Is what we value about conferences not the scheduled speakers, but the dialogue during question time and in the coffee breaks?
As audience at academic conferences, we sit down to listen to speakers present, we have an opportunity to ask questions, and we have breaks during which we might discuss the presentations. Conferences might audio-visually record speakers for an archive or to share their ideas, and individual audience members might make notes on the presentations for our own use, might discuss what interesting or controversial topics we heard. However, usually nothing of the ‘during the break’ elements of a conference is recorded and the very nature of a conference – the opportunity for dialogue – is not retained as part of the record of the conference.
In the last few years the notion of ‘back channel’ at conferences – sharing content and developing ongoing conversations online, beyond the speakers at the podium – has grown (McCarthy and boyd, 2005; McCarthy et al., 2004), with much of the impetus for this development arising from microblogging and social media sites such as Twitter (Ross et al., 2011). These enquiries have largely emerged in computer science and have aimed to understand the potential of social media to enhance conference experiences and increase speakers’ social networks.
However, this skims over the valuable face-to-face conversations happening during the gaps between presentations on the day: among audience members in the queue for coffee or lunch, and between audience and speakers during the question time following a presentation. Presentations are used to share thoughts and create dialogue. In these spaces, speakers’ presentations prompt insights, additions, reflection and debate among audience members.
I attempted to research the value that ‘during the break’ discussion at conferences can provide, but beyond the social media-based research cited above, it was surprisingly difficult to find writing on the importance of sustaining conversation or learning beyond listening to the speakers. Conferences as an opportunity for collaboration can have significant value in pushing one’s own academic research forward and opening up new avenues. There are academic conversations regarding future research, collaborations and suggestions of reading, but it might be the personal/political conversations that generate so much. The extension and development of speakers’ subject matter by audiences (in dialogue with the speakers) during the breaks is a vital part of conferences, not least for demonstrating the value of multiple voices in creating and shaping dialogue within and beyond academia.
McCarthy, J. F. and boyd, d.m. 2005. Digital backchannels in shared physical spaces: experiences at an academic conference. CHI ’05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 02-07, 2005, Portland, OR, USA. (pp. 1641-1644).
McCarthy, J. F., McDonald, D. W., Soroczak, S., Nguyen, D. H., and Rashid, A. M. 2004. Augmenting the social space of an academic conference. Proceedings of the 2004 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work, November 06-10, 2004, Chicago, Illinois, USA (pp. 39-48).
Ross, C., Terras, M., Warwick, C., and Welsh, A. 2011. Enabled backchannel: Conference Twitter use by digital humanists. Journal of Documentation, 67(2), 214-237.