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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Musing About Conference Formats

Having spent part of the day planning a trip to DC for an upcoming conference, I’ve been thinking a bit about conference formats.  Off the top of my head, I can think of four major conference formats:

Half-Baked ideas — presenters speak briefly (usually on a relatively general level) about a new project & then the attendees give feedback and/or advice


Workshop — presenters submit drafts, which everyone reads beforehand, and then the conference is largely devoted to their comments


Commentor — authors present a paper and the conference supplies a formal commentor, who has read the paper prior to the conference; sometimes the commentors remarks are followed by a Q&A session

Panel — authors present papers in relatively long format (e.g., 15 to 25 minutes) followed by audience Q&A

As I see it, each of these formats has quite a bit to recommend it, though each tends to be most useful at a particular stage of a project.

Half-baked idea conferences can help get people started on new projects, they can be less intimidating for presenters who are not expected to have an answer for every objection, and they can provide helpful feedback at a time that is most useful to an author (i.e., early on in the research and writing conference).  The workshop format (about which Paul recently sang the praises)  provides a lot of substantive feedback for an author and (depending on how they are organized) can be the most forgiving format for those prawfs who express themselves better in writing than in person.  The commentor format also provides good substantive feedback, and although the author doesn’t receive the same diversity of views as at a workshop, the comments may be more comprehensive or more thought out than one might see at a workshop.  Workshop and commentor formats seem most useful for an author who is part-way through a paper.

The panel format seems to be more about author performance than it does about substance — while the substance of the talk obviously matters, a poor public speaking performance can ruin a panel presentation.  And because most people haven’t read the paper prior to the presentation, the Q&A session often raises questions that the author had already considered and dealt with in the paper, but simply didn’t include in the oral presentation.

Because panel presentations seem to be more about style than about substance, I’ve generally thought that they are of little value for an author with a work in progress.  Instead, I’ve always thought that the best time to present a paper is after it has been written and polished to such a degree that the presentation essentially boils down to me telling everyone about this great idea and how I worked through the puzzle I’d found.  But I’ve recently had a change of heart.  After having a project of mine dissected at the recent Prawfsfest! workshop at FSU (i.e., ripped to shreds by some smart, though happily also nice, individuals), I was scheduled to present the same project at the Law and Society Conference in Denver.  The Prawfsfest! format called for me to submit a 10,000 word draft and introduce it in about 5 minutes.  Law and Society, in contrast, was a traditional panel format, and so I had to make a 20 minute presentation to a room of people who knew nothing about my project.  As I sketched out my presentation and practiced it several times in my hotel room (yes, I am that vain about my public speaking performances), I had to choose which aspects of my project to emphasize in the talk and which arguments to address only if they came up in the Q&A session.  I was also forced to try and make the project seem cohesive.  While the workshop format allowed me to identify the weak points of my project and to ask for assistance in deciding which path(s) to pursue, the panel format forced me to try to make the project sound well-developed.  And in trying to accomplish that, I discovered what exactly it was about a relatively broad topic that I thought was interesting, and I was able to make significant progress on the paper itself.

Anyway, now I’m starting to wonder whether I’m selling the other conference formats short.  Maybe presenting a completed paper at a half-baked ideas format would allow an author to develop ideas for a new project related to one that he or she has already completed.  Maybe panels could help authors with brand new projects.  Maybe there are even better conference formats that I’ve never heard of before . . .

Posted by Carissa Hessick on July 9, 2009 at 05:11 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I have also posted on this topic previously if anyone is interested:


Posted by: Jacqueline Lipton | Jul 14, 2009 11:25:26 AM

I took my comments into a longer post:


Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 10, 2009 6:47:04 AM

I think a lot depends on one's role at a conference. Speaking is always valuable in the many different ways Carissa has helpfully illustrated. When I'm not speaking, though, I don't find panels or other traditional (non-workshop) conferences that gratifying, often because the opportunities to interact with the speakers via Q&A are quite limited, and I don't get a lot more out of hearing someone give a paper than I could just as easily get by reading that paper. This is the value of workshop-like conferences such as P-fest; you're not only allowed but expected to interact extensively with each of the speakers, so it's rewarding even when you're not the speaker.

Posted by: Dave | Jul 10, 2009 1:22:22 AM

Great post, Carissa. For the first time, I'm planning on presenting a draft article at a conference organized around the "half-baked" theme in early August, and I am anticipating that I'll get quite a bit out of it. It will by no means be a completed paper, or even a completed draft, so it will be at the stage where I can significantly revise it based on good commentary. RE: panels, I've had some that were very useful, and some that were just absolutely ho-hum. It all depends on your audience, which in turn depends on the nature of the conference. Panels might be very helpful at a smaller conference, where only a very limited number of presentations are scheduled concurrently and attendees are expected to contribute more as commentators than as idle audience members. But I've had panels at bigger conferences prove useful as well.

Posted by: Jody | Jul 10, 2009 12:29:22 AM

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