Dave Warlich’s post on learning at conferences gives me an opportunity to say some things I have been thinking about for some time. First, let me say that the conference experience is not a unitary thing. There are various types of sessions and various categories of presenters. There are also informal opportunities that are planned for and that attendees generate themselves. Second, folks go to conferences for multiple reasons. My attitudes are my own and reflect my experiences and personality. Conferences also differ greatly. I attend some conferences at which most attendees are active researchers and are there to share (AERA). They present, but they also listen. I attend other conferences which involve very distinct categories of participants – some presenters arrive, give their pitch and then leave; others mostly listen and move from session to session picking up what they can (NECC).
I hate it when a presenter in a moderately sized group or larger takes time away from a presentation to engage the audience in a Q&A or worse yet asks them to talk among themselves. I attend sessions based on the topic and the reputation of the presenter. My time at most conferences is limited and I would rather not spend it in what nearly always amounts to unproductive chit chat. Random combinations of people in a large group sharing ideas for a few minutes at a time seems very unproductive. I know that short writing assignments and short discussions are promoted in large lecture classes, but this is a very different situation in which the participants spend a great deal of time together and acquire some skill in responding to what become predictable requests from the instructor. A presenter is not an instructor. If the presenter is not going to present, I would like to know so ahead of time so that I can avoid such sessions.
A format that I do like is the round table. This is one of the options AERA uses as an alternative to short (15-20 minute) research papers and longer presentations. You can move from table to table if you like, but typically you pick the paper that most interests you and spend a longer period of time with that group. The person presenting his/her work usually has a paper to distribute and spends some time describing their work, but the interaction is free flowing and unpredictable. Most conferences have sessions focused around a large collection of posters that provide similar opportunities.
So, most conferences have opportunities for topical discussions. I would rather when someone signs on to take the role of presenter they not turn their session into something else.