from the adrenaline rush of applause-talk-applause-talk ad infinitum (or at least for the length of the session), do you realize how good you may have had it when weighted to your seat by the tradition of the fifty-minute presentation.

Which is not to say that the Academic Conference has out-lived it’s usefulness. In the WEIRD world of technologically-mediated digital identities and bubbles, the Academic Conference may be more important than we realize. The Academic Conference will continue to be useful only if it recognizes the true purpose and competitive advantage of the conference: gathering bright, passionate, human beings together to share ideas and exchange information. If scientists, scholars, and engineers can reclaim this purpose for conferring, then the Academic Conference will enjoy a new lease on life.


For me, I could think of no better potential aspiration for the recent STGlobal Consortium 14th Annual Conference on “Science and Technology in Society.” The STGlobal conference is graduate-student organized, led, and attended, and is a remarkable manifestation of the Consortium’s mission“to inspire and challenge graduate students to contribute to the forefront of research on science and technology policy and social issues.”As an accepted speaker, I thought, “what better venue than one populated by a community of my peers at which to reclaim the noble aspirations of conferring.”

Thus emboldened, I headed to Washington to stick it to The Conference Man.

For my fifteen minute talk and fifteen minute Q&A, I thought I’d try to foster a discussion about how a sustainability and STS scholarship intersect. Rather then speak to this international group of graduate students from across the globe, I wanted to speak with and learn from them. So I thought to spin my speaking opportunity into a thirty minute exploration of a relatively novel way we in sustainability have been thinking through the science and technology policy question of responsible innovation.

And I write now to tell you that I failed spectacularly. Here were some of my reflections as to why:

  •  I tried to cover too much ground, too quickly
  • I didn’t check with the conference organizers in advance about taking a full thirty minutes
  • I did not prepare enough
  • The session started late
  • The session was the morning of the second day, meaning fewer people stayed to attend

When I spoke with a mentor of mine, he offered this additional insight: “You went in with a nice idea about how you wanted to present, but your audience had very different set of expectations…and they were not yours.”

Whether through a discussion panel, keynote presentation, or, heaven help you, lighting-round research talks, the expectations of the Academic Conference are completely entrenched in a model of received knowledge. In the face of continued availability of information at the tap of a screen, the Academic Conference needs to recognize that the conference is not about information, but rather about the people convened by the event. Any piece of information that a speaker has to offer, an attendee can secure from a conventional publication, video, blog, etc. What conferences offer is a unique opportunity to engage with peers who share your passion about whatever scientific or scholarly pursuits that keep you up at night.

Why delegate this passion to the interstices of conferences, to the lunch chats and chance encounters in networking sessions and to the five minute breaks between talks? We should flip the conference. We should give more time to engaged forms of knowledge exchange, facilitated discussions, games, and other creative explorations and modes of inquiry. Hallway commutes, bathroom breaks, and bar chatter should be relegated, in turn, to reading up on this-or-that topic, as needed. Flipping the conferences could serve three very important functions by: changing audience expectations about how to attend; changing speaker expectations about how to “present”; and challenging all parties to innovate around human interactions designed to spark ideas and fruitful collaboration. If information is always and everywhere available, then what is scarce, and hence valuable, is human connection. This connection is at the core of the Academic Conference, and should be given its rightful place.

 Michael J. Bernstein is a PhD student at the School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, where he researches ways to foster responsible innovation. He holds a research assistantship with the Center for Nanotechnology and Society, Consortium For Science, Policy and Outcomes.