In Defense of Poster Sessions

I recently returned from the AEJMC (Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication) conference in Denver. This was my fourth year at AEJ, and I have to say it is always a great time, academically and socially. But I don’t want to babble on and on about the conference itself. I do want to write about why I love poster sessions (also known as “Scholar-to-Scholar” sessions).

If you don’t know what a poster session is, here’s the deal. Some big academic conferences offer panel presentations and poster sessions. At the panel presentations, you get 3-5 people who each give a 10-15 minute formal presentation of their research. After this, there is sometimes a discussant who offers feedback and tries to tie all the presentations together. Finally there’s a question and answer session that fills up the rest of the time. During poster sessions, a bunch of presenters are put in one room and each are given a 6’x4′ space to visually present their research. Some print out PowerPoint slides, some design elaborate posters, and a few tack up abstracts and hope their magnetic personalities will attract people to their research. Attendees walk up and down rows of these poster areas, checking out what’s there and stopping to talk to the authors of research they find interesting.

Now, the thing is that poster sessions have a stigma to them. Some think posters sessions are dumping grounds for B-list research. The good stuff gets put on panels, the OK stuff is scheduled for poster sessions, and the not-so-good stuff is rejected. I’ve bought into the myth. When I received the email accepting my co-authored paper (with Melissa Tully) for AEJMC (yay!) that added we were scheduled for a poster session (boo!), I wondered what was so good about those other papers that they got scheduled for panels, while we were stuck with the hoi poloi in poster land.

But then I remembered something. I like poster sessions. In fact, with every passing year, I think I like them more than panel presentations. Not only as a presenter, but as a conference attendee. Let’s look at it from both sides…

As a presenter. Sure, when you are standing next to your poster, there are some awkward moments when someone is looking at your poster and you’re not sure whether to engage with them or let them look in peace and quiet. But, you also get plenty of time to talk to those people who are actually interested in learning more about your research. Those conversations are more personalized and the feedback is more helpful because you can actually participate in a dialogue with someone who is interested in your work.

In addition to the attendees who stopped by our poster this year, our paper was assigned to two discussants. Both discussants took that responsibility very seriously. One brought a marked-up copy of our paper and an additional sheet full of comments. He sat down with us and walked us through a very thorough and helpful review of our paper. The other discussant was less formal, but was also very insightful. He stopped by and chatted with us for a long time, suggesting some research to look at and some academics to partner with in the future. He was also very encouraging of the type of research we were working on. I’ve never received that kind of feedback from a panel discussion before. One year I presented a paper at the National Communication Association conference to an audience of one. Turns out that one audience member was the discussant’s partner and couldn’t care less about any of our papers. I haven’t touched that paper since.

As a participant. On more than one occasion, I’ve attended panels just to hear one paper. And when that paper has been a dud, I’ve walked out of those panels knowing I’ve just wasted an hour and half. That’s not the case with poster sessions. There, you can walk straight to the poster you want to see and stay for as long as you want. If it turns out to be a dud, then wander around until you find a winner. If it’s something you’re really interested in, stay and chat for a while. In most cases, the presenter is happy to have a quality conversation with someone who actually cares about their research.

This year, I had a few preliminary interviews that were scheduled throughout the conference. This meant I couldn’t easily attend many panels because I would have had to come in late or leave early. Instead, I went to most of the poster sessions. And it was great. I showed up when I was free, and I targeted specific people and papers. And I had some great conversations with new and seasoned scholars alike. I even happened upon a handful of great posters that I hadn’t noticed in the program. I find serendipitous moments like that are more likely to occur during the poster sessions.

One more thing. The poster stigma isn’t warranted. There is no quality difference between papers scheduled for panels and those scheduled for poster sessions. I’ve seen top notch researchers and award-winning papers at poster sessions. And I’ve seen duds at panels. It basically has to do with scheduling necessities due to time and space restrictions.

So if you get scheduled for a poster session, don’t fret. I think you’re actually quite fortunate.

Well, unless you have to find a way to carry your poster tube on the plane. Ask this guy.

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