Dragon Con: A Fundamentally Different Interaction

Julie Fooshee - Saturday, September 10th, 2016



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So, Dragon Con.  When I first got into science education and communication, I went to a number of academic conferences for my work. I still attend these meetings, but after eight years of meeting and networking with many of the same professionals and seeing recycled sessions in many forms, I was starting to reach a point of burn out. That’s not anything negative about the people or the topics at these meetings, but rather, about my learning capacity and ability to reflect. In fact, I still love getting together with my colleagues, but sometimes it’s exhausting, both mentally and physically to put together sessions, networking meetings, and zip on my people suit for four straight days.

When I come home from those conferences, I want to go to bed for a week and I turn off my phones and my computers and I don’t even want to think about the possibility of the office existing. There are follow ups to be made and people you need to call and thank but just trying to think about that is so tiring and I dread returning to the office. The sound of an email notification becomes like a sleeper cell trigger word…. which is why when Dragon Con was over, it felt monumentally refreshing to look forward to going back to work.

You see, in my free time I am a huge nerd and there is nothing about that to say or monetize. I’m just a big nerd. I love science fiction and fantasy and video games, Lord of the Rings and Pokemon Go, and  one of the things I’ve liked most about going to festivals and meeting other people in this field is discovering more people who are just like me. How did you get into science? outreach? science communication? education? So many people came to these places because of science fiction and every day closer we come to creating a warp drive, it pushes them to do better, to learn more, share their goals and dreams and aspirations.

There was enthusiasm at Dragon Con that so many academic meetings have started to lack for me. Buried beneath bureaucracy and buzz words, people’s excitement about their work is a low key background hum. They still enjoy what it is they do but when it comes time to present on it, they’re nagged by this sense of doubt and by a room full of people who are more excited to prove them wrong than they are to embrace a change or learn. I don’t know if it’s because we are at a point where we view anyone in academia as competition for funding dollars and thus feel the need to establish our authority and abilities over theirs  but it’s not a place where exchanging of ideas occurs freely.

I had gone to Dragon Con a few times in the past, but just as an attendee and more as a way to catch up with friends than to really look for any deeper communication. That changed after Kishore showed up in some panels and told me that I should really look into attending as a guest. I still wasn’t convinced that there was anything I could bring to the table, but then I did a talk at Thirst DC where I got to rant about being a historian in science communication while wearing a Jedi robe. It started to dawn on me that there was actually a massive learning overlap between what I was doing professionally and what I was participating in as a hobby. Because this huge convention in Atlanta wasn’t just about fan theory in the Hobbit, it was about real science and real science communication.

Knowing this though, it was still something of a shock when at Dragon Con, I got in front of a room full of people and felt absolutely accepted and embraced. Maybe it’s because none of us were in direct competition with one another and instead viewed each other as friends, but the way people spoke to you, and the overall tone they set for the sessions was unlike any other conference I’ve been to. People were there in costume, dotted around the room and asking questions that I expect from a professional audience, and who were asking because they wanted genuine answers, they wanted to better their practice.

It was so refreshing to sit in a room with people that I didn’t have to hunt out – we got in there and we knew that we were nerds and professionals. We could ask ridiculous questions and we could just as easily shift topic from how much we love Pokemon Go to what it means to communicate science to under-represented populations. But the best part was that people there weren’t just museum pros, or bench scientists, they were K-12 teachers, they were outreach for big laboratories, they were university students trying to do better science cafes. I was looking at rooms full of people from the top of organizations to the bottom – sitting next to each other who struggled with the same problems in their work and who were excited to learn from not just us but from one another.

There was no CEO brunch that touted the differences between them, and people I presented with consistently wanted to reach out into the crowds and engage with them and the crowd desperately wanted to engage back. At the end of the panel we were just conference-goers like they were, they would see us in costume in the hall and run up to talk shop about something we had just presented on. I gave out lots of business cards, but instead of that wary context of ‘yeah I guess we’ll catch up later’ – I’m actually dying to connect with these people.

I felt more motivated after this conference than I did after the past three years of academic and professional meetings. I was physically exhausted from running between three hotels for four days in the Georgia heat, but I was so mentally excited to get back to what I do afterwards that I was sitting, icing my knee in our hotel room and frantically texting other panelists or tweeting or catching up on email.

It was inspiring, to say the least, to go to a place where people aren’t expecting deep communication and to provide it. In a way, it reminded me a lot of the Just Add Science activity, but at a more meta level. In Just Add Science, we take science learning to where people are, cultural events, farmers markets, parades even – and we engage them with science in a place and a time that’s part of the community fabric.

This was Just Add Science for science communication. I was bringing people the work and the resources that I do with a large national and international network and providing it in a place where they might have only just expected to have fun or meet a celebrity. It also gave me a great perspective about the people out there doing this work that aren’t in my usual networks. We’ve always said that you didn’t need a multi-million dollar budget and big acts to put on a festival or to bring science alive to a community. Some people buy that with just what we have on the table now, other people were more skeptical. But sitting in on those panels and listening to a little girl in the audience school us on medieval science history was all it took to remind me that everyone is capable of bringing something to learn to the table.

It also opened my eyes about how these types of conferences could be an asset to us as science communicators and event planners. People at these conferences are scientists and science enthusiasts and they’re an audience in many ways looking for outlets. How is a science festival any different? Do you have a conference like this in your back yard? Have you tried tapping into their consumer base and their volunteers?  There’s so many similarities there that it seems a waste not to capitalize on one another. Last year I had a talk with Vaughan James who’s doing a study on sci-comm efforts at popular culture conventions and he really opened my eyes up to the ways in which these worlds connect. I can’t wait to see what that study reveals about us and our communities.

With six panels I had the opportunity to meet and network with professionals in my field that I might not have otherwise talked to, they sparked my creativity and made me laugh and learn at the same time. I felt remarkably underprepared for things – in a good way – and afterwards, all I could think of was the ways in which I wanted to improve my practice, to learn more, to do better. I also got the chance to play with session formats on the fly which inspired me to mix things up at future professional conferences. More than once I turned things on their head when instead of answering a question directly, I’d model the mode of best practice to the questioner – something I would never dream of doing at some of these larger academic meetings. It was empowering and I felt so energized by it!

Finally, in one panel I was asked what I thought was a measure of success in my work, and it’s that I hope that I’ve empowered someone to talk about science and be unafraid to do it. I might not know the full content of your work or be able to police your facts – that’s up to you as the scientist or the organizer. Maybe you’re a festival and you talk about science to an entire community. Maybe you’re a science cafe person and you present science to about 15 slightly tipsy college kids every other month. Or maybe you’re a 12 year old girl and you’re presenting science to a room of 45 fascinated and horrified adults. But if I helped give you the resources, the connections, or the microphone to make your science known to someone else, then I feel like I’ve done my job.

To everyone who came to my panels, thank you. You made my work sound cool again and you showed me that no matter how burnt out I get, there’s a way to recharge and feel excited once more. You also taught me how diverse and amazing the world of communicating science is and how passionate you are about what it is you do.

I hope I stoked a fire somewhere, thanks for stoking mine.