Minor annoyances at conferences and seminars

Here are a few things which often cause frustration at conferences and seminars:

  • People sitting in the front row who ask questions so quietly that no one at the back can hear them.
  • Chairs who give speaker a rousing introduction which ends with the chair reading out the title of the speaker’s paper – only for the speaker to immediately contradict the chair by giving a paper with a different title.
  • Questions in threes.

Please add more below!

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  1. Chairs who introduce speakers by exhaustively listing every qualification, award and bit of funding that person has ever achieved, ad nauseum. Long introductions are especially annoying when everyone knows exactly who the bloody person is and the entire audience is sat there just wishing the chair would shut up and let the speaker speak.

  2. Rebecca R-C

     /  June 10, 2013

    People whose question can be translated as: “why are you working on this project, when there are other far more interesting projects? I work on a very interesting project, where I argue that…(goes on for ten minutes describing own research)”.

    • Yes – and your Twitter posts this morning were very apt, Becca!

      We do need people to ask us why our research is important – sometimes, asking ‘so what?’ helps us do our research better – but yes, at conferences such questions are too often asked in a way which is not very helpful.

      I’m pretty sure I’ve done this myself!

  3. Gavin

     /  June 10, 2013

    People* who simply sit and read out their paper without looking up. Why not just email the paper to everyone who can then read it from the comfort of their own home?

    *Sadly, a common trait of supposed ‘superstar’ academics.

  4. This may not be minor enough to count: the usual collective action problem when people agree that the papers should not go on for too long, but treat their own paper as the exception.

    • For me, that is a MAJOR annoyance!

      It’s even worse when all papers overrun. I remember an EPOP panel where the “chair” let all four speakers overrun, and the first question was not even asked until 1 hour 29 minutes of a 1 hour 30 panel. The question had four parts. I left at 1 hour 30.

      • I think everyone has this problem at first, and not everyone learns to deal with it. Time has a tendency of speeding up when everyone is looking at you! From my (admittedly limited) experience I think part of the problem is the pressure to be really, strikingly impressive. I mean, whether we’re rampant careerists or whether we’re just insecure we all want to appear insightful, intelligent and want to give an interesting talk. The natural tendency, therefore, is to want to cram everything you’ve got to say into ten minutes just to prove that point – ‘hey! I’m brilliant, look at all this stuff!’ The better way is to pick out just one or two points and really work them out in full. Easy to say and difficult to do but still.

        The other problem, particularly when you aren’t doing commonplace or mainstream work, is assuming background knowledge from your audience, being able to use technical terms without it sounding like jargon, being able to jump into the middle of a debate without explanation and without losing people, etc. I always feel like I have to explain the background and ease people into the debate but in ten, fifteen, twenty minutes there really isn’t time. And if you don’t go over the background you end up with the Q&A session being taken over by people who’ve gotten the wrong end of the stick and are often quite aggrieved by that fact. Again, that’s particularly true if you’re not doing run-of-the-mill, mainstream kind of stuff. The further you diverge from the mean the more general explanation you have to do and then you get told you don’t have a substantive argument! ‘Well, meta-theory is all very well but…’ Not sure there’s any way around that besides trying to find a balance.

        • I try to practise my presentations in advance so that I know how long the talk will be, and how long each Powerpoint slide. I regularly have to prune heavily to get in under 15 minutes, say. When I give the talk, I can see how much time has elapsed, and I can also see how much time should have elapsed at certain points, written in red pen on the printout of my Powerpoint slides. That way, I can see if I am on schedule to finish on time.

          Curiously, I talk fast when I am nervous, and my talks usually take 10% less time than I plan. But I have never yet had the courage to plan to talk for 16 minutes 30 on the assumption that it will actually take 15 minutes!

  5. Have experienced all of the above, but I get especially annoyed when speakers seem to treat the time limit with contempt, as if their brilliance cannot be shackled by such early concerns. We need an academic equivalent of the shepherd hook. Get off the stage!

  6. Peter Matthews

     /  June 10, 2013

    “Author meets critics” panels which end up being “author meets worshippers” and offer nothing new for anyone.

  7. Seconding Rebecca’s astute comment–audience member speeches that are disguised as questions.

    • I’ve definitely done that! Never used to do it, now I do. It’s a short road from that to having my own blog. Damn, done that too.

    • Lee Savage

       /  June 17, 2013

      This is top of my conference irritation list, along with the question in three parts that is actually three distinct questions. More than anything it’s pretty selfish given that there’s usually never enough time in the Q&A. It’s up to the chair to be stronger when audience members start giving a sermon. Maybe add meek chairs to the minor irritation list!

  8. Discussants who don’t discuss. They present their own research. Particularly annoying if you’re on the panel and looking forward to some helpful comments from an eminent professor, but just get their latest paper/presentation instead.

    • Oooh, very true!

      I once saw the chair of a panel present his own paper. There were four speakers and a discussant, and after the discussant had finished, the chair stood up and read out a short paper. It wasn’t even especially relevant to the panel. The mind boggled. Well, mine did.

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