I spent 3 days last week at Med Soc 2011, the annual conference of the medical sociology group within the British Sociological Association. Before moving on to all the other stuff which fills the life of a DPhil student, I want to take time to reflect on the experience, including both my preparation for the event and the experience of the conference itself.
Med Soc 2011 was not the first conference I have attended. I have attended, and presented at, a number of postgraduate conferences and conferences focusing on learning and technology. In days gone by, I have also attended and presented at professional gatherings and led a fair number of training courses as well as being a OU teacher for over ten years. However, I was very anxious in the lead up to Med Soc. My anxiety had a variety of roots. Firstly, I was concerned about whether my research interests were really a match for the conference – the rational response was that my abstract had been selected for presentation, so it should be OK, but I was unsure how far I identified with medical sociology. Secondly, I was unsure if I would pass muster academically. Although I have a general background in social policy and practice, I do not consider myself a sociologist. Would my cover get blown? Would I understand what people were talking about and would what I had to say be relevant to others? Thirdly, a much more personal concern was about being in a place I didn’t know with people I had not met before. Would I cope with getting about the campus – I have some mobility problems – and would I achieve one of the objectives of attending a conference, networking?
Addressing my third concern first, I need not have worried. The needs I had stated on the conference registration had been noted and catered for making it possible for me to relax. People were friendly and helpful and the organisers had gone the second mile.
Returning to my first two concerns, I over prepared because I was anxious to hit the right note. In the end, I think my presentation was OK, but the earlier versions may well have been equally OK. A major lesson for me was the very wide variety of presentation styles and methodologies evident in the work being presented – everything from very scholarly – and sometimes verging on inaccessible (to me at least) accounts, to story telling with little or no academic references or specialist vocabulary. I also learned that there were people with a wide range of backgrounds present at the conference, presenting on many and various themes. Apart from the presentations in the autism stream, I heard presentations on stem cell research, knee pain and ageing, dyslexia, elder abuse, diabetic teenagers, contraception, midwifery practices, and health care commissioning, to name but a few.
Having attended various training sessions on how to present, I was interested in the different presentation approaches. As might be anticipated, most people used media of some sort – but not all. Most people talked to presentation slides, but some read their papers. Some slides were dense with text while others used images and few words – and I saw one presentation using prezi and cartoon strip dialogues. Among the most impressive were those using mixed media, where the voice of the participants were heard through audio or video clips. But at the end of the day, it was those presentations which told a story and where the presenter gave a personal account of their research that stayed with me.
What have I learned? Firstly, not to worry if my work is going to be acceptable – if it is a reputable conference and my submission has been accepted, then the subject matter is acceptable. Secondly, not to be so worried about meeting expectations in the way I present – it is far more important to communicate something meaningful and memorable than to worry about whether I am being academic enough or whether I have stated my conceptual and theoretical framework – in a 20 minute presentation everything and anything superfluous to the story needs to be filtered out. Thirdly, even if I am hearing a presentation about a subject I know nothing about, I can learn as much from how the subject matter is presented as from what has been said. Fourthly, people are genuinely interested in a wide range of different topics and in different approaches to those topics.
I’ve returned home energised by the experience and on the look out for another conference or two to submit abstracts to and to put into practice what I’ve learned this past week.