I spend a lot of time at various national, state, and local edu-conferences. It seems that that, no matter how thoughtful the organizers and no matter the gathering’s politics or point of view, they all tend to feature a lot of really long stretches of tedium.
Now, let me make three things abundantly clear. First, I’m confident that most conferences in most fields are tedious. Second, I admittedly have an awful attention span and get bored way too easily. Third, I’m as guilty of putting together boring conferences as anyone else, so this is intended more as a public service announcement than as any kind of soapbox exercise.
(Quick note: If you don’t think most edu-conferences are painful, you really need to share your tips with me, or else you’ve got a much higher tolerance for tedium. Either way, you’re excused from reading further.)
Anyway, five quick observations and suggestions:
First, speakers frequently aren’t all that good. For one thing (and lord knows I’ve been hugely guilty of this), it’s easy for speakers to focus on making sure that they say their piece rather than helping the audience learn. That’s bad. After all, a sleepy, tuned-out audience neither hears nor learns. This is beyond bad when it’s a featured or keynote speaker.
Second, way too many panels amount to some version of a dog-and-pony show, where each academic or leader touts their wares, filibustering and leaving little time for meaningful discussion. Organizers would do well to create forums where the conversation is more challenging, allowing moderators and audience members to press participants in more focused, pointed, and penetrating ways.
Third, moderators tend to be weak-kneed. Frequently, I’m not sure they actually want to be moderating. Rather than push the conversation forward, challenge speakers, or cultivate illuminating back-and-forth, they seem to limply wait for time to expire.
Fourth, audience members have a disconcerting tendency to ask “questions” that amount to extended, disjointed, and off-point soliloquies. Too many moderators blinkingly, passively watch this. Look, it’s true that many audience members would themselves make good panelists. But the path to learning is not a jumbled assemblage of back-of-room comments, but an audience and moderator pushing those who happen to be on the panel to reveal something (whether intentionally or no).
Fifth, audience members need to take more ownership. I’ve been in rooms marked by widespread yawning, eye-glazing, and phone-checking (sometimes I’m the cause of all this), and yet heard audience members swap half-hearted, well-intentioned niceties about the talk afterwards. And I’ve seen a lot of wildly inflated feedback on some really painful sessions. Audiences should give tougher feedback, demand more interactivity, and expect more disciplined moderating and more engaging speakers.
Life is too short and time is too valuable to turn a blind eye to all this. Let’s raise our expectations, and our game.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.