Conferences and Conversations

As director of Digital Thoreau and a board member of The Thoreau Society, I’m helping the Society experiment with opening access to, and broadening the conversation around, the proceedings of its Annual Gathering, as I explain here.

Will this work? The call to presenters went out rather late (less than a month ahead of the gathering, which begins July 6), and at least one presenter has already (reasonably) expressed some concern about sharing the text of his presentation ahead of the live session: Won’t he be stealing his own thunder? In response to this concern, we’re holding off on making his presentation visible until after his session, and we’re offering to do the same for all presenters.

My gut sense is that people don’t attend conference sessions for access to intellectual content so much as for the chance to discuss and hear others discuss that content, and that therefore sharing the content in advance, particularly in a format that permits reader annotation, (a) wouldn’t discourage attendance and (b) might well improve the quality of face-to-face conversation by giving attendees a better shot at understanding the content and even a head start on discussing it.

What if we completely abandoned the practice of having presenters read conference presentations — which tend to be written not for oral delivery but for an implied audience of silent readers, and therefore difficult to digest in session — in favor of a model in which presenters summarized a presentation whose text they’d previously shared, highlighting key points and ending with a handful of questions for discussion, and in which the job of moderators was to orchestrate that presenter-framed discussion?

In the humanities, at least, this isn’t a change I’d expect to see happen anytime soon, but I don’t think it would be a bad one.