Five Signs You're At an Academic Conference

Last week we had the pleasure and the privilege of attending the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ visualization conference, VISWEEK 2014. More than 1,000 researchers, academics, and practitioners in the field of data visualization came together for six days of tutorials, workshops, paper sessions, and collegial exchanges of ideas.

While all conferences have some similarities with one another, VISWEEK 2014, in many respects, was decidedly different from those that we in the corporate world normally attend. We realized quickly that this was a function of it being rooted solidly in the academic realm, rather than the commercial one.

Here now are five telltale signs that you are at an academic conference:

  1. The coffee break is sponsored by... no one.
    No branded to-go cups? No banners proclaiming, “ThisRandomCorp Presents: The Caffeine Zone”?  Nope. It's just a coffee break. Go talk to your fellow conferees and enjoy the hot beverages blissfully free from marketing pitches.

  2. It’s actually hard to find the booths where the corporate partners are set up.
    Every conference has at least a few corporate sponsors. However, at VISWEEK 2014, the sponsor area would comfortably have fit within half of a middle school gymnasium, and was located off to the side of the main session rooms. In fact, space for the actual talks and presentations was much larger in size than the sponsor area. Compare this to most corporate-focused events, where floor space taken up by booths is roughly the size of an aircraft carrier.

  3. No need to worry about hiding your badge so that vendors can’t scan it and use your data for future sales calls.
    At an academic conference like this one, nobody scans the code on your badge, because there IS no code on your badge. Just a name and an institute of affiliation. Just like in the old days, your badge facilitates in-person introductions, not future monetization potential.

  4. There are people walking around whose badges have both speaker AND volunteer ribbons.
    This particular multiplicity of responsibilities held by a single person--a not uncommon combination at VISWEEK, actually--is a sure giveaway that the collective attitude is to help one another and to learn from one another, a kind of “we’re all in this together”-ness that means that person presenting groundbreaking research in the morning might be scrambling to find a colleague spare microphone batteries in the afternoon. It feels light-years away from the ever-present nervous energy at commercial conferences; that uneasy sense that we’re all playing a zero-sum game, and one presenter’s success just means that there’s one more competitor you have to contend with.
    (Or, it could just mean that even groundbreaking researchers don’t always have the budget to travel to conferences without offsetting the cost by volunteering to help out while they’re attending.)

  5. Roget would beam with pride.
    There is an unusually high incidence of words and phrases like “dispositive,” “p-values,” “gestalt,” “spatiotemporal,” and “high-dimensional multi-variant network links.” Lest we forget, this is a conference not just for academics, but for groundbreaking, high-level academics. Not only are the speakers possessed of a technical, precise, and high-level vocabulary, the audience is as well, and there’s a casual, mutual expectation of excellence among them. Rather than display concern that the ideas aren’t coming across clearly, speakers seem confident, or even pleased, that they are able to communicate so effectively with their peers, using the full extent of their shared lexicon. It’s a welcome respite from the endless buzzword assault that characterizes so many commercial events.

Kristen Jones is on Twitter at @joneskb.