Do you typically burn out at conferences? I do.

I remember going to my first large conference as a student. As I entered the convention center and picked up the huge, printed program, I was intimidated. How would I choose sessions? I hustled off, and began an attempt to attend the most relevant session in every time slot based on short titles and not much more. But by the end of the first day I felt like I wasn’t able to listen well anymore. I was treating it like school where I needed to internalize everything that was being presented, but an older student chuckled and pulled out the “it’s like trying to drink from a firehose” metaphor. He then happily left the convention center (midafternoon, no less!) to go for a coffee.

I do know colleagues who pore over programs in advance (mercifully, online instead of in print), and may try to, across their lab, cover the majority of paper sessions that might be relevant. Other colleagues make a point of documenting their experiences in conference reports, giving a sense of having been everywhere and seen everything. Over many years, I’ve realized I have to decide how much conference I can reasonably ingest, and as I’ve gotten older, how much conference my body as well as my mind can handle. Jet lag and burning the candle at both ends (like making all my slides on the airplane!) have proven to be a recipe for at best, exhaustion, and at worst, illness. (Oh that AERA I spent bedridden in a hotel with a sinus infection and strep throat…)

Our waking hours are a finite resource, and we can decide what portion of them to spend at a conference eating, socializing, listening, or participating in other ways (like engaging at a poster or in a workshop). Increasingly over time, there seems to be a trend towards overloading the formal conference schedule with additional duties–ranging from minisessions to meetings. I have found myself more than once forced to choose between food and sessions, or between being late and going to the bathroom, because conference schedules can be so jam-packed. The net result is that people cram their schedules, often counterproductively.

Research on schoolchildren shows us that we do not learn well if we sit, unmoving, too much of our day or too long at a stretch. And, although “hallway conversations” are often cited as the reason an in-person conference may be better than recorded or streamed presentations, conference schedules seem to ignore this. The hallways can be a panicked mass of people trying to get from place to place.

With ISLS 2024, we are trying a different strategy. Our theme of learning as a cornerstone of healing, resilience, and community was inspired not only by the needs of learners we study but also our own needs as scholars in a community impacted by the crises of our world.

What if… we could slow things down?

After years of meditation training, I have learned that slowing things down doesn’t always mean taking up a lot of time for a pause, but it means being mindful through the pauses we take to be present in the moment. It’s hard to have such a pause in a crammed schedule.

We as organizers of ISLS 2024 have taken a number of steps to try to slow things down.

First, we’ve built in some natural pauses. The plenaries are in a beautiful and historic space, Asbury Hall. Every day of the conference, we’ll be migrating as a group between the plenary space and the parallel sessions at the UB Jacobs School of Medicine. This will be an opportunity to pause either alone or collectively and reflect on the keynotes on (weather permitting) a pleasant walk between locations (there will be transportation options for those with mobility limitations). And, community engagement day will provide a welcome change of pace and format in the middle of the annual meeting.

Second, we’ve shortened the typical session time for papers and symposia to 60 minutes, giving more frequent breaks. The entire scheduled formal program (excluding the banquet) will take place between 9am and 6pm. Our total program time matches previous years, but by lengthening the duration of the conference to 5 days and increasing parallelism, we’ve got time for much needed stretch breaks built in.

Third, lunch will be a chance to transition and connect. Buffalo is home to many restaurants–major clusters of which are in two neighborhoods each 10-15 minutes walk from the conference sites. We’re planning extended lunch breaks to allow time to move, and will be working with campus food service to provide onsite options for those who need to be efficient.

Finally, we will be posting ideas for excursions or activities before and after the Annual Meeting. We recognize many people will want to see Niagara Falls before they return home, and others may want to see Buffalo’s main attractions, including the many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, the world class AKG art museum, or the parks designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (New York City’s Central Park is his most famous design, but Buffalo’s park and parkway system are considered his crowning achievement).

Given the low cost of our conference hotels, we hope people will be able to come in with enough time to adjust to their jetlag and get a good night’s sleep before the conference, and both be present for the program and give body and mind time to return home more, not less, energized and rested than before arriving.