Presenting vs Workshopping

Over the past twelve years, I've attended many conferences in the social sciences and humanities. All of them have followed the same basic format: submit an abstract for the proposed presentation and, if accepted, write and present the paper. Usually, 20 minutes is set aside for the presentation, with 5-10 minutes following it during which the audience can ask questions. When I started applying to business conferences about two years ago, I was introduced to a slightly different model. The association required submission of a full paper for review instead of just an abstract. This surprised me because it seemed like much more work for the conference organizers to review entire papers instead of abstracts. It also meant that I had to have the research in more of a finalized format rather than using the conference as a forum to test things out. In some ways, it was just as challenging to edit the fully-formed paper back down to a 20-minute presentation. In either case, however, I found that the question periods tended not to be as helpful as I might hope, probably because 20 minutes isn't enough time to give the background and detail necessary to generate a good discussion.

More recently, I submitted a short case that I had written to the "case study track" of a national business conference without any idea what that might entail in practical terms. The experience was an eye-opener. My submission consisted of the completed (released) case with a full teaching note. I received feedback from the three reviewers on how to improve the case. Then one month before the conference, all of the cases submitted were made available in DropBox. Individuals in the case track division were expected to read the cases of those presenting in their session and be ready to provide feedback (other delegates could participate in the sessions if they were so interested and motivated). When we arrived at the roundtable session, we were each given 3-5 minutes to introduce our cases and each case was discussed for approximately 25 minutes. The model was less about presenting research and more about workshopping it with peers. I attended several sessions and in every instance incredibly valuable commentary was shared between authors and session chairs.

Upon reflection, I would love to see this approach adopted at the social sciences and humanities conferences that I attend regularly. Too often, we go in with the kernel of an idea or a preliminary study, hoping to get feedback that will encourage us in a particular direction and help to shape our work, but the process doesn't quite work out. Sometimes we go in wanting to start a dialogue about important issues or theories, but we aren't all on the same page and the discussion doesn't quite get going. If our peers were reading our work in advance, and given time to digest the information in advance, how much more productive might these conferences be for us all?

Last week I was at a conference and there was a panel discussion about trends in ethnomusicology. One of the speakers asserted that many students are writing excellent micro-histories that would be useful in a classroom, but these never find their way into usable, published forms. How we might change this became a topic for discussion. The truth is, many graduate level term papers get poked away after a grade is received and never see the light of day again (I could list several of my own as example). These papers are often of a high quality as the products of extremely focussed inquiry. What might happen to these term papers if we were to invite graduate students to workshop them with established academics at a conference? I suspect that we could help transition these papers to published articles in many cases, and foster the professional development of young scholars in the process.

The other aspect of the case track division that I appreciated was the existance of an "embryo" stream. This was an opportunity for individuals just starting a new case study to get some feedback at the start of a project. How often do we attend conferences with the idea for a project that isn't fully formed or hasn't yet been initiated to the degree that we had hoped? And how helpful might it be for the establishment of research partnerships if we started having collaborative sessions at conferences where the feedback from many minds can help to shape and inform projects?

The more I think about this, the more I feel the workshop model should be incorporated into traditional conferences. It needn't replace the paper presentation, panel discussion, or plenary. Rather, it would be an excellent complement, providing a new way to engage academics and foster relationships while facilitating project development and publication.