Conference sitter, or conference sprinter?

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.



5 thoughts on “Conference sitter, or conference sprinter?

  1. sleather2012

    Yes, I’m like you I used to make a list and run around like mad – cursing at Chairpeople who let things over-run or started too early, now, like you I get in and sit there until the break, or go and network in the corridors or in the coffee areas. Much better for my blood pressure and much more relaxing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marco Mello

    Nice post! Couldn’t agree more. I have always been a conference sitter. In a few occasions I tried to be a sprinter, but found it too stressful and unproductive for the same reasons you mentioned. Actually, now I label myself a conference “chatter”. I only attend a few sessions and spend most of my time chatting one-to-one. In my opinion, the main point of a conference is networking: strengthening old bonds, making new ones, and exchanging information. And that’s why I’m also fully skeptical of virtual conferences. After trying some of them as either speaker or participant, I think they miss the whole point: networking (again). Nothing replaces real human contact and small talk over coffee or tea. Questions during a technically troubled Skype session with poor audio or unstable internet connection? An online forum that nobody uses during and after the conference? Frankly… After all the damage that the virtual world (especially social networks) did to human relationships (think about Bauman’s liquid modernity), scientists should know better.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. cinnabarreflections

    Ditto here! I could have written that – in fact I sort of did (see Perhaps it has to do with age, experience, and maturity? Or perhaps I just got lazy? I tended to go to talks that were as close to my own focus area as possible, which more often than not meant listening to talks that I had heard some version of before, or I knew what it was about. Like you, I started selecting sessions rather than talks later in my career, and at the end I would attend sessions on topics I had limited knowledge of. I did of course attend talks by my students for moral support, but that is a different issue!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. jeffollerton

    Likewise, I was a sprinter in the early days and I tend to be more of a sitter now. Though nowadays I also mainly go to smaller conferences with only one session, so it’s a moot point. Back in the day conference talks were the best way of finding out what research was up and coming, which justified the sprinting; social media, preprint archives, etc. have now taken on that role to a large extent. And I agree with Marco, the face-to-face human contact is important.


  5. Brian McGill

    Yet another sprinter turned sitter. Maybe its a fairly reliable mark of career progression? I think it goes closely in parallel with a changing world view of science. I used to think discrete answers were in the right papers – if I only found the right papers my understanding of how the world worked would measurably advance.. Now I see science much more like a conversation or flowing river where no one paper changes science fundamentally.

    Liked by 1 person


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