September is customarily a busy month for conferences, often with too many interesting ones that clash. What makes for a good meeting? Exciting talks, which you haven’t heard before (so not just lazy wheeling out of the usual suspects by the organisers); lively discussion; comfortable beds, quiet corridors and good food; poster sessions with enough space to permit circulation as well as in depth conversations around the ones that catch your fancy; and a friendly atmosphere in the bar. If the beds are lumpy it will mar the meeting due to a general feeling of drowsiness (it’s curious how too little sleep arising from late nights in the bar don’t have the same negative effect). If the crowd is the same one you met last month on the other side of the world you may wonder why you bothered to come. But one particular thing that always infuriates me is when the timing of sessions goes awry.
This poor time-keeping can be due to a range of different reasons, one of which can be the trivial one that there is no clock in the lecture theatre, or at least not one that’s visible to the speaker. The problem is most acute if the clock is actually located immediately behind the speaker, so that the audience is constantly reminded of the overrun, but the speaker may be blithely unaware. Good chairing of course can obviate this problem. A good chair will give clear signals as the clock ticks down – though sometimes this can require some almost literal gymnastics to draw the speaker’s attention – and step in to cut the speaker short in extreme circumstances. But not all chairs are good, and often they are too timid to challenge a keynote speaker who’s been droning on way past their allotted slot. It is of course rude to step in and say, in essence, shut up. But it should equally be remembered that it is rude to the audience and later speakers in the programme not to do so. For a graphic illustration of what the mood can be in a lecture theatre when no one intervenes to shut up an over-running speaker, I’d refer you to the world of LegoAcademics here.
Speakers who over-run also defeat the purpose of time scheduled for discussion. Not all talks lend themselves to real discussion, as opposed to some snotty intervention about nit-picking detail best left to be done in private, but in most conferences there will be one or two presentations that get the arguments going. Sometimes this may be a long-running debate between two camps. Unfortunately, if arguments get too polarised, such debated can simply seem like a rehash of the unresolved issues of a previous conference. But, on all-too-rare occasions there can be lively clashes of opinion or disagreements about the interpretation of results and something new and exciting can emerge in front of the onlookers’ eyes. This can never happen if someone has rambled on previously in the session, eating up all the allocated time. Learning to keep to time should be a critical part of one’s training as a researcher. It is something that practice makes perfect. It should not be achieved by talking extensively about context and preliminary data and then visibly skipping 25 slides towards the end which, as they whizz past, the audience realises is where the interesting and novel stuff actually was to be found.
For students and early-stage postdocs, often their turn to shine comes in the poster sessions. A novelty when I set out, in a well-run conference they can be more satisfactory than a brief 10-15 minute oral presentation. Nevertheless they tend to be the less sought-after slots. They are valuable because you get to engage with people who are genuinely interested in your work (or those who are on the panel to judge the poster prize of course). There may be only a couple of people, although hopefully many more, in this category but you get plenty of time to talk to them, take down their contact details so that you can follow up later and/or continue the dialogue in the bar. But you need a well-run and well-planned conference if this is to happen. Too often the sessions are held in rooms of inadequate capacity or, at the very least, the wrong shape so that perambulation is difficult. If you can’t get near the poster you want to see because the gangways between the boards are too narrow or you simply can’t find it, then the opportunity for interaction is lost. Not all locations lend themselves to success on this front as too often posters are crammed into unsuitable corners of a venue.
I am reminded of all these issues, not only because it has been the conference season but because, by pure chance, I associate Churchill College with two series of conferences I was heavily involved with. The first occasion I came to a meeting here must have been around 30 years ago shortly after I returned from the USA as a young researcher. I presented my work (on mechanisms of crazing in polymers) to the big international conference in the field which met triennially at the college. The meeting, formally known as Deformation, Yield and Fracture of Polymers, was always colloquially known as the Churchill conference because of its close association with the college.
My work was well-received, to the extent that I found myself invited onto ‘high table’ at the conference dinner, the first time that had happened. In time I joined the organising committee – I distinctly remember the call inviting me to take up what felt like a big honour came when I was on maternity leave, so that I panicked wondering how I was going to get to a committee meeting in London given a baby in tow. Many years later I took myself off the committee again when I felt my interests had diverged too far from its theme and that anyhow the big questions in the field had mainly been resolved. Nevertheless, I have many happy memories of a conference that saw much lively debate and much progress in the field.
Later, when I came to organise a multidisciplinary conference on Starch in 1996, Churchill became the location of choice because of its excellent facilities (with a second in the series also held there four years later). This conference was when I became aware of the problems a lack of visible clock can cause, to the extent that when, a couple of weeks ago I was walking around my new home, when I got to the lecture theatre my first reaction was to check if they had a clock now, visible to the speaker. They do.
I hope you’ve had a fruitful and satisfying conference season. If you haven’t, what are the faults you’ve identified in speakers and venues?