I want a refund for your conference presentation

There is a problem with academic criminal justice and criminology, and it’s getting worse.

I’ve attended several conferences and meetings in the last three months. And the standard of presentation is deteriorating.

Ok, my girlfriend calls me a curmudgeon, and she is probably right. It’s probably been like this for ages. But conferences are expensive and my students and police colleagues bust a gut to get there. Students, adjunct faculty, instructors – they often spend their own money to attend. And cops and other professionals frequently have to take vacation days. All of them make a significant commitment. Unfortunately, it is clear that too many academics can’t be bothered to make an equivalent effort.

Look, I get it, you are busy with research, grading, supervision, slow-death-by-committee, inflicting wisdom on students, and plotting the early death of reviewer #2. But communicating is part of the job, and conferences can reach a greater audience than your draft article for the Bangladeshi Journal of Sheep Stealing and Criminology that probably won’t get accepted anyway. So please make more of an effort. Here are some pointers:

Have something to talk about. You aren’t so star-spangled awesome that we are hanging on your every random thought. There are only a handful of academics in the field who have an opinion that’s truly insightful. Chances, are it’s not you (or me). The rest of us should bring data/facts/analysis/interpretation. Academic departments don’t fund students to hear random, often unprepared thoughts. That’s what Twitter is for.

Think about what the audience wants. Too many presentations follow the same format as a journal article, but that can make for a dull talk. It’s about satisfying the needs of the audience with the results and takeaways. Have a structure that makes sense for a presentation, and don’t forget the ‘so what?’ If you cut and paste in that table because you felt that you had to, even though you don’t really know why, then take it out. We don’t care about a page full of statistical output in your presentation – or your poster.

Learn PowerPoint. Since when did it become a badge of honor to be lousy at the tools of the trade? Communication is supposed to be part of the job, yet too many academics take pride in being bad at PowerPoint. Sure, you don’t need it, but if you use it, learn how to put together a decent presentation. Your smug “my ideas are too ground-breaking for PowerPoint” shtick is getting old, and it’s an insult to the paying public.

No equations. Unless your talk is about your equation for life, the universe and everything (and equals 42) then no equations. Also, no statistics, don’t use all capitals, no whole paragraphs, no more than 6 bullet points, no illegible fonts below size 16, no stupid color choices that make text impossible to read, and no tables unless really necessary. You remember when you said “you probably can’t read that at the back” last time? Yeah, I’m talking to you.

Have some energy in your presentation. Unless you have a disability or have been “networking” a little too enthusiastically, stand up to present. At the very least, the people at the back of the room can see you. And try and summon some enthusiasm in your voice. You aren’t lecturing to your 10am theory class – people left their families and made a real effort to come see you talk.

Prepare and practice. When you run out of time less than half way through your presentation, it’s clear you didn’t respect the audience enough to make a modicum of effort. You threw together some random thoughts, didn’t practice and phoned it in. Can I get a refund?

Stick to your time. Your ideas are probably not so ‘theory of relativity’ groundbreaking that they merit taking up 20 minutes of other presenters’ time. After all, we came to hear them, not you. And finally…

Mentor your students. When I see a lousy student presentation, I always want to know who is the faculty supervisor. Because they have to shoulder much of the blame. If you can’t take the time to look through your student’s slides and watch a practice presentation or two, then you are abusing your tenure privileges by setting an awful example.

Look, nobody’s perfect, and I’ve probably broken all of these pointers more than once. Only the mediocre are at their best every day. But if we don’t lift our game as a field, we will continue to be irrelevant to policy makers and the public. When students that practice and put in effort put their professors to shame, then things have to change. And it starts with you (and me).

Some responses to standard gun-rights tweets

The aftermath of the Las Vegas strip massacre threw up a lot of arguments on Twitter, most of which were ill-informed and destructive to informed debate. I say destructive, because they often represented a simplistic reading of cherry-picked data that was used to prop up a policy position or a knee-jerk response that was unsupported by evidence. Nevertheless their apparent simplicity meant that these responses spread like wildfire on Twitter. So given that the time between mass shootings appears to be declining, I decided I didn’t want to rehash the same arguments again and again. So I hope you won’t mind if I tweet some shortcuts on Twitter.

  1. “But what you propose <insert suggestion here> wouldn’t affect <insert response here>”
    We don’t have a single firearm problem – we have multiple gun problems, and so from a situational crime prevention perspective we will require multiple solutions that are tailored to each problem. There is no single silver bullet that will resolve the challenges we face. 
  2. “But <insert city or state> has the strictest gun laws and the worst homicide problem!”
    Compared to countries with low homicide rates (see Western Europe) nowhere in the U.S. has strict gun laws. If you can take a day trip outside your city or across state boundaries to buy guns, we don’t have strict gun laws. By strict I mean where handguns are effectively banned or restrictive enough that they put reasonable administrative hurdles between an individual and immediate gun ownership (such as Denmark).
  3. “But banning handguns won’t prevent <recent incident> because he/they used rifles”
    Good point; however, firearm reform is about reducing the overall community harm of firearm injuries and death across the country. No one measure is likely sufficient to significantly increase public safety. Handguns are responsible for the majority of homicides in the U.S. See #1.
  4. “But banning rifles won’t prevent most crime because you just said most homicides are with handguns”
    Good point; however, firearm reform is about reducing the overall community harm of firearm injuries and death across the country. No one measure is likely sufficient to significantly increase public safety. Rifles are capable of significant harm and popular in mass shootings that cause significant harm and fear of crime. See #1.
  5. “Look at this chart I copied from the Internet. It shows Australia’s gun crime was already decreasing before their gun ban, so it had no effect”
    That’s true, though one scientific study (a 3 on this scale) shows that after the ban, the decrease in murders and suicides became even more pronounced. In fairness, I note that these results have been critiqued elsewhere. Any benefits may be at best marginal, but the situation in Australia was different than the US to begin with in terms of gun safety legislation. And mass shootings became a thing of the past. Furthermore, while we don’t have a counterfactual because it was a national ban, things could definitely have become worse.
  6. “Restricting access to <weapon of choice> wouldn’t significantly reduce overall shootings because it is so narrowly restrictive. It wouldn’t have any effect”
    There likely isn’t a silver bullet to our gun crime epidemic (see #1); however small piecemeal restrictions can have modest effects collectively, and sometimes significant effects for sub-populations. For example, even with porous state borders, reducing the rate at which domestic abusers kill their intimate partners is vitally important to that community of crime victims.
  7. “This is all a distraction. Why aren’t we talking about black-on-black crime!”
    People in minority communities talk about crime all the time, and there are some highly promising strategies to help address urban crime. If they were funded. Also, white people kill white people at a higher frequency.
  8. “My local sheriff is pro-gun and he’s a law enforcement expert”
    Yes he or she is an expert, but they are an expert in “law enforcement”, not “crime prevention policy”. I’ve previously noted that the International Association of Chiefs of Police neglect crime prevention and reduction training, preferring to offer operational and tactical training courses. Furthermore, your sheriff may be unaware that police officers are murdered more often in U.S. states with higher rates of gun ownership. And don’t forget that your local sheriff has to get elected, so likely articulates political views that are acceptable to his/her community rather than evidence-based.
  9. “Taking away guns won’t prevent suicides. People will just find another way”
    The research evidence does not support this. When we reduce the easy opportunity to do something, that activity usually declines. Suicidal bridge jumpers prevented by a barrier in Toronto did not all find a nearby bridge. And when the carbon monoxide content of British gas was reduced and that form of suicide was removed, overall suicide declined. It’s not always a perfect reduction. When Australia experienced a heroin drought, poly-drug use did increase, but the period was overall marked by a reduction in opioid overdoses and Hep-C notifications. And no long-term change in crime associated with the heroin shortage.
  10. “Cars kill people but we aren’t talking about banning those”
    1) Cars have a purpose other than killing. 2) We have made significant changes to cars over the years to make them much safer than they were before. 3) And they are much harder to steal now too. 4) We license cars and drivers. Is that so bad? 5) When people screw up with a car, we take their license away. 6) Thanks for the softball, that was an easy one.
  11. “Taking away guns won’t work. People will find other ways of killing people”
    If you believe this, you can’t count. Stephen Paddock killed over 50 people from a hotel room hundreds of yards from his targets on the Las Vegas strip. He was alone. But in the UK three determined Islamic terrorists couldn’t get access to guns. Even though they outnumbered Paddock, they were far less effective, killing eight in the June 2017 London Bridge attack. The larger picture is that decades of environmental criminology research has demonstrated time and time again, that if you remove the easy opportunities to do something, you can reduce the instances of it. (also see #9).