The Academic Sessions
Okay, since there seems to be a consensus that the academic sessions were
uneven in quality, and (judging from past reports in Hali) this isn't a new
phenomenon, what can be done about this?
I don't know enough about the process to understand if there simply aren't enough people submitting papers for review, which leads to taking on too many presentations of lesser quality; or if the initial papers are good but the presentation doesn't live up to the billing, or what.
John, Wendell, et al, can you address this? What is the process, and what criteria are used to for the academic presenters and their presentations?
The "Academic Program"
Among ICOC's perennial low points for most people is the so-called Academic Program - the lectures and poster presentations. The Poster presentations hit a new low this time, most of them just consisting of typed pages pinned to the wall, plus a few photos. Few even had headlines. A poster isn't a newsletter, it's something that can be read from a distance.
The talks are a persistent problem. It isn't hard to figure out why: there are many more people who would like to speak than there are who have something to say that amounts to what might loosely be called academic content. The speakers get one free night in the hotel, a waiver of the registration fee, and, if they are coming any distance, some help with travel expenses. A package worth anywhere from $600 to $1000+. This is a nice incentive to be a speaker.
The original intent of ICOC's organizers (ten ICOCs ago) was to attempt to bring some serious scholarship to bear on the subject of oriental textiles. Great idea, and the Academic Program was its manifestation. But there are very few serious scholars involved in this field, and the number of amateurs who produce original contributions during any three year period is pretty small. I think ICOC would do better to limit itself to no more than one-half the number of speakers they now put on the program; I think one-fourth to one-third would be about right.
The other problem with the talks (the first one being weak content) is the fact that many of the speakers are barely intelligible in spoken English. This isn't a condemnation, of course, it's remarkable that so many can handle it at all. But it does suggest that the organizers might encourage those for whom English is not a native language to offer a written version of their presentation and let someone read it for them. I don't know any graceful way to force this, but it would surely benefit the listeners and, ultimately, the speakers.
I posted something on this yesterday, but it must've been lost in the ether. My question had to do with asking for more information regarding the selection process for the speakers - I'm wondering if the committee just took all comers, or what criteria they used to select whom they did. Anyone know?
The people who would like to present talks or posters submit abstracts to an ICOC committee that evaluates and then selects or rejects. I don't know what percentage they accept. We must also realize that evaluating the content of a talk from an abstract can be difficult, since there are instances of people submitting abstracts that sound very exciting while the talks have little substance.
I share your views on many of the perennial problems of the ICOC Academic Sessions. Perhaps you would be willing to serve on one of our committees in order to resolve some of them. Some solutions are apparent, but implementing some of them has not proven to be so easy.
To begin with, the ICOC’s mission of trying to present academic papers at the conference has always been frustrated by the fact that the world of oriental carpets and textiles has few true scholars, field workers or researchers.
A second problem (not necessarily peculiar to ICOC) is the delivery of the paper. Some speakers, however knowledgeable, simply do not read their papers well.
Fluency is English is a separate aspect of the delivery issue. We have tried to encourage scholarship within the rug producing countries by subsidizing speakers who cannot afford travel outside their often poor countries. We then hear admittedly legitimate complaints that these speakers do not have sufficient command of English in order to be understood or that scholarship is those countries is below the standards of Europe or North America. The prevailing view of the Academic Committee was that we might insult the speakers if we asked that someone read their papers for them. I disagreed with that view, but we had no readers.
We have an Academic Committee that reviews abstracts of proposed papers. Not all submissions are (or were at ICOC-X) accepted, but it is very difficult to predict whether an acceptable abstract will yield an acceptable paper or the delivery thereof.
Some complain that they only see familiar faces and hear familiar voices, so we try to open the sessions to fresh presenters, with the risk that those who are new to the field may not have the experience or knowledge to make significant contributions, despite our positive expectations from the abstracts.
We have always published the proceedings of the academic sessions and, I believe, have contributed substantially to the corpus of knowledge in the rug world through our Oriental Carpet and Textile Studies. Not all of the papers presented at the conference are judged worthy of publication.
I was personally very disappointed in the Poster Sessions. There were too few (some had been converted to speakers shortly before the conference) and of those only one was of real interest. One poster wasn’t even put up until around 2:00 on Saturday. The posters in Italy were quite good. By the way, it isn’t really necessary that they be seen from a distance.
Long ago, I resolved not to allow the repetition of some of the mistakes that, in my opinion, plagued prior Academic Sessions in the ways discussed above. I wanted fewer presentations, but of superior content and delivery. Unusual circumstances arose for the Academic Committee, which operates autonomously from the local organizing committee that I chaired. Not to diminish the hard work that the substitute Academic Committee Chair, Tom Farnham, and his committee put in, but ICOC-X did not realize the reforms I envisioned for the Academic Sessions.
That being said, there were some excellent papers and I believe that they, once edited for publication, will again make another substantial contribution to our rug community. One problem is that we often remember these Academic Sessions much as we remember some rug collections: not for the best, but for the worst.
I hope I didn't come across as being critical of the organizers or of the committee that selects the papers. I've been involved in such things professionally for long enough to truly appreciate the difficulties.
There are several overlapping issues.
1. One is the difficulty of evaluating proposed presentations from the standpoint of content. It would be better if the committee could evaluate fully developed papers instead of abstracts, although this puts some strain on the reviewers and on the prospective authors. Abstracts often present a statement of the issues being addressed, some generalities about the evidence, and the conclusions the author draws from it. Unfortunately, many authors draw conclusions that are clearly unwarranted from the evidence at hand, but present the evidence in such a sketchy form in the abstract that the committee doing the evaluation can't tell. One that comes to mind is an author who, a few years back, claimed to have proved a correlation between some characteristic and the age of rugs of a particular genre. It made a great looking abstract. When he presented the paper it turned out that his database consisted of only two rugs, not significantly different in age. The evidence proved absolutely nothing.
2. Another problem - probably unresolvable - is that not everyone comes to the conference with the same objectives as those ICOC generated for itself. ICOC was formed with an goal of developing a venue for serious scholarly research (not its only objective, but a major one). As we've both noted in this thread, that's not a plentiful commodity. But, to complicate matters more, many of the attendees aren't especially interested in the kind of focus upon detail that serious scholarship almost always entails. Most collectors want to see beautiful rugs and hear about how they fit into the culture of the people who made them, but don't much care about fine points.
3. The language problem is common to every professional society in which I've participated. None has solved it. I doubt that ICOC can, either. It's a gripe we'll all have to live with.
4. Poster sessions, in my opinion, should be visible and, for the most part, legible, from some distance. Nobody should have to get within 18 inches of the "poster" to find out whether he even cares about the subject. If it is to be done on normal 8 x 11 paper, with 12 point type, it might as well be printed in bulk and handed out.
I did not take your comments as criticism of the work of the committee. There were observations that I share to a very large extent.
In your last post, you said: “It would be better if the committee could evaluate fully developed papers instead of abstracts, although this puts some strain on the reviewers and on the prospective authors.”
We have discussed that concept, but quickly concluded that it just wouldn’t happen – not in this field. “Some strain” is an understatement.
Also you said: “Most collectors want to see beautiful rugs and hear about how they fit into the culture of the people who made them, but don't much care about fine points.”
We presented, as you have pointed out elsewhere, lots of beautiful rugs in nine exhibitions plus what could be see and handled at the Carpet Fair. Hali has observed on its site: “Indeed the quality of the rugs and textiles seen at the fair, in the special exhibitions and at the museums was such that most attendees were totally rugged-out and visually exhausted by the end of the conference.”
The level of presentations is always subject to debate. The “fine points” can be boring to one person and fascinating to another. It is impossible to deliver papers at a level that suits all registrants.
I wasn’t able to attend many sessions, but I was in some simply because I had to be attentive to what was happening throughout the conference. I did manage to hear Jon Thompson’s excellent paper on lappets. (Do I recall seeing you there?) To me, this was the perfect ICOC paper: focused, concise, well-delivered and illuminating. Some might consider the origin of lappets on yastiks to be too esoteric, but I believe that the paper fulfills one of our missions: to encourage the interdisciplinary exchange of knowledge and ideas about Oriental carpets by scholars, collectors, dealers, and others of different interests, backgrounds and countries.
Arranging exhibitions is another ICOC mission and, in their own way, they can be equally educational. My goal for ICOC-X was to present focused exhibitions that would be both visually attractive and informative.
Some people look forward to the Academic Sessions with as much enthusiasm as they do the exhibitions. I hope that we can reduce the number of low points in the Academic Sessions for the next conference. Nevertheless, I feel confident that OCTS-VII will contain a great deal of valuable information.
While there is probably little that can be done about the contents of the
papers and the quality of the oral delivery, there is another aspect of the
presentations that I feel can, in many cases, be vastly improved. I am referring
to the visuals. Too often a speaker (both at ICOC and elsewhere) will put up a
slide of a rug and then proceed to talk about minute details, such as the
interiors of the guls or some small ornaments, that are quite invisible to the
viewers in the auditorium. Speakers must be made aware of the fact that they are
not communicating the points they are trying to make unless they ahow close-ups
of the details that they are discussing.
The advent of Power-Point presantations has made it easier to tailor the visuals to better illustrate the points that are being made. But some speakers go overboard: tempted by the technology they create visuals that have too mauch complexity: multiple images jump onto the screen with arrows that spring to life, all very dazzling but making it difficult for the audience to grasp the point in the few seconds that the image is up. Here speakers should be enjoined to "keep it simple."
As they say, "a picture is worth a thousand words." A good set of visuals can make up for many deficiencies in the oral presentation, be they due to language problems or other causes.
I hope that members of future Program Committees are reading this append.
Asking for full manuscripts rather than abstracts has a number of advantages. One is that it forces the prospective presenter to really think through what he has to offer. Of course, he has a much earlier deadline for doing so than he would in the present system.
It needn't be terribly burdensome on the committee that makes the selections. There are two basic mechanisms used by academics for this sort of thing.
1. One is to send each paper out to two fairly knowledgable reviewers for comment, with the committee making their decisions based on reviews rather than on their own reading of the papers. The biggest chore here is identifying appropriate reviewers. Traditionally, the reviewers remain anonymous, although I personally have objected to that for years. My own practice is to sign my reviews and to inform the authors that I did write a review (and I identify which one). This forces me to be reasonably constructive in my criticisms. Besides, I don't see any reason why a professional person giving a professional opinion should be unwilling to reveal his identity.
2. The other is for the committee to assign each paper to two of its members for detailed review, then listen to the comments from those two, add their own, then vote on a priority score.
Steve's point on keeping presentations simple and therefore understandable,
is very important. The best papers - Dr. T's, yes, but also Juerg Rageth's on
C14 dating of dragon and phoenix fragments, were based on simple theses, read
slooowly and clearly, and the important points were repeated. It would be
helpful to run all speakers through a mini public speaking seminar - not as hard
or costly as one might imagine.
The draw on the (Islamic rug and textile) speaker pool is a strain. There are three competing conferences in the US, plus more in Europe, plus, the same people speak to rug clubs. Speakers just wear out, run out of things to say. That's why I welcomed the "Cedar Chest" concept at the last ACOR, which gave speakers good audience feedback. Often, feedback is what makes speakers give presentations in the first place. Getting your way paid is by far not the prime motivator.
How to get speakers to separate the knowable from the unknowable continues to be a problem, and always has been. What to do? Emphasize taxonomy, anthropology, art history. Sometimes, that's pretty dull work...
The notion of a mini-public speaking seminar might be worth pursuing. We give the graduate students in my department a one credit course in how to give a talk. Nobody who's heard me speak will believe this, but I'm the instructor. I hand out a brief set of how-to-do-it, then the students each give a talk that gets critiqued. We then have a second round of talks that I grade.
I don't think it would be practical to have prospective ACOR or ICOC speakers actually take such a course, but I'd be happy to make my how-to-do-it available for anyone who wants to use it. It 's less than one full typewritten page.
Dear folks -
I was an instructional designer for a few years, and so can often spot a learning need when I see one, but the notion that we might get speakers at a conference such as ICOC X to hold still for being "trained" in how to give a presentation is utopian.
In fact, it is difficult to get many of them to take advantage of the practice facilities that are provided at some expense.
Folks who populate academic committees and the speakers themselves are so preoccupied with "subject matter" and (often) personal dignity, that issues of whether their images can be seen or whether the presenatations can be heard understandably, or whether speakers are running past their allotted times, pale into insigificance.
One of the most visible learning needs in most organizations is how to conduct and to participate in a meeting. Most meetings are abysmal, and everyone recognizes that, and many dread attending most of them, but those holding a given meeting (and this includes most of the dreaders) experience no personal sense of need. Everyone feels perfectly confident that they know perfectly well how to conduct a meeting despite the overwhelming experiential evidence to the contrary.
So with the academic sessions. It will be very difficult to get purchase on this problem because the presenters experience very little sense of need.
R. John Howe
Harry Bellafonte got it about right when he said "Don't turn your back on the audience (Mon), or they'll trample you to death."
If the organization has more talks than it needs, is subsidizing the costs of
all speakers, and is not happy with quality, then:
1) Drop the general subsidy and invite academic or museum people with the money as targeted funding. For example, scholars of islamic art could discuss design that transfer across carpets, architecture, books, etc. It might be better to trade off some degree of rug specialization for some new ideas, professionalism, and greater depth. In a world where scholars are always applying for things, funded invitations are hard to refuse. The committee could identify a short list of interesting researchers who would be new to the conference.
2) Ask for more than a short abstract. If a potential speaker can't be bothered to show the reviewers what they'd get at the conference, do you want them?
3) Don't double the talks up in sessions (this dilutes the focus and puts speaker 2 at the mercy of speaker 1's use/non-use of a watch or clock).
4) Have fewer talks, each in a slightly longer format.
Your suggestion about funding only invited speakers is pretty much what most academic professional societies do. Others submit proposed papers and come to the meetings on whatever money they can muster.
More Time! And Other Thoughts
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Bob, I didn't object to coupling talks, as it frequently led to some interesting juxtapositions of ideas - for example, I felt that Carol Bier's talk and my own were an excellent fit. However, the time limitation was severe, particularly for people who had a lot to say, and by the end of the day on Saturday Tom Cole was literally racing through his beautifully illustrated paper. I myself ran over despite having spent much of the night before reading out loud to Marla in our room, tearing out my hair and relentlessly chopping literally pages from my manuscript. Even so the length of my presentation prevented questions and discussion, which would have been welcome I think, and would have helped illuminate some of the ideas presented.
Some of the speakers might have done better in a smaller, cozier format - a number of the ideas presented didn't really require the use of a large double-screen set-up - and they could have been more interesting in a less formal setting. Technical problems could have been entirely eliminated by a bit of pre-flight testing; as it was, difficulties with equipment presented severe obstacles to a number of speakers.
Also, it was a shame to have competing lectures - I missed quite a few because I don't have a clone, unfortunately! Unavoidable, perhaps, and hopefully we'll all be able to catch up when the publication comes out.
Next time, maybe some speakers could have smaller, less formal rooms, more of a seminar setting, whereas others could have more time?
Thanks to all who made this event possible!