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Biomedicine in museums

Promoting best practice in academic meetings

Apropos Daniel’s blog post the other day about a not-so-well organised conference at the university here in Copenhagen — I’m afraid badly organised academic meetings are the rule rather than the exception.

The usual conference format — a number of plenaries with 20-40 minutes presentations (with powerpoints) in a theatre, followed by a few minutes of questions from the audience, followed by a 20 minutes coffee break in an ugly lobby, followed by another excruciating plenary — is a cognitive, emotional and social killer, and a major reason why I, for one, rarely attend conferences any more.

The entrenched format is rarely transcended. Even “workshops” and “seminars” are often organised in the same traditional way. Few meeting organisers ask the participants for longer predistributed written presentations; few pay attention to the physical space and routinely seat people in a theatre; few consider using other media than powerpoint; almost no organisers utilise social media as a tool to enhance the meeting; and generally there is a deep unwillingness to experiment with new formats, or just break up the monotonous time pattern. Humanities meetings are hardly better than science meetings; and Scandinavian and Dutch meetings are rarely better than German and American.

For sure, I have attended a few conferences that were memorable exceptions to the usual format. Usually they were small meetings of 15-25 people, but occasionally I’ve attended meetings of 50-75 people that were organised in a way that stimulated interaction and engagement. And I guess most of us have positive experiences that stand out as oases in the usual conference desert.

But few of us take the effort to summarise our experiences publicly. This recent report from a workshop on ‘Personhood and Identity in Medicine’  organised by Elselijn Kingma and MM McCabe at King’s College in March this year, is a rare exception:

In order to facilitate interdisciplinary discussion and engagement, attendance had been limited to a maximum of 30 participants. Following the success of this format in the previous workshop, the day was divided into four topics, each of which was briefly introduced by two participants, one with a predominantly medical and one with a predominantly philosophical background. After these introductions followed 45 minutes of chaired group discussion […].

The aim of facilitating genuine discussion and interaction between people with very different backgrounds was met, and an improvement was noticed in comparison with the previous workshop. Group continuity – which meant many people had experience communicating in this format and knew what to expect – undoubtedly helped, as did explicit instructions to interrupt discussions for clarificatory questions.

It would be great to see more such experiences of good meeting formats published online. I’m looking forward to a blog called “Best practice in conference organisation” or something (maybe there already is one?).

I’ve also discussed with a few colleagues in Denmark and Sweden that we should organise a conference about good conference formats! Let’s get started!

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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