Academics behaving properly?! A rare conference delight!

This week I have been attending the first global conference on Time Space and the Body (TSB+1), convened through Inter-disciplinary.net.  I’ve been tweeting in the moment (look for #TimeSpaceBody). The organising chairs, Shona Hill, Shilinka Smaith and Rob Fisher did a brilliant job in creating something really different and valuable. What follow are some thoughts about what made it so good, and some reflections on curiosities in academic life that this throws up.

Truly inter-disciplinary

As a social scientist who has always focused on education, I’ve no shortage of memories of presentations that look and feel a lot like the ones I give. That’s no bad thing. But this week I sat in presentations by architects, sculptors, photographers, painters, philosophers, a cross-channel swimmer, literary theorists, psychotherpists, lawyers, horror-movie critics, and more. I was stunned by Lisa Stafford’s presentation of how seemingly disability-friendly urban areas can still exclude young people with varied mobilities from such simple yet profound things like playing with friends in a local park. I was made to think again about what wickedness is, how the ‘shape-shifting’ of showgirls could help us understand more everyday body work, and how glass sculptures can help us engage with questions of the body and its invisibility or transparency in social life and thought.

It is truly a privilege to listen to people who know what they are talking about, and who are brought together with a shared interest in concepts like Time, Space and the Body. We didn’t all approach or conceive these in the same way, but nonetheless the conversations were stimulating.

What was particularly refreshing was that everyone was able to resist the academic instinct to impose one’s own values and quality criteria on the work of others. I’ve seen dozens of conference presentations and seminars where the question from the audience has a strong (if not well disguised) subtext: “I would have done your research like this…  so why didn’t you?” (I see that a lot in reviews of journal papers too, but that’s for another day). The people who like Foucault ask ‘where is power in all this?’,  the feminists wonder why gender has been ignored. At TSB+1 I saw none of this. Instead the audience seemed more interested in identifying points of connection across countries, cultures and disciplines. The spaces of overlap between arts, architecture, medicine and social science were cherished in place of hierarchical or competitive territorialisation, or colonisation of others’ work with personal interests.

I spent 20 minutes gazing at a video of two people’s eyes in such close proximity their eyelashes were touching, listening to Jenni Lauwrens speak about intimacy through sight and touch. Her artistic background and interpretation spoke directly to my interest in body geometries and how intimacy and outsidership are produced and maintained by child and family health practitioners supporting families with young children. Awesome.

 

Come now, children: the end of the graveyard slot, death by bullet point, and the elasticity of presentation time

In the run-up to the conference, we had numerous, very firm, emails about rules and expected conduct during the conference. My initial reaction was at times to feel a bit patronised, but the emails came with strong rationales explaining their intent and why they were needed. All participants were expected to stay for the duration of the conference. This was given real bite through the threat to remove papers from book publications for participants who slacked off. Surely we don’t need such a firm hand? After all, we are collegial academics who know what respectful behaviour looks like, right? Seemingly not. Every time I’ve been to the American Educational Research Association Conference, I’ve watched numbers dwindle over the week as people zoom home the moment their paper has been delivered. The sense of disappointment when you get the program and see your paper is in the dreaded graveyard slot.

Well, the third day of TSB+1 was as full and lively as the first and second.

All delegates were also politely informed that powerpoint was banned. Actually, we were allowed powerpoint to display visual information, but no bullet-point slides were permitted. I’m still curious as to why so many people (especially in my field of education), accompany otherwise brilliant presentations with woeful slides. Laziness? Technical ineptitude? The power of software to shape our thinking without us realising? In my more cynical moments I wonder whether these researchers use lecture visuals that are as awful as those they inflict on us at conferences. Or I wonder why they feel their students deserve better, but their colleagues will be happy with what they blast out on the plane or train en route to the conference? This week I enjoyed presentations with no visual aids – carried by the strength and delivery of spoken word. There were stunning videos, relevant diagrams and photographs, and even objects passed round for us to engage with. Not a bullet point in site! Looking at my conference program, I see a notable absence of the doodles that usually appear, prompted by me fighting the onslaught of a long, slow death by bullet (point).

What of the elasticity of presentation time? How many talks have you seen when the chair holds up the ‘2 minutes’ sign and the presenter (who spent 5 minutes trying to get the screen to show on the projector and has just begun describing the focus of their research) looks shocked and says “ooh, I’ve got to speed up”; lo, we zoom through 20 slides (mostly bullet points) and get a crash-course in how not to interest and engage people in your work. The only thing that makes this worse is a combination of a weak chair and an egotistical speaker, who stretch the presentation time. Who wins? No-one (because the talk was ill-prepared and the audience is already lost due to the frantic pace). Who loses? The following speakers, and the audience who have had their time for discussion curtailed. At AERA in Vancouver (2012) there was a chair who stood up and walked slowly towards the speaker’s podium as time ran out, up until the point where he was stood face to face in front of the speaker at 0 seconds remaining. Confronting and unnecessary, but driven by a common frustration, and at least an ability to do what chairs should do.

At TSB+1 rules were rules. We had 20 minutes, including time faffing with IT. We would be cut off if needed. Turns out, we self-policed and not one presentation went over time by a second. This was no accident, but a product of explicit expectation-sharing, including the opening talk about avoiding dominance and ensuring equal platforms for all. And, quel surprise! Presentations were well rehearsed and we had plenty of time for discussion.

Why, when we send papers to colleagues for feedback, and write draft after draft, do so many researchers think they can nail their presentation and get the timing spot on first go? Either lots of people just don’t rehearse, or they rehearse and don’t care that they go over time. A bit harsh? Maybe. But until the excellent practices I saw at TSB+1 become the norm, I remain a doubting cynic.

And I admit I am not always a paragon of virtue in this myself. I may have used bullet points. And I may have got too excited and had to rush my ending to finish on time.

 

 

 

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