Making better conferences

After proposing my first session at a conference with Jan-Hendrik, and, in particular, after his recent post about a forthcoming conference at LSE and Hendrik’s reflections about this year’s ISA annual meeting, I started to wonder if anyone writes on how to make conferences better?

I wrote in my comment to Jan:

This reminds me of something I have always wanted to know more people’s opinions on: WHAT MAKE A GOOD CONFERENCE GOOD AND WHAT MAKES A BAD CONFERENCE BAD??? Seriously, I have been to so many conferences and sometimes they are outstanding (networking opportunities, good papers, etc.) and sometimes they are terrible (poor attendance, bad food, etc.).

Perhaps you have unlocked one of the first possible answers. You write above: “how can a forum that adopts the “social studies of —” title gather people to talk about finance, crisis and IT without any recognizable input from another “social studies of —” field, namely the “social studies of finance”? “

Perhaps this is one of the characteristics: too many off-topic scholars as a ratio to on-topic scholars (in your case, all social studies of X with out any sociology of financial market folks).

This should be an ongoing blog topic: WHAT MAKE A GOOD CONFERENCE GOOD AND WHAT MAKES A BAD CONFERENCE BAD?

I wonder: What makes a good conference good? What makes a bad conference bad?

*BUT MORE THAN THAT, can you control these characteristics as to improve a conference or conferences as a whole?*

You have to imagine the major funding agencies such as the US-based National Science Foundation or the DEU-based DFG would be interested in knowing whether or not conferences can be improved, and if so, how. Conferences make-up a massive proportion of all scientific communication. Therefore, improving them systematically over time would be an obviously good thing. Perhaps there is something about the size of the conference that matter or perhaps the setting…

So, if I think of conferences over the last year or two that have been really good, here is what I have:

Best conference of the last year, hands down, was EASST (European Association for the Study of Science and Technology) set in Trento, IT, summer 2010. Why?

It was set in Trento amid the Dolomite Mountains. I was “forced” to visit Verona and the greater Veneto (in particular,  Valpolicella wine country, home to Bertani, perhaps my favorite winery) after the conference and Milano before the conference. Still, what made this conference so wonderful was the carefully put together sessions — the dual session on health technologies that Jan and I participated in was just great and also where I first met Wouter Mensink and learned about his exciting work on eHealth. The building too was fantastic — the views out the window were great, but not distracting because the infrastructure was fantastic; great projectors, large clear images, good spaces, good seating, etc. Likewise, the sessions on IT put together by my the bright and friendly Gian Marco Compagnola, which featured papers from among others Neil Pollock and Antonios Kaniakakis. Dare I also say that the food, which can be doubly attributed, both to EASST administrators and the the great University of Trento, was unlike anything I have ever seen at a conference — and better than any food I will likely see at any future conference.

What can be learend from this?

A. Good setting — something about how embedding the conference in a particular location or setting influences attendance and expectations.

B. Careful planners — getting good people to organize sessions is no easy task, although there are few incentives to do this really well, unless I am missing something.

C. Excellent food — this is, frankly, something more conferences should think about. I remember saying to Jan, jokingly, the food was so good it actually helped us to think more clearly (although that might have been counteracted by the wine available with lunch).  Also, there was day-long excellent Italian coffee available.

D.?

So, what else makes a good conference good? And, dare we discuss: what makes a bad one bad?

 

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

One thought on “Making better conferences

  1. @Antonia: certainly good wine helps, but it is a mistake to think that I have the answers already — after all, this post inquires about these issues searching for answers rather than supplying them..You write: "Obviously Hannover is not Trento, so what could one do to make the conference a success without wineries, outstanding scenery and so on?". Upon closer look at my original post I suggested a couple of things, although these are not recommendations (yet) to anyone and remain totally untested:.1. In smaller conference settings, especially careful assembly of panels and sessions seems to be a critical factor — I am not yet (and may never be) sure about what makes a great session, but ti seems that it requires a couple of things: (A) papers that fit together, (B) a mix of experienced and relatively new scholars, and (C) the discipline to not include papers that fail to fit the purpose of the session. Perhaps there is something to be said about the way sessions are organized that might be a critical factor. For example, does each panel have a strong purpose and careful discussant. One of the best parts of the last EASST was that there was a lot of discuss both in and out of the panels. .2. At risk of being honest, I think food really mattered. It provided a gravity to folks to show-up to the early morning meetings, to linger over lunch, or stay around for the post-sessions end-of-the day coffee/cocktail hour — and, and I believe this to be very important and perhaps an unintended consequence of good food, all the time we spent in line we met new people from the conference; we discussed the conference, our lives, the food, etc. Why is this important? Usually, when I am hungry, I leave the conference, we split up into smaller groups, usually of people we already know and find food and drink outside the conference. With good food being a source of gravity drawing people to the conference before, during and after, we interacted more than I think might otherwise have happened.

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