I regularly attend a number of tech conferences each year and a smaller number of academic ones. This works well for me as I am always seeking better ways to educate my students about professional practices.
Last week I was guiding visitors around the campus as part of a site visit for an academic conference, which we’d like to host at the University of Aberdeen. Most of this went well and we identified all of the rooms that we could use for talks and breakout sessions as well as locations for the conference dinner and coffee breaks. We also had good conversations during the day in between walks around the campus to see different locations, as well as over dinner across a range of issues.
During these talks I became more aware of differences in academic and tech conferences. Some of the ideas from tech conferences can be easily brought into play for academic ones.This is important because conferences should be a time for the spreading of good ideas from one place to another.
Dinner with a stranger
For the conference evenings without ‘the dinner’ we can use the ‘Dinner with a stranger‘ model that I’ve now experienced a number of times including the one written about by Corinna. This lets people pick where to go and gives them the option of bringing a friend for company, as well as an opportunity to mingle with others. It helps keep people at the bigger event connected during the smaller events. As suggested via Twitter, this could also be called ‘dinner with a new friend’.
We all need to speak in public as academics. It goes with the territory. What we don’t always provide are pathways for ‘new’ speakers to get more comfortable with public speaking by being able to ‘experience the stage’ without being the centre of attention. Lauren Currie started #upfront as a way to make that step easier for those who want to enter public speaking. I organised the Northern Lights Conference to use this approach in 2016, and it meant that a number of people were able to experience the stage without having to talk. Next year, hopefully, when they are speakers, they’ll already know what to expect.
We should use this type of approach, as shown above with two siting on the stage next to the speaker, at academic conferences too so that academics gain expeience before they speak. They can be that bit closer to the talking and we gain more diversity in speakers too. This would be a simple exercise to try.
You’d think that we’d all agree on something as simple as coffee breaks. However, you’d be wrong. At academic conferences the goal is to have people in the talks. This isn’t supported by those who skip talks to have another coffee and catch up with a friend to discuss a new collaboration. That conversation should happen at lunch, or at night over dinner or in the bar it seems. At academic conferences the breaks need to be fixed and shorter rather than longer so as to maximise the sessions.
At tech conferences, which I go to there are always beverages available during the day for people to grab as needed to fuel a conversation. One year there were fixed coffee times, but that changed and it also didn’t stop people skipping sessions to talk about ideas and collaborations. That’s why we’re at these coferences after all. By the way, these are regular conferences and not open space or unconference events. At those, I’d expect there to be food and drink all day to help keep conversations going.
I like the ‘come and drink and eat when you’re ready’ approach of tech conferences. I like knowing that I can grab the slide deck, if I miss a session, because my priority right now is to speak to person x, who is only here for a few days. I think there should be space for both attendng sessions and for also enabling the freedom of ‘coffee’s here, keep talking’.
And, when I think about it. At the regular events i attend, then i a crowd of 80 there are maybe 7-8 people not in one session or another, while an event with 250-300 sees maybe 10-12 in the coffee lounge during sessions. These are not large numbers. These are where people deepen friendships and work gets done.
Codes of Conduct
We added a code of conduct for the Northern Lights Conference last year. Friends told me that this was needed now, and that some people wouldn’t attend if we didn’t have one. After a bit of searching around and finding that all of the conferences that I go to had them, apart from an open space one, which deals with this in a different manner, then I decided we too should have one. We based ours on the one used by ScotlandJS. I also had a long talk with the organiser about how they curate the talks and engage people to put themselves forward as speakers, as this is often part of the issue too. People had to agree to the code when they purchased tickets, or agreed to be sponsors. If you need a brief guide on the bad things that happen at conferences then this timeline shows you what’s been reported on in the past.
I looked around to see if any academic tech conferences have codes of conduct. I didn’t find any. I did find documents like the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. This is mostly about the software being developed, and actions of an individual in other scenarios might be interpretted as applying to conferences too, but that is also possible too generous an interpretation. The IEEE Code of Conduct comes closer to what’s needed and does talk about the issues in a more general manner which does cover conferences too.
I found one call for an academic conference code of conduct. This, as you can see, raises all of the issues that we see in the Times Higher Education, and in other places too. It also carries on in the comments of the post. I also found that the IASSIST conference has a code of conduct, which will cover the issues too.
Ultimately, it all comes down to this: do we need a code of conduct? Shouldn’t participants be expected to be good to one another? Maybe they will, but some of them won’t be. Listen carefully to conversations around you and you’ll find that things do happen, which shouldn’t at conferences. Ask the organisers too if you’re in doubt. The Code of Conduct 101 covers most of the reasons, why you want one, and answers you’re ‘yes, but…’ items too.
A conference should be a joyous occasion where people meet for the first time, or the upteenth time to hang out and discuss life, work, and what comes next. We should also know that if something untoward does happen, that it will be dealt with appropriately and that participants know who to speak to if they need to report something. We should set an example.
While computing in academia and the tech industry might be considered similar, there are still differences and some of the trends we see in industry should move into academia. We are here to help mould the ones who work in industry, so we should teach them well and provide good examples.