Two recent rants have caught my eye, interestingly both from people who seem to have recently attended SXSW, a conference to which I’ve never been (but always wanted to go). Anyway, one calls for “flipping the conference” and the other wholeheartedly agrees.
Before I start, let me say that I doubt either of these posts is really calling for eliminating all broadcast-type lectures or presentations from all conferences anytime or anywhere forever and ever. Just like I don’t think that people who call for flipping the classroom – the discourse both of these pieces are riffing on — are talking about replacing lectures so much as using them better. There’s a big difference between throwing out lecture altogether and recognizing that the teaching shouldn’t end there (and sometimes shouldn’t start there).
So this isn’t a “someone’s wrong,” rant so much as I don’t hear this expressed very much, and I think expressing it is important – there’s a continuum here, after all, and if the endpoints skew to one side then the conversation is affected.
This is the side that I never see expressed. I like lectures, sometimes. I think there’s a place for them. I like some of the things that are “the problem” in these conversations and I am going to tell you why.
1. Remember, we’re all different.
Both of the above pieces refer to this one shared assumption – that the really important thing about any conference is the “discussion, debates and conversations.” And I think a lot of people express this, and believe it and for them it’s true, but for me (and not just me, I think) — It’s not.
I’ve come out before as a pretty serious introvert and I’ve got to tell you, two or three days filled with nothing but discussion, debates and conversations sounds like my idea of hell. Okay, yes, I can imagine many worse things than that so maybe not hell, but seriously, it would take me at least a week to recover from something like that.
(Note. I am not exaggerating for effect.)
For a quick primer on what I mean when I say “introvert” watch this:
To me, the best part of any conference is many things. Sometimes it’s an inspiring keynote, sometimes its a meaningful conversation with someone from my home state over drinks half a continent away, sometimes its an idea that came to me in the middle of a talk on a topic I never would have sought out and am only being exposed to because it was the most interesting-looking paper in an underwhelming session. You see what I mean? It’s ideas and they come from everywhere and I don’t want to limit where I might run into them.
Lectures can be a super-effective way to get a lot of ideas out there to a lot of people really quickly. Do I think we should build in time for reflection, time for discussion, time for debate? Yes, of course I do, but don’t throw out the lectures. See, I don’t need to do all of my thinking and all of my learning AT the conference. Sometimes I want to get exposed to as much thinking and as many ideas as humanly possible while I’m there and I’m okay with doing some of my thinking and processing and conversation on my own time.
And here’s the thing, I think there IS value in giving busy professionals some space in their work lives to stop doing everything else, to focus on ideas and content for a few days. Sometimes that means taking advantage of that shared space to talk, to discuss and debate. Sometimes it means time to think, to reflect, to listen. There’s value in providing a space where people who are passionate about the same things can share the experience of hearing new ideas or learning new things.
2. We don’t do the reading
Because that shared experience is essential to making those conversations, debates and discussions about something, or at least about something new, isn’t it?
And here’s the second thing – I don’t think we’re going to do that in advance, on our own time. I have been responsible for leading conference events and workshops and discussions that provided people with advance readings before and I am pretty confident in my blanket statement that no one ever does them. I mean, let’s face it, there’s not gonna be a test.
(Okay, Jane does them, but then she has to catch everyone else up.)
We come to the conference, with our pens (or iPads or laptops), ready to absorb the knowledge* but I’m guessing that prepping in advance rarely goes further than what we can get done on the plane ride, if that. And lectures are a GOOD way for lots of us to get that shared experience, to absorb that knowledge that can be our jumping off point.
Lectures don’t suck. Bad lectures do. Now, are bad lectures worse than bad active learning exercises? I don’t know, I can get stuff done during a bad lecture without being actively rude, which is something I value. I can think and reflect on the good ones. Ask my co-workers how many projects have been started by emails I wrote from bad talks about ideas I got during bad talks. (Spoiler alert! A lot)
(Note. I’m not advocating for bad lectures. But maybe bad lectures > bad other stuff.)
Bad discussions, though, those are tough. And a lot of times, they’re bad because there’s no shared content pushing them forward – because my class didn’t do the reading so it’s a series of unconnected “here’s what I think” statements – oh wait, that’s another topic. But it’s not entirely another topic. Discussions grounded only in a set of possibly connected individual experiences, not in a shared reading, or talk or idea – those can become deadly unfocused or reflect not much more than the loudest voice in the room. It takes a lot of skill to facilitate discussion and spark conversation. We don’t all have that skill.
*Bonus points for catching that reference
3. Let me be inspired
Because just like we all learn in different ways – we all teach in different ways. Some people are great at facilitating discussion, creating debate and pushing the room to collaboratively developed insights but everyone isn’t. Some people need time to deliberate practice and prepare to be their most effective and I don’t want to shut any of these people out of the conversation. Isn’t there room for all?
It’s common in these discussions to talk about how none of the learning that really stuck with us from college came from lectures – it all came from more active work done (usually) outside the classroom, etc. Well, okay. Some of my most memorable learning in college happened in lecture halls, listening to some truly fantastic speakers. I think about those historians, political scientists and (in one case) psychologists every time I hear the anti-lecture conversation start up because I think the world is better place with those people doing what they do best.
And here’s the last thing – people like to be inspired and they are INSPIRED by good talks. Look at the tweets from just about any conference and you’ll see tons of excited OMG I am so inspired comments – occasionally sparked by conversation but more often sparked by speakers. Passionate, skilled, awesome speakers.