Part of the academic education is supposed to be about developing a critical eye for things. You should finish a PhD able to wrap your brain’s sulci around an experience or some sort of argument and arrive at a reasoned assessment of its many elements. Or at least an ability to drop sulci into a sentence I guess.
This faculty could just be employed while actively pursuing academic work or engaging in a mental wrestle with a Rob Schneider anti-vaccination rant. Job done you could sink in to the other experiences of life, relieved of the need to exercise your brain in any way. A bit like when you watch a Rob Schneider movie.
[OK, we can both spot the flaws there. Obviously you don’t require any more brain flexing to demolish a Rob Schneider anti-vax rant than to watch one of his movies. And no one is watching one of his movies. Let’s leave the multiple fails behind and move on.]
Developing a critical eye shouldn’t be confined to desk time. Following a principle I’m sure someone on an infomercial has already turned into a wodge of money-making glibness, why not train that brain during the experiences of every day? What can you learn from examining every experience in disorienting detail?
So to a review of a conference, because academic life will be full of them, and I might as well learn from them.
The Conference Location
This conference was a gathering of anaesthetists. What’s the collective noun for a group of anaesthetists? A slumber, maybe? It’s a generalist audience run by the Australian Society of Anaesthetists. This time around it was run up at Darwin which has a lot of things going for it. Not least of those was a bit of bonus summer.
That said the Top End is supposed to have a reputation for fringe-dwelling extremes of experience. Scheduling the welcome event at a place called “Crocosaurus Cove” certainly had potential. So to end the night without a crocodile being led through the crowd on a lead was, honestly, a bit of a let down. I bet they wouldn’t let you down like that in Vegas.
In fact there wasn’t really anything particularly ‘out there’. It was just a place with an excellent vibe. Disappointing.
If a week or so later you can’t really suggest if it was a good conference for the academics bit, what does that say? Some of that is a result of the fact that my particular bit of anaesthetics is a niche, so it doesn’t get so much space on a program. In fact all of the things actually related to kids’ anaesthesia pretty much fell at the end of the conference.
There were a couple of standout sessions though. Some of those related to the quality of the keynote speaker (a bit more on that below). The reason they were standouts though is that a lot of the sessions felt pretty ‘standard’. The thing is I don’t quite understand why medical types don’t seem to make the link that if you made your standouts pretty much what all of the talks were like, everyone would benefit.
None of it is rocket surgery either. Most of it is reflected in things I’ve put elsewhere. But for an updated version, there were a few things that stood out:
1. Do Less
It’s never clear to me if the problem with those talks where people try to summarise all of time, space and the spirit world in their talk ended up there all by themselves or felt compelled because of a topic they were handed. Those talks that stood out generally did less though. They had a single point to get across and they made it stick.
2. Don’t Bury the Big Bit
One of the talks I went to from a really clever and excellent person was a review of all of a topic. They stuck to a structure. That structure was something like “Here is the landscape of this topic. Here is the stuff we were always told. Now I will walk through why that is all almost exactly unchanged. This will take some time. Oh, and in the last 90 seconds I will mention a genuinely new bit of something that didn’t use to be ranked as highly as those old things but will actually change your practice.”
The thing that will change everyone’s practice isn’t the afterthought. That’s a highlight.
3. Don’t Apologise
In one talk, a speaker actually said “I’m sorry you can’t actually read this slide because of all the details on it.” Don’t apologise for that slide. Ditch it.
It seems like there’s only a couple of explanations for leaving a slide like that in. One is that the speaker feels they need it as some form of support. Putting up something I can’t read doesn’t support my positive impression of the speaker. The other is that rather than digest it themselves and turn it into something useful the audience can take away, they took the shortcut.
Don’t say sorry thanks. Just fix it.
4. The Extras
This might seem a really small point but some of the little traditions should be allowed to slowly wheeze out their existence in the corner. Like the conference bag. Most people who make their way to a conference probably have access to a bag they could use. They are unlikely to need a bag of dubious quality extensively branded with the logo of a meeting that was anything but the planning and simultaneous launch of the first manned Mars mission.
Enough with the shoddy extras that don’t need to be extras. Ditch the bags. Human people can probably adapt. And didn’t Darwin teach us that those predisposed not to adapt will just become extinct? No? That’s a complete misrepresentation? Let’s move on anyway.
5. The Legend
I wrote once before about all the things ways John West impresses me. All too often you shouldn’t meet a hero. Not this time.
He is 86. He needed some questions repeated. He doesn’t walk so fast. And he was endlessly patient and engaging. People would come up and mention a topic and he’d latch on and ask them to e-mail more information. There’s more than a few people in the game that could learn from that example.
Then there were his talks. In a time where everyone with a TED fetish thinks that’s where the history of presentations started could have done with seeing this. He told stories. He showed the personal within the science. He didn’t rely on dot points. He surprised.
All those other people didn’t invent the rules of presenting. There were good people already doing it.
The critique? Some bits were good. Even the talking to people bits. Some bits were just as ‘meh’ as other conferences. There’s at least a few of those items that could be fixed by clearer direction and support from organisers. But it’s clear that changing the template for conferences is a bit like turning an ocean liner with a kayaker’s paddle.
Which coincidentally is in the plot of the next very unfunny Schneider flick.