by Michael A. Smith, Professor of Political Science, Emporia State University

The MPSA’s in-person conference is back!  After being canceled entirely in 2020 and held virtually in 2021, this year’s conference has returned to Chicago’s Palmer House Hilton.  Old haunts like the Parlor, State and Grand Ballrooms, and Red Lacquer Room are one again abuzz with talk of everything from formal modeling, to democracy in transition, to civic engagement in the classroom.  The ubiquitous MPSA nametags are once again being spotted at Miller’s Pub, the Berghoff, and the Corner Cafe.  Yet there are also some clear differences compared to pre-pandemic conferences, and these differences are probably here to stay.  One minor but significant change—a lot fewer paper programs, with most attendees preferring the smartphone app instead.  Beyond that, after two full days of re-opening, what lessons are we learning about the future of the political science conference?

1. Hybridization is here to stay

This year’s conference offers both in-person and virtual attendance options.  Panels utilize unique Zoom links available through the MPSA’s conference website.  Panels in which I have participated have shifted the usual routine slightly, with each speaker sitting at a chair in front of a laptop computer while speaking.  This allows the speaker to be near the microphone and speaker and to adjust the camera accordingly so that those joining via Zoom have the best view and the best audio.  Those showing slide decks such as Powerpoint then have ready access to share the screen with the virtual participants, while the screen shares of those joining remotely are put up on an overhead screen for the in-person attendees to see.

In the panels I have attended, the format works.  The in-person and virtual attendees can (usually) see and hear each other and some good discussions have ensured.  The primary challenges are keeping the people speaking near the microphone, and adjusting the camera to show whoever is speaking to the virtual attendees.  There have also been a few panels which experienced technical difficulties in accessing the Zoom link, but the ones in which I participated did not have this problem.

All of this is to say that the hybrid conference is here to stay.  A variety of different limiting factors are likely to ensure that some would-be participants will not be able to travel to Chicago every year, including cuts to travel funding budgets and competing schedule priorities.  That said, the core of the conference revolves around in-person attendance, and that is unlikely to change.  In the two years since the onset of the pandemic, most of us have learned to master virtual meeting technologies like Zoom and Microsoft Teams.  Many white-collar employers are moving to hybrid work schedules that blend working from home with workplace time.  Two years of experiences with virtual conferencing has shown many of us a way to avoid having to miss work and other events altogether when it becomes impossible to physically travel to the location.  Instead, we just “Zoom in.”  Realistically, this arrangement is probably the future of the MPSA conference as well.  This year’s experiment with hybridization offers opportunities to continue refining the use of technology, making the blending of in-person and virtual attendance as smooth as possible.

2. Posters are out. Lightning Talks are in.

One activity I particularly enjoy at conferences is visiting the poster presentations.  In the past, row upon row of posters presenting thoughtful, challenging research by professors along with graduate and undergraduate students offered a wide array of different topics and approaches, some polished, some diamonds in the rough, and some just rough.  This year, there are only a handful of posters to be seen.  Instead, the areas once reserved for these are abuzz with Lightning Talks– a format debuted here shortly before the pandemic began.  Lightning Talks feature the same type of projects once presented via poster, but instead they are delivered by brief talks in rapid-fire succession, with audience questions and discussions afterwards.  The alcoves where these occur are more open than conference rooms allowing for more coming and going than a panel or roundtable.  Like the other events, Lightning Talks allow for in-person and virtual presentations, which is much more difficult with posters.  I really miss the posters, which allowed for attendees to stroll through at our own pace and spend as much or as little time as we pleased at each alcove, reading the posters and visiting with the presenters.  However, the lightning-talk format appears to be more popular and it is certainly more hybrid-friendly.  In the next few years, we will see if the posters disappear completely or are scaled down to a smaller section in order to make room for more lightening talks.

3. Big names are giving way to working groups

This year marks my 25th anniversary since I began attending the MPSA conference.  Back in the 1990s there was a clear hierarchy in terms of panels.  Panels featuring certain faculty members at prestigious research universities—political science “rock stars” if you will—often filled rooms beyond capacity, with standing room only crowds waiting to listen to wisdom from their favorite political science legends.  People would even get excited to see one of these professors walk by, or get onto an elevator with them.  One time, a friend of mine even got me an autograph from a famous political scientist!   Meanwhile, other panels waned, with few if any in the audience.  Occasionally, a panel featuring no big-name political scientists would have no attendees at all, just the panelists themselves.

Although I haven’t collected any hard data to test this, it seems to me that over the past several years, the MPSA has been shifting toward more of a working-group model, with panel attendees drawn more by the topics being discussed than the presence of big names, and panels and other gatherings functioning like working groups of people collaborating to share ideas.  There are still well-known authors that can draw a crowd when they discuss their latest book or journal article, but the overall atmosphere seems less hierarchical and more collaborative.  Young scholars are less likely to be referenced as “a student of {insert name well-known political scientist here}” and more likely to be referenced by their research topics and those with whom they are collaborating.  Audience sizes at panels seem to be more equal now, too, with fewer packed houses and fewer nearly-empty rooms.

It is great to be back in Chicago.  The annual MPSA conference not only anchors my professional life; it also allows me to see old friends in person and reconnect.  The Palmer House looks as good as ever despite having gone through serious financial challenges during the pandemic.   Like so many things in life, the MPSA conferences must embrace change in order to survive in a new world.   So far, so good.


About the Author

Michael A. Smith is Professor of Political Science and Chair of Social Sciences at Emporia State University.  He has authored or co-authored three books, the most recent of which is co-authored with two Emporia State colleagues, Drs. Bob Grover and Rob Catlett.  It is entitled Low Taxes and Small Government: The Brownback Experiment in Kansas and was released by Lexington in 2019.  He has other academic publications as well, and also writes newspaper columns carried throughout Kansas as part of the Insight Kansas group and blogs for the MPSA. Michael appears occasionally on television and radio in Kansas and western Missouri to discuss state and national politics.  He was an expert witness for the plantiff in the Bednasek v Kobach case, decided together with Fish v Kobach by the federal district court for Kansas in 2018.  Michael teaches courses in American politics, state and local government, and political philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri in 2000. Follow Michael on Twitter