Multidisciplinary fun: when words have different meanings

Speaking of disciplinary differences… I co-organised the panel at WebSci’11. We wanted to talk about locational technologies and their implications for privacy, the law and interation design. The panel, of course, was composed of people from different disciplines: two lawyers (Lilian Edwards and Judith Rauhofer) and two computer scientists (Derek McAudley and myself).

First thing’s first, the panel seemed to go down well — hooray! We received positive feedback and chatter on Twitter seemed happy, particularly with Judith’s presentation.

We ran into an interesting issue, though: having organised the panel months in advance, a mere 24 hours before kicking off I realised that when my co-organiser Lilian said ‘panel’ she meant a rather different beast to what I meant by the same word.

So, in law it turns out that panels don’t really open to the audience: the allocated time is split evenly between the panellists, who each give their piece (presumably responding to one another). By contrast, my understanding of a panel session is that each panellist will speak for a little while — say, five or at most ten minutes — giving their position and pertinent information, before opening to the audience for a general Q&A that will probably take at least half the allocated time.

In the event, of course, we came to a compromise: I think we as panellists spoke our piece for perhaps 40 minutes, before having 10 minutes for questions. For myself, I felt uncomfortable during that because I was concerned that the audience was going to be expecting what I had been expecting — the opportunity to really interact with us. There were a few confused tweets, although as I say, the panel appeared to go down well in general.

All’s well that ends well, then. Still, lesson learned: different disciplines have different vocabularies and assumptions. This is something I have been saying for years, and I still got tripped up by it! I shall take the experience as a gentle reminder about the challenges of working across disciplines.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lilian Edwards on June 30, 2011 at 01:01

    Ha 🙂 just for everyone else’s benefit (as I know I already bored you with it) , not quiiiiite right: law panels do (usually) open to audience but as much smaller percent of total time. Eg at GikII, I typically programme 3 papers for a 75 min slot = 20 mins/speaker plus 15 mins question ; for 4 papers I’d do 90 mins , which gives 10 mins questions, slightly under-ideal but most people can’t sit still/last without coffee longer than 90 mins! One problem therefore was our panel only being given 60 mins!

    I think the reason it matters is law at academic level is mostly about developing an argument or critique not just describing a phenomenon/application/result – so eg, my paper on locational data privacy (which you don’t mention I wasn’t actually there to give, due to illness – apologies again..) described some geolocational web 2.0 sites & their social plusses as well as privacy minuses, introduced what law there is regulating collection/use of personally identifying locational data, and then did a bit of critique on how useless/irrelevant it was and what privacy issues resulted. That’s very much the outline structure of my typical IT law paper and as you can see it’s hard to do in under 20 mins to any useful extent (actually the natural length of my papers seems to be 45 mins left to my own devices.. and I talk FAST!) The amount of background explanation needed also expands if you have an interdisciplinary audience, as I often do : for lawyers you have to explain the tech, for techies you have to explain the law. All this takes time 😦

    Another point is there a much less mandatory tradition in law than CS or websci as far as i can see of producing a full paper in advance (and FWIW no tradition at all of posters – it migt be interesting to try that..). So you have to explain it all in the oral presentation, by and large – even if you do produce full paper in advance, probably no one will have read it yet. Ppt helps speed this up, which is why I am not of the school that hates and abhors ppts 🙂

    There ARE other models developing – eg Privacy Law Scholars Conference I went to in Berkeley pre WebSci demanded full papers in advance, took very few, and gave each paper a full session where a moderator (not the authors!) briefly presented the essence (with no ppt allowed!) and the audience, having been strictly warned to read full papers in advance, then took the rest of 90 mins up with debate. This was brilliant, but I’m not at all convinced it would work in EU where people have multiple birth languages and less oral confidence on the whole – or at confrences where the calibre of the “audience” was lower/more novice. Interestingly it did indeed some to come out of some tradition of multidisciplinarity, as PLSC now has many psychs, techies and economists as well as lawyers.

    So as you say, multidisciplinary research is fascinating:)) (and thanks again for organising the panel in my absence!!)

    I will now go and put my slides up on my blog!


    • Thanks for the clarifications Lil!

      So, it sounds like what we did at WebSci was a straight law-style panel, but compressed into 60 minutes. From what you say about GikII, it sounds like panels are how /papers/ are presented at Law conferences, is that right? CompSci conferences (and indeed WebSci) tend to allocate time to individual authors of papers to present, rather than grouping them into panels.

      Judith made a similar point at lunch about the time needed to properly present the multiple facets of an issue/paper in the law arena. (And you’re right that catering to an interdisciplinary adds time in some ways.) Is it possible to focus in on one specific angle/aspect in order to talk about something in law for a shorter time? A kind of “legal aspects for beginners” introduction? Talks in CS can vary from 8 minutes (short papers at WebSci) to an hour (keynotes), with the depth and breadth varying accordingly.

      I think most people at CS conferences haven’t read full papers in advance, unless there is one particular paper that is rumoured to be special… for myself, at most I’ll skim abstracts beforehand to help me choose between parallel sessions. Presenters make choices about which aspects of the paper to focus on in their talks: for example, an obvious choice CS presenters face is “Do I go into the technical details of this algorithm or do I talk about the broader implications of the results?” After all, a paper is going to be fairly long, and you simply can’t cover all of it in, say, 15 minutes.

      I found WebSci a slight culture shock in that they only want extended abstracts for peer review, and then full papers if the abstracts are accepted. Standard practice in CS is to write a full paper, submit it and wait and see. I think the WebSci approach is grounded in Sociological practice (I could be wrong), which sounds closer to what you describe in Law.


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