Academics go to academic conferences. I generally go to a few each year—always the AEA and NBER Summer Institute, usually SOLE (Society of Labor Economists) and INFORMS and ICIS (International Conference on Information Systems). I also typically go to a few one-off, non-annual conferences. I don’t like going to conferences—and have felt that way for a long time—but I never really thought about what it was I didn’t like (beyond the things that everyone dislikes about travel & missing their family).
I think the main reason I don’t like going to conferences is the research in aggregatge. Seeing up close the amount of work being done—and the knowledge that I could know about only a small fraction—and that most likely, only a small fraction of people will know about my work—always makes me melancholy. I get this at the AEA meeting especially, which is vast. It always give me this feeling of how limited our time is, and how much we will never know. Given the scarcity of attention and the somewhat artificial scarcity of journal pages, a conference is a salient reminder of the bad odds most research faces in terms of being noticed.
As the old joke goes, somewhat modified—not only are the portions too large, the food is often terrible. Most presentations are bad—and not because the research is bad, but because giving good presentations is challenging. You have to summarize complex things to a diverse room of people, in a linear fashion. There are dangers everywhere: focus too much on details and robustness and your talk is boring; skip over details and you sow doubts about the work. Just getting the visuals on the slides right is an art that I feel like I’m still far away from mastering.
Part of the general badness of presentations is that the “medium” of presentations makes it harder for them to get better. Presentations seem disadvantaged relative to papers in terms of the potential for improvement. You are never in the audience for your own talk, and so you can only reflect ex post on how it went. In contrast, you can read your own paper. With a paper, I can iterate alone: I can write a bit, let it mellow for a bit, then read and revise. And so all by myself, I can improve my writing. Presentations, no so much.
In principle, the downsides of presentations would be balanced by some upsides. There are some—you can use tone of voice, pointing, etc. to convey more information. You can also make jokes and have some fun that you probably should keep out of your papers. One big upside is that they can be interactive—questions and discussions during seminars can be magic—but at big conferences, this rarely happens.
So what’s the solution? Well, I’m going to keep going to conferences – it’s part of the job. One thing I’d like to try is make some really high-quality screencast presentations. I bought Camtasia and I’ve played around with it a bit and it seems like, in principle, I could take a paper-like style of iteration and improvement to presentations (e.g, multiple takes, editing out bad parts and so on). The goal might be just to give better live talks, but it would also be interesting to see if screencasts could be halfway between live talks and papers as a means of scientific communication.