Some folks sit; some folks sprint.
I was once a determined sprinter. Before a conference, I’d study the programme carefully, highlighting and circling and starring talks that looked promising. Then I’d assemble my schedule: a talk in this session, a talk in that one, a couple of talks in a third, all before the morning coffee break; then back to the same frenzied pace with muffin crumbs still dangling from my lip.
If you’ve tried this, you know how it goes. It’s the mad dash to make it between two rooms at opposite ends of the conference centre during the two-minute question period between talks. It’s bobbing and weaving to dodge the conference sprinter doing the same thing in the opposite direction. It’s the disappointment of completing the sprint only to discover a destination room so overpacked you can’t get inside – or a destination room deserted because the talk’s been cancelled. And, remarkably often, it’s the disappointment of finding that the talk with the great title, or by the famous presenter, is something other than the joy you anticipated. Perhaps the topic has changed since the title was submitted. Perhaps the title overpromised. Perhaps the fonts are tiny and the graphs are unreadable. Or perhaps it escapes all those fates, but it’s just unspeakably dull.
At some point (and it took longer than it should have), I realized that my skill at pre-selecting quality talks was so lousy that I was better off sitting my butt down and letting serendipity work its magic. And so I stopped being a conference sprinter, and became a devoted conference sitter. Now I choose sessions, not talks. I find a seat and I settle in for the long haul: often, the whole session. I’ll see the couple of talks that made me pick the session, and I’ll see another half dozen by people I’ve never heard of about topics that didn’t originally pique my interest. And here’s what I’ve learned: the best talks, and the ones that change my own science, are almost always in that latter group. As a conference sitter, I see better talks, I learn more, and I’m less stressed. What’s not to like?
There’s a logical extension to being a sitter. Once I figured out that those must-attend talks were not, actually, must-attend at all, I realized that much of the value of conferences doesn’t happen in the sessions at all. When I was a sprinter, I would sometimes be chatting with a colleague – or a newly made friend – in the hallway, and I’d look at my watch, panic, make my excuses, and sprint off to that talk I just knew I couldn’t miss. I don’t do that any more. That hallway chat, I now understand, is where I broaden my network; it’s where new collaborations arise; and it’s where I learn the most important things. This is why I’m skeptical of the virtual conference. Yes, there are many costs to in-person attendance (carbon emissions not least among them) – but the seductive notion that we could all just present remotely seems to me to almost entirely miss the point of a conference.
Anyway, once I sprinted. Now I sit. Where do you stand on sitting?
© Stephen Heard February 11, 2020 Hat tip to Josh Drew for the “sitter or sprinter” phrase.
Image: Me, running frantically from one talk to the next, back in the day. Piotr Siedlecki, CC 0.