#scio10 Conferencing

Science Online 2010 is coming up in a few days. There is a post at A Blog Around the Clock that is a veritable clearing house for all of the blogospheric information on this conference, including ways for you to participate in the conference even if you do not attend in physical form. I’m sure I’ll be blogging from the conference. For now, I just want to talk about conferences in general, as part of my mental preparation for the impending event.


There was a time, for several years, that I went to three or more full blown conferences a year, plus a couple more smaller less formal conferences that were local. I attended the Triple A’s, the Fizies, the Arkies, SAFA, ICAZ, and of course the Paleos (that was generally the best) regularly, and occasionally the NEAA’s. Of all of those conferences there were two or three at which I did not give a talk or participate in a panel or something, so the normal conference for me involved a moment when I have this special responsibility. And the responsibility is actually awesome, and I’ll talk about that below.

There are four modalities of activity at most conferences. They are:

1) Giving your talk or whatever;
2) Attending other talks/panels;
3) Wandering aimlessly;
4) Drinking or eating with colleagues;
5) Getting the hell outta there.

For some conferences, the “Getting the hell outta there” part is the most memorable. The NEAA’s in Quebec city were among my most memorable conferences. That was one of the few conferences at which I did not give a talk (it was also one of my first conferences). A bunch of us drove up from Albany, and as we drove through the rural and suburban country side between the Saint Lawrence River and Quebec City, going around Montreal, the conversation as I remember it was mainly about this question: Is there a universal aesthetic to which art aspires, or is aesthetic sense so individually or culturally bound that almost anything can, theoretically, become “normal.” Every time we passed one of the horizontally striped in clashing color aluminum-sided ranch home that adorned the provincial countryside in those days, one of these two positions became more obviously true. The problem is, which position became more obviously true was different for each person. I don’t remember what I concluded.

But Quebec City was a different kind of place. Until I arrived in Cape Town South Africa, Quebec was on my list of most beautiful cities I’d been to (an no, Paris did not knock it off the list). If you have not been, and you have the chance, take it.

I don’t recall going to a single talk at that conference which was held at the Ch√Ęteaux Frontenac (where we stayed as well), but I probably did. But mostly I just took in the city. It was in the mid 20s F and snowflakes fell the entire time. Astonishingly, Quebecois can not drive in snow, it turns out. The food was outstanding. The taverns were sexually segregated (ladies not allowed). Everyone was speaking French. It was almost like being …. in a foreign country!

I also spent a fair amount of time “getting outta here” or the first conference I went to in San Francisco, but it was a very very important conference so I needed to attend most of the talks. Since I knew I’d be drawn to the city, I added two nights and a day to my schedule, and only “got outta there” for one afternoon during the talks, to visit Mur Woods with a girl I was courting.

For the first few conferences I went to, the part where I gave the talk was a key moment for me, with a fair amount of anxiety. As I said above, it is is an awesome responsibility. What i mean by that is the following: Conference attenders are spending the entire day, and some evenings, at talks. If every talk was poorly done or boring, the attenders would either all die or all revolt. There has to be a really really good talk now and then, and the others can include only a few duds. You don’t want to be one of the duds, and you really want to strive for being one of the better ones. You, as one of the speakers, are responsible for carrying the ball for just a few minutes, and if you drop it everyone will hate you forever. People don’t remember the average talks. They will remember a small percentage of what seemed at the time to be a great talk. So of course, one thinks about little other than your own talk until you give it.

But they will remember every one of the really really bad talks.

I was lucky my first few conferences to have my talks scheduled for one of the first sessions. Then I could relax. But eventually, after doing this a few times, the talk itself becomes less of an event, and it is possible to relax more easily.

One of the easiest ways to screw up a talk is to go even a few seconds over time. At a conference, no one has ever given a talk that went over time that was considered acceptable. Most people talk in public at a rate that is different (slower or faster) than the rate at which they speak when practicing. Therefore, among the uninitiated or the clueless, half of the talks are longer and half shorter than expected, assuming that the error distribution is even (though it probably isn’t). More experienced speakers calibrate. I try to time my talks so that they end a minute before time. Also, I avoid giving clues that I’m almost done, unless I’m actually almost done, and that means 20 seconds out, not two minutes out. There are other tricks as well.

The most important things are to be respectful to your audience, give them something new or at least something they want, be quick about it, and if you are using presentation software, do not succumb to the strange and widely practiced fetish that every slide has to look like very other slide. Slides in a talk do not have a “look and feel.” They have content. Work on the content.

What about attending other talks or panels? Well, if one is in Quebec City for the first time, consider not doing that. The city beckons. Otherwise, one thing I’ve always tried to avoid is moving from panel to panel to get just this one talk in one session, than this other specific talk in a different parallel session. This strategy often backfires and it is annoying to other people. Rather, pick a few panels and sit through them, and make sure to give yourself time for other things.

Such as wandering aimlessly. If you are at a conference where you know very few people, wandering aimlessly is not a good thing to do, but if you are at a conference where you know everybody, this may be the most valuable time for you, as you will encounter people you’ve not seen in years, have conversations you would otherwise have never had, meet people, via your friends, you’ve always wanted to meet.

There is a fine line between wandering aimlessly and hanging out in the bar drinking and/or eating with your colleagues. The line is the door to the bar. And it is a fine, fine line. Some of my more significant memories regarding actual substantive material are in the context of the aimless wandering or bar-sitting rather than the talks. A formative conversation with Rhys Jones about prehistory and boats … a talk about who is the bigger asshole in paleoanthropology with F. Clark Howell … a conversation with Matt Cartmill regarding elephants and mammalian cognition vis-a-vis music … numerous conversations with Alison Brooks or Susan Kent about foragers. Alison and I once wrote a paper during one of these conversations. Well, actually, it was the talk we were about to give, but whatever.

And by “conversation” I mean “knock-down drag out argument” in some cases.

ScOnliOhTen, coming up this weekend, is said to be an “un-conference.” The idea here is that it is meant to be unlike what conferences have evolved into over the years. Modern science conferences have too many talks, too much concurrency, too short a time slot per talks, too little time for discussion. SconliOhTen has concurrency (unavoidable) and no talks — just moderated discussion and a couple of other formats. (Well, there’s a keynote address this year.) It is an attempt to make the best of a couple of days together for people with some common interests. Although there are opportunities to “get the hell outta there” provided by the conference organizers, I’m thinking The Triangle, while nice and all, is not Quebec City or San Francisco. All of the sessions look interesting, and it will be hard to chose between the concurrent ones. (I’ll probably go to the one I’m a panelist for.)