Poster-first Presentations: The Rise of Poster Sessions on Academic Research

Times have changed. In the early years of my career as an academic, the poster session used to be sort of a second class offer for presenting at an academic conference. That is no longer the case. Newer generations of academics are trained and attuned to creating posters and infographics to explain and communicate their work. In many cases, it seems like the poster and poster sessions are the preferred mode of presentation, such as compared to sitting on a panel or making a traditional presentation of an academic paper, which is often a set of slides that could be incorporated into a poster. 

Courtesy of Forbes.com

Anecdotally, I have seen the rising prominence of poster sessions across a wide range of academic conferences I’ve attended over the years, in communication, political science, computer science, and communication policy, such as TPRC. For example, it is increasingly common for a time slot of a conference to be devoted to poster sessions, and not compete with other presentations. I can also see a leap in the sophistication and visualization quality evident in poster sessions. More software, templates, training, and guidelines are being developed to refine posters in an increasingly competitive field. 

Younger academics are more attuned to the creation of posters, but I am sure they will continue to develop them as they rise in the academic ranks. I think it is more of a cohort issue than a status issue in academia. But think of the added value of poster sessions to the presenters and their audiences.

From the presenter’s perspective, rather than have one shot to stand in front of a large audience to formally present a paper, they can have multiple opportunities to present the same material to smaller groups or even a single individual. All presentations help you refine your ideas and the logic of your argument, so I would think multiple iterations are even more beneficial. And aware presenters can gauge their presentation to the particular interests and questions of the specific audience they have at the moment. It is wonderful when a member of the audience introduces themselves to you after a panel, but you can introduce your self to many more individuals and network in more effective ways in smaller sessions.

From the audience’s perspective, everyone has been in an academic presentation that did not meet one’s expectations. They misunderstood the title, or came for another paper, and were polite enough to listen to others. But in the case of a poster session, audiences stroll through rows of posters and are able to locate particular topics and presentations of genuine interest. Moreover, the opportunity for some serendipity, finding interest in a topic you had not previously considered, is far more likely. Presenters can spend a few or many minutes not only listening but discussing the topic with the audience. It is truly an efficient as well as an effective presentational style. 

Shame on me for not proposing a poster yet in my career. But I am not so blind that I cannot see that the poster has risen as a medium for academic communication and increasingly as a preferred rather than a second choice for leading academics. Universities and research institutes need to support students and faculty who choose this option. 

Here is a nice example of a useful, infographic packed poster via Chris Bode’s Twitter:

Courtesy of Chris Bode

In Praise of Academic Engagement

I am just back from a stimulating symposium at Northwestern University focused on rethinking scholarship on online news, which led me to reflect on the value of such events, and a related seminar series we have an MSU for the Media and Information Department. Of course, the Quello Center that I direct organises many seminars, roundtables and lectures as well. While I appreciate these experiences, their very success leads me to worry about how to sustain a culture of academic engagement in the face of a developing – what should I call it – production culture. We might not fully appreciate and need to continually reinforce the significance of such opportunities for academics to engage each other face to face in constructive debates about issues and research.

Academics continue to enjoy a wonderful work environment, in my opinion, but we sometimes take these opportunities for listening to our colleagues, and discussing issues, theories and methods as just another event on our calendars. Instead, these occasions are an important part of the lifeblood of a university – something that makes the university and its academic units worth their existence. When academics are facing metrics on a number of fronts – publications, citations, outreach, impact, course evaluations, papers delivered and more – it is easy to view the seminar or conference as a distraction from the real work. You can almost hear colleagues thinking: ‘I better stay in at my computer screen and work on my paper / book / review / lecture.’

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The last thing we need is another metric for participation in seminars. That would kill the real payoffs of academic engagement, which are largely tacit learning that stimulates and broadens your own thinking about your research and teaching. The traditional Oxford colleges can bring their fellows together everyday for lunch. A social scientist will be sitting by a physicist or Buddhist scholar, and explaining their work to each other. We don’t have such regular opportunities as most American universities, but we do have the department seminars and related academic events that bring us together to engage with colleagues from different perspectives.

Fight against the academic metrics of the production culture by pushing away from the computer screen to sit down with other colleagues and discuss, critique, support and otherwise engage with their work. The more distant from your own focus, the better to connect with ideas you never imagined to be of value to you and whatever sits waiting for you on the computer screen.

Lisa Nakamura's Lecture
Lisa Nakamura’s Lecture

Thanks to my colleagues for organising the events that provide such opportunities.