House Trained

Back when I used to go to academic conferences, the thing I dreaded most was the “poster session.” It’s hard to even describe the futility and incoherence of this event, seemingly designed to be simultaneously non-communicative and demeaning.

Let’s try, though. You’re a scholar, and you want to report on something you’ve learned. So you put a condensed version of your paper onto a four-foot by three-foot poster. If you’re a lab scientist whose paper might be four pages long in the Journal of Organic Chemistry, you might be able to get nearly the whole thing (including all the citations) onto that poster, using the electronic cut-and-paste equivalent of using a glue stick. If you’re a philosopher or cultural geographer whose paper might run thirty or forty pages, there’s a lot more condensation ahead of you. Go ahead, give it a try.

Once your poster is printed and mounted, take it to a barn and set it up alongside two hundred or five hundred or two thousand others just like it. Put on some nice clothes, and stand next to it for an hour or two, to see if anyone wants to stop and talk about it. It’s like the real-world experience of Tinder, being swiped-left on by identifiable individual humans, over and over and over.

A doctoral student in psychology has developed a different model for poster layout. Rather than trying to cram too much content in 14-pt type onto a single board, Mike Morrison (who has a prior history as a user-experience worker in web development) suggests that we should use an abbreviated version readable from several feet away at walking pace, a design that would invite browsers to stop and actually ask questions if the topic and finding are interesting. He’s created a YouTube video laying out his argument, but he’s also offered a template as a suggestion:

Mike Morrison’s template for scientific posters

The quick-read (QR) code at the bottom allows passers-by to access the full article instantly with their phone.

This is all super-intelligent, elegant, and innovative. So you can imagine the pushback. “People have been very quick to adopt an untested format on the recommendation of a splashy video,” says one commentator, as though the standard version of the research poster has ever really been tested against any meaningful alternatives. You want a test? Here’s the test, the experimental condition to compare against the barn full of control population. (Also, about the splashy video: it’s gotten people to quickly engage with an idea and to take action, which is kind of the goal of, say, a poster session. It worked, and so some people don’t like it.)

When people say “best practices,” they usually mean that they don’t dare try something new. The best practices may in fact be horrid, but at least when someone adopts them, they won’t be uniquely horrid, they’ll just be equally horrid with all their colleagues. And I cringe that my friends in undergraduate research have so fully embraced the archaic poster model as they teach research communication to their young people. Physicist Max Planck once claimed that “Science advances one funeral at a time.” It’s going to advance more slowly than that if we apprentice our young without serious reflection on our current practices. Mentorship can be an active, mutual learning, or it can be mere housetraining, enforcing meaningless norms because they’re familiar and comforting.

There’s so much about higher education that could be different. And whatever’s different will by definition be untested, at least until we test it. How did a community dedicated to the advancement of knowledge come to settle into such predictable and ossified forms? It’s going to take some real bravery to build a new model, a willingness to chop through a forest of no before we can say yes.