It's a while since we had a 'conferences are broken' rant on the Agile blog!
Five or six of the sessions at this year's conference were... different. I already mentioned the Value In Geophysics session, which was a cross between a regular series of talks and a panel discussion. I went to another, The modern geoscientist, which was structured the same way. A third one, Fundamentals of Professional Career Branding, was a mini workshop with Jackie Rafter of Higher Landing. There were at least a couple of other such sessions.
It's awesome to see the societies experimenting with something outside the usual plethora of talks and posters. I hope they were well received, because we need more of this in our discipline, now more than ever. If you went to one and enjoyed it, please let the organizers know.
But... the sessions — especially the panel discussion sessions — lacked something. One thing really:
The sessions we saw were nowhere near participatory enough. Not even close.
The 'expert-panel-enlightens-audience' pattern is slowing us down, perpetuating broken models of leadership and hierarchy. There isn't an expert in Calgary or the universe that knows how or when this downturn is going to end, or what we need to do to improve our chances of continuing to contribute to society and make a living in our profession. So please, stop throwing people up on a stage, making them give 5 minute presentations, and occasionally asking for questions from the audience. That is nothing like a discussion. Tune in to a political debate show to see what those look like: rapid-fire, punchy, controversial. In short: interesting. And, from an organizer's point of view, really hard, which is why we should stop.
What I think is really needed right now, more than half-baked expert discussion, is conversation. Conversations happen between small groups of people, all sitting on the same plane, around a table, with napkins to draw on and time to draw on them. They connect people and spread awesome ideas like viruses. What's more, great conversations have outcomes.
I don't want to claim that Agile has all this figured out, but we have demonstrated various ways of connecting scientists in meaningful ways and with lasting outcomes. We've also written extensively on the subject (e.g. here and here and here and here). Other verticals have conducted many more experiments, and documented the results. Humans know how to do this.
So there's no excuse — it's not too dramatic to call the current 'situation' a crisis in our profession in Canada — so we need to get beyond tinkering at the edges and half-hearted attempts at change. Our societies need to pay attention to what's needed, and get on with making it happen.
Still more ranting...
We talked about this topic at some length on the Undersampled Radio podcast yesterday. Here's the uncut video version: