I’m co-organising a three-day conference for which we have received proposals to present 31 round tables, 4 workshops and 146 papers. Yes, very successful. I happen to be coordinating the programme and, well, it’s very complicated because with 90 minutes sessions we need 8 simultaneous classrooms, which also makes it highly unlikely that panel attendance can be higher than a handful of listeners.

For reasons that I won’t go into, I’ve had to produce a more compact programme, supposing that the sessions would take 60 instead of 90 minutes. This means that participants in round tables should speak for between 5-10 minutes before proper debate begins and papers should be given in 15 minutes instead of 20, as it is traditional in the humanities. The problem is that conference delegates still don’t know about this… We’re three weeks away…

Seeing what a big difference 5 minutes make, I started wondering why 20-minute papers are the rule and whether anybody knows how academic conferences have come about. I’ve been asking my colleagues and none seems to know. Google led me to volumes by Anton Shone and Tony Rogers, though their focus are business and not academic meetings. I’m still in the dark…

I’ve attended conferences in which delegates were given only 10 minutes to present and that seemed very little for the expenses and the hassle involved in attending a conference. 20 minutes (around 2,500 words) can indeed seem 40 depending on the presenter’s delivery skills. And, then, of course, there are all those tiresome presenters who never bother to rehearse their papers in advance and spend their presentation regretting that they have to skip this and that, or simply taking everyone else’s time. 15 minutes, which must be around 2000 words, do not sound so bad.

Listening to papers can be, believe me, terribly dull though we very politely tend not to comment on this. Some people just seem unable to communicate (one wonders what they do in class!!), others tend to overuse PowerPoint trying desperately to make things more lively, and few manage to keep their audience’s attention for the full 20 minutes. Listening to three papers in a row takes one hour, by the end of which the first paper may have been forgotten. It is when attending conferences that I realise what students go through every day!! And, of course, I have seen my own papers send members of the audience into Morpheus’ sweet arms… None is an exception.

Some conference organisers are beginning to ask for shorter papers (the 15-minute kind) or, preferably, short presentations. Although I can talk non-stop in class for 75 minutes with just a few notes the idea of not having a written text to lean on in a conference unnerves me. Once, years ago, I decided that the paper I’d written was not good enough and improvised a whole new version in a conference, and I’m still shaking. Never again!!

My own solution to the mortal boredom of listening to papers is simple: use conference time to talk to people. Write the paper, upload it, and come to discuss it with whomever has bothered to read it. Turn the conference into a day-long coffee break, which is when, anyway, real contact is established.

Let’s just start thinking why we do what we do, instead of following a ‘tradition’ whose origins none seems to know about and that, in practice, is so problematic to maintain…

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