Thoughts on a Conference

Yesterday was Minnesota Atheists’ regional conference, the first conference our group has run on its own. (Though American Atheists provided some sponsorship for this conference, they did not get involved in the planning as they did last year.) Friday night was the Mr. Paul Aints game. Although I can’t yet say how they did financially, because we worked hard to keep prices down, I hereby declare both big successes as events.

Some thoughts from the two days:

  • When there’s shit going down on your blog network, it is really, really nice to have a reason to spend some time in the same place together. Doubly so when you can chat informally about everything you know is going on behind the scenes. The same goes for seeing other people who are also thoroughly involved in the movement and care about the outcome of this.
  • It is possible to get diverse audiences for your conference. Our attendance was so close to 50% female that I can’t tell you until we run the numbers whether men or women were in the majority in our audience. We had excellent attendance from people under age 40, including a few SSA group leaders, and still had plenty of the older attendees who dominated at last year’s AA regional conference. We need to do better with people of color, as a whole, not just at this event. We had a much smaller percentage of people of color in the audience than we did at the podium. Minnesota is relatively white, but the Twin Cities isn’t so much. We can do better than we’re doing.
  • Things we were complimented on: People liked the diversity of topics that we brought in by having eight workshops led by people who don’t normally speak at our conferences. With four tracks of two time slots each, people were able to choose what they wanted to see. Having to move everyone out of the rooms to reset for meals, and having a number of shorter breaks pushed people away from sitting in one spot for the entire conference. There was a lot of mingling and getting to know other atheists.
  • Things I received negative feedback on: A few of the workshops were mini-lectures more than they were participatory experiences. That may have been my fault, because I didn’t make it clear to everyone recruiting workshop speakers what the parameters for a workshop should be. That’s fixable if we do another conference. We didn’t always make it clear that questions should be questions, so they weren’t always. The chicken was slightly overcooked.
  • Groups want to put on more of these events. For FtBCon II, we should have another panel on conference organizing focusing on non-student groups. We should also have SkepTech’s Chelsea Du Fresne talk about using social media during your conference.
  • Harassment policies are still a big deal, even with people who don’t spend that much time online. On one side, I was recruited for a best-practices sort of project. On the other, one of the questions asked during Q&A yesterday was really, “Why are focusing on this and making it a big deal? I don’t want to say it’s not, but I don’t have the background for this.” We need to find ways to put years of history into context for people who don’t know or care about the ins and outs. I’m hoping I did that well answering the question. There will be video eventually, so people can tell me whether I did.
  • I managed to run a panel on accommodation versus confrontation that people weren’t completely bored attending, but mostly by saying up front that I was a bit bored with the topic, so we were going to dump the false dichotomy and talk tactics. Nobody tells better Dave Silverman jokes than Amanda Knief, except maybe Dave Silverman. I consider the day won because I got PZ to admit to circumstances under which he will adopt an accommodationist approach. It’ll be on the video.
  • This is an uncomfortable time to hear people say that they’re fans. Being unable to avoid the flaws in people who have been held up as heroes, watching as people twist their own thinking around to allow those people to remain heroes–it makes me want to flinch away from that sort of thing. I don’t, because this isn’t the fault of people who read or listen and enjoy my work and want to offer support. They’re the folks supporting me as I do what I can to see these problems get fixed. But it’s still uncomfortable.
  • After talking to people who do know what’s going on and who are thinking about ways to avoid the corruption that’s facilitated it, I’m really happy to have a good local group with a good membership base. I’m really happy we have institutions like Skepticon and SkepTech. I really, really like organizations that aren’t dependent on a few large donors to do what they do. We need to figure out how to scale that up, because we do need representation at the national level.
  • I love these things, but I need a nap.
Thoughts on a Conference
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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on a Conference

  1. 2

    Thanks for the report, I would have liked to have been there being a fallen away Minnesotan.

    Your mention of the “hero” problem reminds of the work that remains to be done. It seems we can let go of gods and many other ‘authorities’ but still indulge whatever it is in us that wants heroes. Are our famous atheists substitutes because we can’t allow ourselves gods? That seems too simple and it doesn’t account for the fact that heroes are all over the place, sports, film, politics etc. Does evolutionary psychology have anything to say? Are we determined to pedestalize people? I haven’t been around here long enough to know if this is a question of interest among the secular. I can think of it as something that we do TO people, a disservice to them, treating them as something they are not, while appearing to look up to them. I would be interested in what some well-known ‘heroes’ think about being treated in this way. Has there ever been a panel on this subject?

  2. 3

    I wish I had been able to make the conference this year, I will make it a priority next year. I am glad that I got at least a little time after the day ended to chat with some of the attendees, especially some who I rarely see anymore. Like, well, like you!

  3. 4

    “Being unable to avoid the flaws in people who have been held up as heroes, watching as people twist their own thinking around to allow those people to remain heroes–it makes me want to flinch away from that sort of thing.”

    It’s one thing to be admired, and something completely different to consider oneself an infallible oracle. I’m almost prepared to argue they’re not even on the same spectrum (as Greta recently observed that having a clinical anxiety disorder or depression isn’t on the same spectrum as being nervous or sad). Can you prevent people blindly following or rationalizing a leader’s bad behavior? I think you can make it harder for people to do that, and easier for them to think for themselves. What if the leader periodically turns around and yells “Stop following me!”?

  4. 7

    Thanks for the plug, Stephanie! Skeptech is the first weekend in April, and we’ll be better than ever! As an aside, I would love to participate in FTBCon2. The lackluster use of a conference hashtag irks me enough for a full talk, easily.

  5. 8

    Dan Alloso: You ever watch Life of Brian?

    More seriously, there’s a known cognitive dissonance effect at work there. We are at our most skeptical when dealing with an unknown. Once we’ve made a concrete decision (even one as vague as “I like/dislike [X].”), then we will retroactively cease to consider the opposing evidence–even if new evidence refuting our initial decision comes along.

    The only real way out of this is to periodically do a re-evaluation of your own tastes. I did this several years ago, when I first really started moving from “vaguely leftist sympathies” to “trying my hardest to be a decent ally”. It was easy to change my politics; it was shockingly more difficult to change my tastes. Deciding, for instance, that Family Guy, Robot Chicken and South Park really were beyond what I was willing to laugh at was almost painful. It’s one thing to just smugly declare “I matured,” it’s another thing to look back at me-15-years-ago and say, “Wow. I was a pretty lousy human being at times, just for liking that–that shit’s as offensive as Amos & Andy, maybe worse.”

  6. 9

    White Guy here. This thought just popped into my head (take it for what it’s worth from someone who doesn’t know jack about marketing) that if you’re concerned about getting more people of color in the audience, then I wonder if tying the conference in with a baseball game is the best idea. I really hate to be stereotyping here or sounding racist, but baseball seems to be a bit of a “white” sport in my mind. (By which all I’m really trying to say is I suspect the fan base of the sport is disproportionately white.) I’m wondering if it would be a better idea to tie an event in with perhaps a basketball game instead. (Likewise, on the suspicion that it has a more diverse fan base.)
    I guess what I’m really getting at is if you want more persons of color, go to the events that interest them; don’t expect them to go to events that interest you.

  7. 10

    I think the skin tone diversity will gradually increase once the con gets a reputation as a safe and inviting place, that make take a few years though. Identifying community leaders will be key, if you can get a few to attend next year and they judge the con to be worthwhile in regards to quality, attitude and acceptance, the following year you can count on seeing a much larger crowd. I am glad to hear everything went well and I wish you great success for next year.

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