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Monday, May 18, 2015

Rethinking the Poster Session

Some Anecdotes
Checking out the posters at the
17th International Symposium on Graph Drawing, Chicago, 2009
Image by David Eppstein under CC-BY-SA-3.0

A few weeks ago I heard a disheartened geographer bemoan his poster experience at the AAG annual meeting in Chicago. It sounds like it was a pain to get the poster up on time, be available during the many hours it was to be shown, then take it down. I got the sense the presenter was disappointed there was so little interaction between the poster presenters and attendees.

Two weeks ago I attended the Tufts Ninth Annual GIS Poster Exposition in Medford, Massachusetts. About 150 student and faculty posters were crammed into a space on campus for two hours. Most were traditional foam core poster boards, but a handful were "apps," including at least one story map. The venue was loud and packed with people talking to one another and eating the snacks. The authors did not present, nor stand with, their posters. I overheard a woman, who I identified as a student, note that her poster probably had too much text. You could pick out the student posters; they had the misspellings and cartographic "room for improvement" you'd expect of first time and less experienced mappers. Toward the end of the event, organizers recognized several posters for recognition.

Why Poster Sessions?

I understand the reason to organize poster sessions. They offer students and researchers a low key option for sharing their work. Most people find putting together a poster less stressful than a formal paper presentation. Other educational institutions are following what Tufts is doing. Maui College students participated in a GIS showcase, to share work with employers, potential internship providers, prospective students and the community.

I've attended other poster sessions at academic, state GIS, and professional organization events. I confess that I found most of these sessions rather dull. The posters followed a familiar academic paper structure: research question, data collection, analysis and conclusions. They included lots of text, as the student from Tufts' poster did. Why? I suspect the creators took their school projects or  academic papers and tried to squeeze them onto the poster board.

I think the lack of energy I felt at these events came from visitors to the session feeling obligated to read all the text before interacting with the presenter. All that reading was simply exhausting! And, most of it was done standing up with a drink in hand!

Too Much Content?

I've never presented a poster as a professional, but I do recall one from my elementary school days. It was for Hebrew School. I don't recall the exact assignment, but I do recall my poster. It presented a paper cutout of ship with five men on board. Each one was named in block print with a black marker. The title was "The Five Jews that Sailed with Columbus." (Now I see, the thinking is there were six!) I thought my poster was kind of weak and was surprised at the positive response it got. Looking back, I think the visitors, my and my classmates' parents, liked my poster because they learned one single thing from it: there were Jews who came to America with Columbus!

I wonder how many people who visited the AAG poster session or the Tufts event saw a poster with just one or two big ideas. I wonder if, had they read a poster and engaged the author, if they could have articulated a meaningful takeaway. I wonder if too many poster authors, like too many paper presenters, try to cram far too much content into the provided space and time. I wonder if potential attendees (like me) have come to expect just that and opt to stay away or if they do attend, focus on the snacks. (Tufts, by the way, had excellent fruit!)

Some Options

I've heard of, but not attended, poster sessions where the author presents the content to small groups. In one scenario, the groups tour a room visiting with each presenter for an informal few minute presentation and chat. I should think that format would prompt a very different kind of poster, one with far less text (and far more like the Zen presentations)! And, I'm thinking it might encourage more interaction and thus more learning for both presenters and "guests."

I was a judge in a science fair (1985) that worked roughly this way. There was a LOT of learning both from the students, the judges and the other attendees. I'm pleased to note that we straightened out the fourth grader who was still confusing meters and feet.

I also think posters are a good place to rethink how academics and other professionals write. Josh Bernoff, most recently of Forrester, did a great post this month illustrating the how and why of clear writing. It was widely read with a good deal of feedback from academics. Their concern? Writing in the clear style suggested would cause students to fail some projects or courses. But, perhaps more importantly,  their articles, and by extension, posters may also fail to communicate their work! What if the measure of success of a poster presentation was having a visitor after viewing the poster for a few (three?) minutes successfully explain what the poster said?