On Conferencing

I just got back from IIQM‘s Qualitative Health Research in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This was, by far, the most enjoyable and interesting conference that I have ever attended. Normally I feel lucky if I pick up an idea or two, have an interesting conversation, and spend most of my time sight-seeing. I am always ready for the conference to be over before it has concluded. This was the first conference where I didn’t want to take time off in the middle of the day to explore the city. And since this was a city I really wanted to explore, that was a bit problematic.

So what was so great about this conference? A small part of the answer is in the logistics. It had an excellent set-up. The conference provided (real) breakfast and lunch. This meant that participants sat together and got to know one another twice a day. The concurrent sessions included 4 thirty minute presentations (20 minutes of talk followed by 10 minutes of Q&A) and session leaders did a great job of sticking to the schedule. However, they also included 5-minute breaks between the presentations. They acknowledged that the audience was likely to want to switch rooms within a session and allowed that to happen in a meaningful and respectful manner. It was also really nice to have 20 minutes of talk and 10 minutes of discussion. In many public health conferences, you end up with 12 minutes to present and 3 minutes of Q&A. This is not conducive to any kind of real exchange.

Another piece I really liked was the variety of disciplines and countries represented. Nursing was the most represented field but there were many allied health fields  (physical therapy, occupational therapy etc.). I also met several other public health researchers. And then there were non-health disciplines, like political science, who came with important contributions for health research. While most of the participants were Canadian (and they came from all over Canada), I met a lot of Australians and New Zealanders as well as researchers from the UK, Japan, and Ecuador. I believe Norway was represented as well. I met others from the US, including a brand new faculty member at my own university.

Having methodology as the common factor instead of a shared content area or discipline made it very interesting. And yet it wasn’t all methodology talk. Since all of our work fell under the umbrella of health, there were opportunities to talk about health issues from multiple perspectives. There were many ways “in” to the discussion.

As a classic introvert, talking to people at conferences is not my strong suit. At most conferences, I dart in and dart out of events to allow for a lot of “me” time. If I travel with colleagues, I spend most of my time with those colleagues. I knew I wanted a different experience this time. I signed up for the “dreaded” networking event when I registered (although I was excited that it was on a tall ship) and I decided to attend a day of pre-conference workshops. The topics (grant-writing and publishing) seemed perfect opportunities to help me restart my own research as I anticipate stepping down from Chair next year. But I also figured it would ease me into a more interactive experience using a structured environment. [Both objectives were accomplished.] Finally, I held one of our faculty development sessions around preparing for conferences (since it is conference season for all of us). We read some of Raewyn Connell’s blog posts on surviving and thriving at conferences and talked about how to be mindful about what you want to get out of the experience.

So yes, I met and talked to people for 5 days straight. More importantly, I enjoyed myself doing this. The networking event, in particular, was a blast! I met people I want to follow up with and I left with pages of notes filled with ideas of work I want to develop. While the structure of the conference and my preparation helped make this happen, I think it also happened because I was surrounded by qualitative researchers.  My training in developmental psychology taught me that we become what we do. As qualitative researchers, we spend most of our time listening and observing. We encourage people to tell their stories. We engage in dialogue to make meaning. This makes for good and easy conversation.

Next year the conference is in Vancouver. I think I’ll have to plan a few post-conference days so I actually get to see the city.

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