Improving Conference Panels
The typical panel at a general political science conference goes something like this.
- Each presenter talks. No questions or discussion. The begins audience to lose interest.
- The discussant talks for a minute or two about the general themes of the panel, trying in vain to connect the unrelated papers. The audience is not aroused.
- The discussant directs a series of technical suggestions to each presenter, boring the audience to sleep.
- Now the bored, sleeping audience is asked to discuss the papers.
It doesn't have to be that way. A recent "series of unfortunate events" imposed a different structure on a panel I attended and it worked much better.
I rolled out of bed early on Friday morning in Orlando to attend a panel out of my field because my friends Jacob Ausderan and Nick Nicoletti were presenting. I expected their presentations to be good and I expected to be able to offer some valuable feedback.
By a series of seeming accidents, the panel was quite a bit different than planned.
- At least one person missed the panel, leaving only three presenters.
- The discussant had an emergency and couldn't make it, so he provided written comments rather than verbal.
- I accidentally instituted a norm of discussing each paper after the immediately presentation. (I just wanted to see a graph before Jacob exited his slideshow.)
At a consequence, the panel had the following form:
- Each presenter gave a presentation, then controlled a brief discussion session.
- There was no feeble attempt to connect the papers, except when it came up naturally in the discussion.
- There were no technical suggestions given needlessly to the audience. These were e-mailed to the presenters instead.
This had a very positive impact on the quality of panel and the discussion.
- Each presenter got thirty minutes for presenting and discussing. The longer they presented, the shorter we discussed, giving an incentive to keep things brief.
- The presenters controlled the discussion. It helps the flow to have a person standing at the front of the room to direct the question toward.
- The presenters got lots of questions. Somehow questions that seem relevant at the end of a talk seem stale after other presentations and discussants' comments. The discussions still had plenty of momentum when they had to be cut off for time's sake.
- There were no discussant comments. While these are helpful to the presenters, they are usually boring to the audience. Saving this time for discussion made the panel much more pleasant.