On the Conference Format

As Alex notes, the AOIR folks are debating the next conference’s structure, trying to decide whether to include more alternative session formats in amongst what someone at the general meeting referred to as the “powerpoint and talking head” model of paper presentation. What follows leaps into a conversation in progress; I’ve got to run for my next flight, and so can’t contextualize as much as I’d like. But I’ve been following the conversation and have found, in my typical wishy-washy sense, the arguments both for and against compelling. While I appreciate the concerns that some have raised that poster sessions create an “underclass” of presenter, I want to argue that we think outside the hierarchical box and instead imagine what different kinds of sessions might be good for.

Traditional paper sessions are good for people who are presenting completed independent or collaborative research. And they’re of course traditional for a reason. And so-called “poster sessions” — I find the emphasis on the standard printed poster a bit ironic here — might not be good for presenting the kinds of research that usually falls into the powerpoint-and-talking-head model. But they might be good for many other kinds of presentations — like presentations by net artists, performers, and other kinds of creative producers. These are the kinds of presentations I’d like to see the next meeting opened up to.

The trick here is going to be to avoid creating the sense that these “poster sessions” are somehow lesser than traditional panels, and that’s going to have to be done via scheduling and via the organization of the program. This year, there were a number of roundtables that provided an interactive alternative to panels, but there were two major ways in which those roundtables were indicated to be less important than the panels — first, by being scheduled during lunch, the one break for people who were attending sessions all day, and second, by not including the names of the presenters in the program (but instead only listing the roundtable organizer). I was a presenter on one roundtable this year, a roundtable that produced a provocative and engaging conversation, but you’d never have known from the program that I was even at the conference, despite the organizer having submitted a full list of presenters’ names.

So: I’m all for alternative sessions of a “poster” variety, or of a roundtable variety, or of a workshop variety. These allow for many different kinds of work to be presented, and I think at least most of us in the organization agree that we want AOIR to be open to as many kinds of work as possible. The success of these alternative formats — and the successful experiences of their presenters — hinges, for me, not on some arbitrary hierarchy of format but on how the conference’s organization grants prominence to certain kinds of presentation. If only traditional panels are scheduled during official session times, and all other formats are shoved off to the margins of the schedule, then of course those other formats will be seen as of lesser importance.

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