If a tree falls in an empty conference room, does anybody hear?

Last weekend I went to Orlando, Florida for an academic conference. Two colleagues and I were on the program to present a panel (that is, three integrated short talks) on the teaching and learning opportunities in original research projects for undergraduate mechanical engineers. We had been working on our project since last January: drafting the proposal and later the paper, revising them, drafting the slides, rehearsing, revising the slides, and going over them again. I estimate that about 250 woman-hours went into our talks.

Two people came to our panel. That’s right, two. Oh, and one came 15 minutes late.

This is the thing about academic conferences that everybody knows about but no one does anything about: there are too many panels on the program for the number of attendees, which disperses the audience among too many rooms. Yes, some panels I attended had 30 people in the audience, the size maybe of a class of students. Usually, you hope for at least 8 to 10. But two? Well, that’s just disillusioning, as one of my colleagues said. Our work had almost no effect.

I wonder, selfishly, what else could I have written with the same 100 hours I contributed to the panel? One could say I learned a lot from the research I did (my talk was based on a qualitative study I conducted among students on their experience of a set of assignments), and my colleagues and I consolidated our understanding of our own work through this experience, but, really, to have an audience is better.

In the talks I went to, the best was by keynote speaker Manuel Lima, who presented from his book Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). He argues that, as the dominant paradigm for visualizing knowledge has gone from the tree to the network, ideas of beauty must change from an emphasis on symmetry and order to complexity and disorder. Lima’s presentation ranged over history, art, science, Gestalt psychology, and our digital world. He used beautiful, disparate images from handmade manuscripts and other artifacts in surprising ways. Illustrations of trees, like this one from 1202 by Joachim of Fiore (in Lima’s book), gave way to abstract art and in particular a network-like painting, Autumn Rhythm, done in 1950 by Jackson Pollock.

The Tree of the Two Advents (1202)

I sat at a table with Manuel Lima at lunch and heard more about his ideas; I bought his book and got his signature. One always gets something of value out of these academic conferences. I am intrigued by the shift from trees to networks as the paradigm of knowledge in our era and by our ideas of classical beauty giving way to complex beauty.

Networks are not just at the center of a scientific revolution; they are also contributing to a considerable shift in our conception of society, culture, and art, expressing a new sense of beauty. As we continuously strive to decipher many of their inner workings, we are constantly bewildered by their displays of convolution, multiplicity, and interconnectedness. And the most elaborate of schemes are the ones that apparently seduce us at the deepest level. — Manual Lima, Visual Complexity (2011)

This is a big idea, the only one at the conference. My colleagues and I were ready with a well-done yet admittedly modest idea. Is this the thing to do, which Lima has done: dedicate one’s self to bigger ideas and bigger projects?

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Image credit: The Tree of the Two Advents, Joachim of Fiore (1202), via Brainpickings.org

This entry was posted in artist, audience, book, present, quotation, teaching, word, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to If a tree falls in an empty conference room, does anybody hear?

  1. Kristina says:

    I love this post. I don’t know the answer to your last question, but I am so incredibly disillusioned with conferences. At the last one I went to, I was there with several grad students, and their own ADVISORS didn’t come to the panel. I am going to co-chair a panel coming up, after having taken a break because of my annoyance, and we decided to accept as many proposals as the rules would allow so that we could at least have an interesting conversation if no one else shows. I have definitely given papers to rooms of 5 or fewer people on a number of occasions. The best conferences are the really small ones that have no more than two or maybe three simultaneous panels.

  2. jelizabeth says:

    Thanks, K. I think I am going to pick and choose more strategically in the future.

    And it is so dismissive, so unfeeling that the advisors of those grad students did not go to their panel. Did their mothers not raise them right, with manners at least??

  3. Pingback: Fragments of a fall | leaf – stitch – word

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