Conversations Over Cardboard: Poster Sessions at AHA18

By Kathryn Tomasek

The poster sessions at the AHA annual meeting have evolved from a small beginning in 2006 to a far more prominent set of four Saturday sessions that will be featured in the Atrium of the Marriott Wardman Park. The visibility of these sessions and their number indicates that historians have embraced the conference poster as a vital form of scholarly communication. I welcome this adaptation as a demonstration of the vitality of our discipline. When we integrate this form into our models of research and teaching, we highlight the role of conversation at the center of our disciplinary practice. 

Of course, all of our professional work entails communication—with and about the sources we find and curate in archives, with students in classrooms, with the general public in libraries and museums and in websites and podcasts, with each other in our online and print publications, and in our conference panels and papers. Many of these forms of scholarly communication, however, often distance us from our audiences and privilege our own voices.

In poster sessions, presenters and audience members speak to one another face-to-face in a conversational format that privileges the interaction. People viewing the poster and listening to presenters have opportunities to ask clarifying questions. And presenters receive immediate feedback about their questions, their methods, and their results.

My own experiences with poster sessions began at digital humanities conferences, where I presented posters focused on using transcription and markup of local primary sources to teach paleography and close reading. Since I needed quite a bit of time to learn how best to use the poster and presentation format, some examples might help readers get the most out of this year’s poster sessions.

Figure 1. Poster from TEI2009, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA.

I presented my first poster at an annual conference of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). The poster and my presentation featured our project’s first efforts at asking students to transcribe 19th-century account books. Inexperienced in the conversational part of presenting a poster, I told the first person who stopped at my poster that its subject was “only teaching.” Of course, I was mortified to have let those words slip out of my mouth. My interlocutor very kindly responded, “That’s what we do,” and waited for me to tell the story of my students and their work. We talked for a few minutes, I got feedback about the small number of references in my bibliography, and I was hooked on posters.

As much as poster sessions are about conversation, the posters themselves are a visual form. They rely on design, visual impact, and text large enough to be read at a distance to draw audience members into conversations. Thus, posters are as much about the significance of nontextual presentation as they are about text. And successful posters work because the content needs the combination of visual form and conversation for best results.

Figure 2. Poster from DH2010, London, United Kingdom.

Some of my first posters featured too many words that were too small to read. They suffered from relying too much on the logic of print technology. When I composed them, I was thinking in article form rather than considering the posters as visual tools to promote scholarly conversation. Thus, the poster I presented at the 2010 international conference sponsored by the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) failed in one way while it succeeded in another. The poster featured too much text that was far too small and virtually impossible to read, even up close. But the presentation included a demonstration of how a dynamic, geo-located, and interactive format could best capture some of the historically relevant elements of a European journey in which three New Englanders combined business and tourism in 1862. The demonstration portion made a poster the most appropriate mode for presenting the work.

Figure 3. Poster from DH2013, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

My most successful poster remains the one that I presented with a co-author at the 2013 ADHO conference. For that poster, my co-author and I abandoned the printed word as expression altogether, opting instead to show images excerpted from an accounting journal and ledger along with images of marked up transcriptions on either side of an example of the code that expressed how the two records described the same transfer of debt for goods on a particular day in the second quarter of the 19th century. The images operated as provocation, drawing viewers to the poster. And my co-author and I had some very useful conversations with those viewers, including a programmer who asked why we didn’t just use Excel spreadsheets. If for no other reason, the poster succeeded because that conversation helped me think about how to explain the advantages of producing a digital edition of the accounting documents over transcription into a digital spreadsheet. My voice was hoarse after that poster session, but I learned a lot from the conversations I had with the colleagues who stopped at our poster.

Figure 4. Poster from AHA2014, Washington, DC., USA.

For the poster that I presented at the AHA annual meeting in 2014, I returned to featuring words. This time, I used fewer words in much larger font so they could be read from across a room. I meant the words to operate as provocation and to spark conversations. The poster suffered, I think, from the absence of any images.

Ideally, poster sessions remind us that we chose our profession because we enjoy exchanging ideas with others. The best posters need to be posters. They feature ideas that require visual representations or computer demonstrations. And they are incomplete without generous interaction between the presenter and the audience. In the best cases, both presenters and audiences leave the sessions with new ideas.

Kathryn Tomasek is professor of history at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. She is a member of the AHA 2018 Program Committee.

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