Moderation In All Things

After attending the annual ScienceOnline meetings in North Carolina for many years, this time around, I won’t be going. The primary reason has nothing to do with the upsets in that community of late (oh, yes, I have thoughts, but they’re not for the sharing today). Oh, sure, not seeing the people I’d hoped to see because ongoing problems drove them away—that’s a fine secondary reason. Before and above all that, though, is the fact that I’m mid-PhD. I realized I could no longer justify the time, the stress and, indeed, the carbon footprint of traveling to attend #scio14.

What can one do? I revile air travel more every year. I don’t have time/energy to prepare for the conference beforehand, or to follow up on anything discussed there after. My proposal for the session I was to moderate was, to summarize only slightly, “hey let’s build this website”. Must I travel for that??

I should mention another factor. As indicated, I was to be a session moderator. I had expected to be sharing this load with a colleague also attending the conference. During the registration process, a surprise got sprung on me: one and only one moderator per session. To be honest, this change in policy left a bad taste in my mouth. It seemed like an attempt to reduce the number of “insiders” at the expense of running a good conference—and I doubted it would do much to change the perception that the meeting was full of “insiders”. Indeed, I thought it would be counterproductive: fewer moderators meant fewer opportunities for new joiners to take on responsibilities and become visibly active players. Moreover, when moderator slots were eliminated, who would fail to suspect that the people who had been Of The Body for longer would be the ones to keep their positions?

Other problems come to mind. First, moderating the kinds of sessions which typify ScienceOnline is hard work, and it helps to have a partner to share the neural load. Yes, wisdom is distributed around the room, but coordinating that collection of varied experiences can itself be a two-person job. Second, some topics need a double perspective. As David Dobbs pointed out, a session like “Can’t Writers and Researchers Get Along?” pretty much requires co-moderation. Third, more generally, a second moderator can intervene when the first begins to dominate the conversation. Fourth, sometimes people have to back out. (I feel like I was just recently discussing reasons why this could happen.) When that happens, you don’t want to be stuck without a spare. The remaining moderator can also help with recruiting a replacement.