Hosting conference sessions

I arrived at this beautiful hotel close to the center of Graz. It has been a while since I attended a conference offline. Not being the most outgoing person, conferences are always quite thrilling to me. Nevertheless, I love to travel, to hold a talk, to meet other people. I got my badge, went straight to the coffee machine, and joined a gentleman at one of the high tables in the lobby. The first offline talk with a stranger at a conference. The usual small talk. The gentleman was an experienced STS Graz conference attendee. He stated that he is always organizing a session which gives him a good reason to come to the conference. This time the same was true for me.

It was the first time I organized a session. When I submitted the session call, I was 1) not sure if it would be accepted, and 2) if I would get any submissions. Luckily both worked out. I am a researcher and thus a curious person. I like to learn from others and see what is going on in the field that I am working in. Thus, organizing a session seemed to be a logical step. For my current work, I attempt to investigate the relationship between human behavior and the energy transition. Both topics are vast. Anyone who works in these two fields knows. For example, on the human behavior side, one may either look at behavior from a strictly psychological perspective leaving out the context, or one may focus more on contextual factors affecting human behavior. Both are not sufficient. I am a systems thinker, and thus I know that the decision of what to include in an analysis is key. It is impossible to include everything. Pertaining to the context one may wonder how the individual is connected to other stakeholders and to existing structures. Understanding the individuum within this contextual field, one may then further wonder if individuals are only subject to the energy transition or if they are initiators of the energy transition. These are the questions I wanted to be discussed in the conference session.

I was quite surprised seeing how many submissions I got. It is hard to judge quality by an abstract, so one has to go by the potential the abstract promises. All submissions were interesting and focused on particular aspects of the above-outlined questions. The first step required from my side was to read the extended abstracts and give feedback. A quite time-consuming process. However, I hope I provided useful feedback to the authors. The next step was to accept or reject. Due to the amount of the abstracts, I first clustered them into sub-themes. I thought I either have a completely mixed session or I have a session focusing on a sub-theme. I went for the latter as this would also help me reject or accept contributions. The rejections were thus not based on a contribution being good or bad (since that is hard to judge by an abstract), rather the decision was based on the session fit. I communicated with the conference organizers on how to proceed since I got three sub-theme clusters and still some that would not fit in any of the sub-themes. I suggested that I was willing to host three sessions if there is enough time and space during the conference. I tried to suggest alternative sessions for the abstracts that I had to reject right away.

At some point, I got the ok for three sessions á 90 minutes. I have to admit, although it was quite time-consuming, I loved it. It brought me back to my time as PhD when I did a lot of project management. I had my excel-lists and my to-do list, and I enjoyed working through them. I assume I was an annoying session host sending out reminders to the researchers to send me the info I needed for the smooth operation of the sessions. I knew who was attending online or offline, who presented, I had their presentations ready, and I knew how much time they had to present and to answer questions (obviously).

Hosting the sessions was a multi-tasking job. Making sure that everything is in place (together with the technical staff), having my excel list, keeping time, being impolite and reminding presenters that time was running up, writing down notes to have questions ready in case the audience was too stunned to ask questions, then switching to the next presentation, handling at least two microphones, the online and the offline situation at the same time,… Afterwards, I understood why most sessions were hosted by two people.

I hope that apart from some technical problems in the beginning the researchers enjoyed being part of my sessions. I am sure there are things I could have improved and done better, but for the first time hosting conference sessions it was a success. I was also happy to see that at least two of the contributions that I had to reject found another session. I was truly happy to see this, as their contributions were good, and it would have been a pity if they would not have gotten the space to present.

For the rest, I tried to interact as much as possible, reply to e-mails and send out e-mails to those who have not yet sent me their PowerPoint, prepare for the next session, work on a new exciting project, attend sessions, have a lot of coffee, get some ice cream and visit the local boulder gym.

These three days were jam-packed, but I would not want to miss a bit of it.   

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