Hear me out.
The majority of sessions at the conferences I attend are of the 30-50 minute speaker-and-slides variety. Now, I love these kinds of sessions, both as an attendee, and as a speaker. It’s a good amount of time to deliver a fair-to-middle resolution look at a topic. I like to give and audience enough information to begin to intelligently researching a topic on their own. From the presenter side of things, a one hour slot isn’t too overwhelming to prepare and not particularly taxing once you have a chance to break in your voice a bit.
Aside from what I’ll call presentation sessions (for lack of a better term), a lot of conferences offer a handful of tutorial sessions in the 3-4 hour range. These sessions are much more like a traditional classroom with an instructor leading a group through a series of exercises. Tutorials are an amazing value for attendees, offering training at a price that would be hard to find in another venue. I’ve given a few of these and while I do find them physically draining, I enjoy them enough to keep signing up for them.
Is it possible this dual-format system is limiting what we can actually get out of conferences? At Midwest PHP this past weekend, I had the chance to join a few good discussions on the topic. One idea that kept coming up was to sprinkle longer sessions, around two hours, in to the conference schedule.
What would we do with two-hour sessions? Two big things come to mind. First, it’s a viable timespan for highly detailed technical sessions that don’t involve a lot of hands-on interaction or are narrow enough in scope that they can’t fill a four-hour session. We’ve all sat through – and many of us have given – technical talks that were rushed, or that glossed over or omitted important elements because of time constraints. A two-hour session would be a better fit for these kinds of topics.
What I really think we need more of, though, are panel discussions. Two of the big highlights of Midwest PHP for me were Beth Tucker-Long’s panel (consisting of herself, Eryn O’Neil, and Gary Hockin) on sexism in tech, and an uncon panel hosted by Nate Abele in which we talked about the past and future of open source which was a perfect lead-up to Elizabeth Smith’s absolutely knock-out closing keynote on the same topic.
I love panel discussions! We talk a lot in this community about how we can encourage more people to be active participants, and panels are a great way to do that. I imagine there are a lot of people out there with important things to say who simply can’t stomach the idea of standing alone on a stage and attempting to command a room for an hour. And I imagine that a lot of those people would be much more open to the idea of being one person in larger panel.
And even for the people who aren’t on stage, panel discussions are a great way to encourage more audience participation. It’s a chance to for a person to have voice heard without necessarily having to stand in the spotlight. That’s way easier for a lot of people to warm up to, and baby steps are still steps!
If there was one drawback to Beth’s panel at Midwest it was the length. Even running long, one hour wasn’t enough to even scratch the surface. Just as the awkwardness had broken enough that people were starting to ask real questions and discuss the answers, it was all over. I think an opportunity was lost, and that’s sad.
Does this sound like something you’d like to see at the conferences you attend? If so, please talk to the organizers and let them know! I plan to start asking that more slots be made available for these kinds of sessions both directly and when I submit papers to conferences. Hopefully we’re on to something here.