Conferences done right: POD 2016

Hi ALPS land!  I recently attended the 2016 POD Network conference in Louisville, KY, and while my recollections may be due to bourbon-fueled fantasy, I’m pretty sure that they schooled us American political scientists in how to run a conference.  Now, granted, they had only about 950 people whereas our national conferences draw thousands, but I still think that we have a lot to learn about how to make a weekend very productive.

My continual problem with conferences is that there is rarely a reason to attend traditional panels.  Usually they consist of four or five presentations of papers made available on a website,, discussant comments aimed at the papers rather than engendering conversations, panelist responses to those comments that, again, focus on what they tried to do in the paper, and, if the chair has managed to keep everyone to their time limits, perhaps 5 minutes of Q&A.

This is a waste of our time.  There, I said it.

Attendees at POD 2016 could earn a 'learner' badge if they reflected on a session.  Does this blog post count?
Attendees at POD 2016 could earn a ‘learner’ badge if they reflected on a session. Does this blog post count?

Sure, there are other things that go on that are useful.  Roundtables allow people to actually talk to each other about ideas; plenary session and key note addresses are meant to be given in an oral format from the beginning, and therefore the speech and not the paper is the key focus; business and section meetings let important work get done, and of course, networking and reuniting with colleagues and potential collaborators is an essential part of the weekend.  And let’s not forget that there are various short courses available–such as the ones on simulations and games that the ALPS team regularly offers, including at ISA  in Baltimore in February! (plug!)

Even the APSA TLC, our teaching conference, suffers from some of this.  The track system helps, keeping the same folks together for the two days, and the low number of papers–usually two or three to a 1h30 period–allows for genuine discussion of ideas.  Plus, there are workshops that focus on practical skills.  But it still feels odd to me that at a conference devoted to teaching, there isn’t more of an emphasis on modeling good teaching and interactive presentations.

Enter POD–the Professional and Organizational Development Network. This is the group that works on faculty, instructional and professional development in higher education. Many of the members are the people who work in our centers for teaching and faculty development, responsible for helping faculty learn how to do our jobs better.  And they know how to conference.

The acceptance rate for POD is pretty low, and there are a limited number of presentations in each 1h30 timeslot–maybe a dozen or so.  This meant that every presentations had at least two dozen attendees–far from the celebratory smiles when three people wander into your 8am panel.  Panels didn’t start until 9 or 10 anyway–a much more dignified approach to conferencing.

Every presenter took an interactive approach.  This was not a case of a presenter talking through their paper, but involved a discussion of the ideas behind the research.  In one case, a presenter modeled findings from his published work on leading classroom discussions, incorporating ideas from the audience full of educators and including useful tips I was able to immediately apply to my own classes. In another case, eight or nine panelists took turns talking about the application of a large project on transparency at their institutions, walking us through how to apply these findings to both our research and our teaching.  I left every session with new contacts, new ideas for research, and practical tips to apply in my classroom.

The POD folks also emphasize networking and sharing materials.  Meeting colleagues at other institutions is not only encouraged but in some sessions, rather required.  This culture of exchange of ideas (and business cards) carries over to physical materials.  All the presentations are posted online, and materials are widely shared.  On the transparency project I mentioned above, we added our names to a google document during the session to indicate we wanted the materials–and I had them in my inbox an hour later.  The lead researcher offered to share not only the findings, but the IRB application materials in case we wanted to conduct the study at our own institution.

This last point really hit me hard, because this is exactly why we created ALPS.  This blog was born because we do not have a strong culture of sharing our teaching materials.  As a discipline we tend to be possessive of our materials and not in the habit of putting them out there.  ALPS is a small step in that direction, particularly for games and simulations, but we need more of this–venues where we can systematically share lecture notes and exam questions and activities.  We can learn a lot from POD on this.

In the coming weeks I’ll be putting up some posts that dive into more detail about the specific techniques I learned from this conference.


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