How to avoid awful panel discussions? Organize and attend fewer events!

Duncan Green is probably one of the politest ‘ranters’ I have come across on the Internet, so his Conference rage: 'How did awful panel discussions become the default format?' is actually quite a measured critique.

He also suggests some constructive and practical ways of organizing events, panels and discussions better, thereby overlooking what I would consider one of the root causes for ‘awful panel discussions’: the sheer inflation of conferences, policy events and various other formats of so-called public engagement. My main point of how to improve panel discussions is to organize fewer and make the personal choice to attend fewer yourself-both as speaker or participant in the audience.

There simply isn’t enough good content available
This year’s conference of the Development Studies Association features 73 panels and the Development Research Conference at Stockholm University hosts another 39 panels. That’s more than 110 panels on a relatively niche topic like development research that will be hosted in two European cities within a three-week period during the summer conference season.
And those are obviously just the tip of the conference iceberg. As much as I appreciate that many brilliant colleagues will present excellent papers, we are looking at about 300-400 presentations and you don’t have to be an econometric expert to figure out that chances are high that many of them will be not so brilliant.
And just today (12 July) I read that more than 1,300 papers and panels will be presented at IAMCR 2016’-the annual conference of the International Association of Media and Communication Research that is quite popular in my networks.

Usually for financial reasons conference organizers shy away from curating their event better as more panels and participants mean more income generated. In an attempt to ‘democratize’ an event and leave it to the ‘consumer’ to make a choice which 5-10 panels s/he wants to attend, you are creating a YouTube-style assemblage of stuff instead of a more focused TEDx event.
This post is not about networking, the coffee break conversations or the beer after a long day inside non-descript meeting rooms, it is about the fact that inflated events will inevitably produce ‘awful panel discussions’ with few people in the audience, many participants presenting finished work and everybody relying on PowerPoint

How many Brexit events does London need?
But I certainly don’t just want to blame the academic industry-in the policy bubbles of (European) capitals the panel has become a shorthand for organizing a relatively cheap event to tick ‘outreach’ boxes and produce cheap content-from live-tweeting to a ‘talking head’ one camera recording of the discussion. Once in a blue moon you may be lucky and mainstream media or the digital sphere pick up your event-and if not you can quickly move on and plan the next one!
There are so many Think Tanks, foundations, NGOs or start-ups these days that it is a simple statistical exercise figuring out that quite a few of them will be poorly organized, attended by speakers who know a little bit about everything and will produce very little value added beyond the famous saying ‘everything has already been said-but not by everyone’.

The answer is not simply ‘better’ panels, but better curation and realizing that less is more
Duncan Green makes some sensible suggestions on to make more of panel discussions and he also points out best practice examples where this happened.
I strongly agree that funding and planning any event properly is an important first step-and that includes that powerful, senior, ‘important’ people are involved from the start and not just invite their friends for a keynote in the evening. Events don’t organize themselves or because someone sent an email to order 2 coffee breaks, but they require work way in advance. In many cases, the cost are conveniently off-loaded to participants who spent time preparing, traveling and sticking around, often covering their own expenses, hence the true cost disappear in some kind of black hole.

Ultimately it involves some important personal and organizational choices. As long as academic associations treat their annual conferences as the convenient cash-cows that they are we deserve to end up in global chain hotels or anonymous conference facilities and listen to presentations of published journal articles. We also deserve that precious evening lifetime is sucked out of our brains and bodies listening to men in suits discussing topics over which they and the audience have little to no influence over. The number of people who have changed their mind after listening to a pro-/anti-Brexit presentation at a NW1 venue or a location in Berlin with a 10117 postcode is likely to be very small, to be diplomatic. And these locations of events also affect diversity beyond the #allmalepanel, of course, as the policy bubble or academic elite continues talking to itself in places they are most comfortable with.

Not organizing yet another event and not attending them is a legitimate strategy
Why not curate five great recorded presentations, blog posts or op-eds on the topic on your website instead-and being explicit about not wanting to organize a new event for the sake of it?

In the meantime, the academic conference summer season is about to start and thousands of people will spend millions of dollars traveling around the globe because of the rituals of academic self-affirmation: I present, therefore I am...


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