Conference time!

I’m off in an hour or so to the Political Studies Association annual conference in Cardiff. It’s only a flying visit, for reasons that will become apparent later on, but it’s a great opportunity to step out of my normal sub-disciplinary events and meet some other political scientists.

However, reading Raymond’s post this week did make we think that conferences can also be terrible too. I think we have all – at some time or other – sat through presentations that do not work, in either intellectual or pedagogic terms. I certainly remember a learning and teaching conference some years ago where the keynote speaker on technology in the classroom was unable to work Powerpoint, making it an instant fail with me.

My intention here is not to teach people how to present better, mainly because I think that they already know how to do it. Indeed, I’m guess that if you went into the class of one of these people, then they’d teach very competently. The issue is more one of a disjuncture between the classroom and the conference panel.

All the things we know about good teaching – clear learning objectives, alignment, responsiveness to learners’ needs – are just as true in a conference setting as they are in the classroom. Think of the times you’ve sat in the early morning session of the final day of a conference, still suffering from the network-development activities of the evening before: you’re not in an optimal position to receive new information, so the person trying to communicate it to you needs to recognise and adapt to that.

In large part, I think it stems from an anxiety that this audience is likely to know quite a bit about the subject you’re presenting on and so will ask probing questions, which in turn means being very careful about what you say, which in turn leads to reading from a rigid script of an argument that you’ve closed right down. Certainly, I recall being deeply anxious about my first conference paper.

However, surely the function of conference presentation is to open up debate, not close it down. This is an excellent opportunity to explore issues and make connections that might have been missed. Moreover, a presentation that leaves space for contributions from the floor is more likely to engage with listeners, who will think about what they are listening too. Thus, it works better for you and for them.

So next time you prepare your paper for conference, keep that in mind and we might all be able to get even more from our times together as a profession.