This past weekend I had the pleasure and opportunity to present at the MediaModes Graduate Student Conference at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The conference convened around a very compelling theme “critical thinking at the intersection of art and technology,” and what was additionally impressive was the superb planning on the part of the organizers. The whole thing seemed very well thought out and perfectly executed. Here are a few of the things that were especially nice about the conference. While some of them might seem like “common sense,” they’re details that a lot of conferences I’ve attended have not been attentive to, resulting in boredom, delays, and a host of other problems.
Submission of papers in advance. We were asked to submit our papers online in advance. They were then made available to panel respondents and fellow panelists. This helped us bridge thematic connections between projects and develop questions ahead of time.
Uploading and testing media before the panels. What a reasonable plan! I cannot count the number of conferences (including some that I’ve helped organize or host) where delays result from technology that’s not set up ahead of time. SVA emailed participants two weeks in advance with a specific set of questions about their requested media. They scheduled the media test and upload the night before the conference–a perfect time during which everyone would likely have already arrived in the city, but still with plenty of time to troubleshoot any difficulties. When I arrived, I noticed that they had a spreadsheet with everyone’s information on it (just to reconfirm) and any requests that required specialty or out of the ordinary technical specifications were written in red text. The initial email soliciting tech. requests even asked to explain what formats we would be bringing our materials to the conference on to ensure data transfer compatibility. During panels, a tech person remained in the room to fix last minute bugs, and she graciously changed the lighting settings to suit each participant’s preferences.
Hosting and hospitality. As an additional incentive to attend the media upload and test, the conference organizers planned a dinner later that same evening, so that people would have an opportunity to meet one another. I already had plans that evening, so unfortunately was unable to attend, but I was really impressed that they went through the trouble of arranging a semi-official get together with everyone. Organizers also politely made the expectation clear that everyone would have to pay for themselves at the dinner, but noted that they had selected a reasonably priced establishment. The following night, after the amazing keynote by Jonathan Crary, the conference sponsored a fabulous catered reception, which wrapped things up very well.
A realistic schedule. They kept the conference very short and very focused. Panels ran from 10:00 am to 3:30 pm. For each session, two panels were programmed against one another, so yes, you had to choose which to attend, but it made so much more sense than some of these larger conferences that go on for days and days. I’ve been stuck presenting at both 8 am panels and 5 pm panels on the last day. Nobody comes; nobody particularly wants to be there (often including the panelists). For this conference, I think most participants attended the whole thing. There was a lot of information and interesting dialog, but not too much. I could remember what people said and it didn’t feel like overload. Panels were quite aggressively timed, and that meant that there was abundant time for Q & A sessions, which were generally very good, since everyone–panelists, respondents, and attendees–had the chance to familiarize themselves with the work in advance. They built in generous buffers between sessions, and even offered a short lunch break. It was rigorous and serious, but not strenuous and tedious.
Follow up. The next day, I received a thoughtful thank you message from the conference organizing committee. It referenced my particular contribution to the conference and thanked me for my participation. I feel equivalent gratitude toward them for organizing such a great event. If more planning committees kept track of these kinds of details, conferences would be much more enjoyable and likely run more smoothly, too.