‘Tis the season, my friends. You get on a plane with your pile of papers to grade or that book you have to prep for class or that sheaf of printed primary docs you need to annotate. You fly to a mid-size city, take a cab to a conference hotel, dump your bags in the room, and go to the registration hall to get a $125 name tag.

Never

You find your way to a windowless room with drab carpet, settle into the most uncomfortable chair ever designed, and listen to three people read at you.

And then another person gets up and reads at you too, sometimes from notes written on airplane napkins. Is it any wonder that at the end of any given conference day, academics find refuge in the hotel bar?

There are many elements of Christy Wampole’s “Conference Manifesto” that made me laugh out loud. But it was a sad laugh. Because we shouldn’t have almost empty conference rooms, comments-as-questions, or 30-minute papers jammed into 20 minutes. Like many of my colleagues, I don’t agree with Wampole that conferences as we currently experience them constitute the death of the humanities. Conferences are significant intellectual and social events that can show why our work matters. I want to hear about new research in fields that are either mine or are new to me. I want to see my colleagues from other institutions, and have invigorating conversations about the state of our field. I want everyone there to treat everyone else with respect. And I want not to be bored out of my mind.

First things first: we need to stop reading at each other.

Talk the Talk

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Somehow we have been conditioned to think of these conference presentations as “papers” rather than “talks.” This leads many people to write their talks like academic articles, with complex-compound sentences, long paragraphs of exposition, theoretical terms, and long chunks of text from primary documents. And then they feel like they have to read them at us, because what else is there to do? How could you memorize an article, in the time you have available between teaching, advising, and other responsibilities you have in your life? You can’t.

Instead of writing an article, write a talk. Ostensibly, academics who teach do this kind of writing already. Whatever your opinion about the utility of lectures as a teaching and learning tool, when done well, a lecture can be great. The effective lecturer does not read at her students. Instead, she conveys an argument in a structured form, cites pithy quotes, and paces around, waving her arms a lot. Perhaps there is a power point – although if so, the effective lecturer will only have 5-7 slides, with very few words and only one image per slide. And she will keep it short and snappy, coming in well under the allotted time limit.

If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry. We all need practice to become better talkers.

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To compose a talk, write short paragraphs, or even bullet points. Write it like you’re talking, with pauses for asides. Ask questions. Make use of repeated words or phrases at the beginning of sentences. These writing strategies will help you talk the talk.

If all panelists talk the talk, the standard 3+1 panels will improve immensely.

But what about moving beyond the 3+1?

Are there other ways to convey our research, in formats that are more conducive to provoking dynamic conversations? Because let me tell you, they rarely happen at a standard 3+1 academic panel. Even if the presenters stick to the time limit (and somehow manage not to comment on this, like – “Oh no! Two minutes! Okay … um … I’ll skip this and um …”) and the commentator has some interesting things to say, this usually leaves only 10 minutes or so to have a conversation among the panelists or with the audience members.

So what is there to do? Here are some ideas.

3-1

If we must stick with the 3 paper format, let’s at least ditch the commentator. Let the chair preside over the session and moderate the discussion. Give the commentator’s time over to the audience to ask questions and formulate critiques.

The Pre-Circulated Panel

This format already appears on some conference schedules. Attendees sign up for the panel ahead of time, receive papers, read them, and then come to the panel fully prepared for discussion.

This structure is great in concept. I have participated in several smaller conferences with 5 to 10 scholars using this format, and it was really successful, generating a lot of conversations (not to mention, edited collections).

But in the midst of a larger conference, where this format is not the norm, it’s unclear if these kinds of panels draw larger audiences or create the conditions for a more invigorating discussion than the regular ol’ 3+1. And for many academics who might lean toward procrastination, this is a non-starter.

The Roundtable

This type of panel, which brings together a larger group of scholars to talk a bit more informally for only 5-7 minutes, is increasingly popular and can be very engaging. I have seen roundtables that focus on a single book, a larger theoretical question, “key terms,” or the “state of the field.” This last a perennial favorite, because every audience member hopes her/his work will be mentioned.

The only issue with traditional roundtables is that while the conversation can be great, the format is not conducive to presenting new research in any kind of depth.

So what about some twists on the old standards?

The Roundtable 2.0

To get more research depth, how about an amped up roundtable, with 5-7 papers, of 10 minutes each? There would be no commentator, just questions from the audience in the abundant time left over in the session.

A historian friend of mine, Lance Blyth, has suggested just such a format with papers of 1,000 words max and a strict structure: “Overview,” “Key Points,” and “So What?” If this sounds too formulaic to you, think about how formulaic our conference papers already are.

Roundtable 2.0 has real potential to hit the sweet spots: research depth, historiographical engagement, and time for conversation.

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The Charlie Rose

An interviewer gathers 3-4 scholars and peppers them with insightful, learned questions.

This could work particularly well with a group that has worked on an edited collection together, or with scholars representing wildly divergent approaches to a field of study. The success of such a format would rest on a very talented interviewer, someone agile enough to respond to unexpected answers, to fend off anyone who might tend to grandstand or mansplain, and to transition gracefully to the role of moderator once the audience has the opportunity to ask questions.

These are just a few ideas. What other panel formats have you seen in action, or have you daydreamed about, as you shift uncomfortably in those conference room chairs?

 

Consider how easy it would be to enact these changes. We would all still convene at the bar afterward, of course. Not because we’re bored out of our minds — but because we are there to toast one another’s great ideas, well articulated, and vigorously discussed.

 

8 thoughts on “How to Build a Better Academic Conference

  1. In my field (not the humanities), we do most of these, and while it’s definitely an improvement over reading papers, which I’ve only had to suffer through a few times, it’s still not always a picnic.

    The roundtables end up being “not quite good enough” to get into a 3+1, held at 8 am, with poor attendance. (But it’s one step up from being relegated to a poster.)

    The “Charlie Rose” rarely leads to as many interesting moments as one might hope for. But it may be a question of not having the right interviewer.

    We don’t do the pre-circulated paper, and while that has promise, I do fear the ability of scholars to actually submit their papers in a timely manner.

  2. These are great ideas. Your Roundtable 2,0 is just too big, though! I would say that if you want to let roundtablists talk for 10 minutes, then restrict it to 3 presentations and open up the conversation to the audience. (This would make it more like a speed-round traditional panel.)

    For me, the big problem is that most panels and roundtables use their audiences as props rather than reserving real time for conversations and questions that involve the entire room. It really chaps my hide when panelists are so enamored with the sound of their own voices–or have never rehearsed their talks, or they don’t care about time limits–that they leave only 5-10 minutes for audience questions/participation.

    I think we’d get better attention and less texting or Tweeting if the audience thought they’d be invited to join the conversation after only 30-40 minutes of presentations.

    Finally, the problem isn’t with people reading papers; the problem is that people don’t rehearse their talks before they give them. Even now, 20 years in, I always time my papers carefully and read them through 2-3 times in the hotel room before I present at a conference. If people heed your advice, Megan, about writing for the spoken word, they’ll do much better. One reason I can’t fully endorse the “talk” model is that as we all know from lecturing to students, it’s difficult to observe strict time limits if one doesn’t have a carefully prepared and timed script. (One can rehearse this of course–but a written paper read in a lively fashion with eye contact with the audience is just as good as, and sometimes better than, talking through a number of slides.)

    1. These are great points, Ann. And yes! There needs to be a pact between presenters and audience members, going forward:

      I will not go over my allotted time. I will practice my talk. I will give my talk with gusto.

      You will not ask 19-part questions. You will not pretend a comment is a question. You will not mansplain.

    2. Yes to all of this! While you are rehearsing your paper, underline words you want to emphasize for dramatic effect, write in places where you should pause. I write all over my conference papers like a script with stage directions. I guess all those summer theater camps paid off. Thanks, Mom!

  3. Long time listener and first time caller. I love your blog…

    My conference season has moved from fall to spring but enjoying a conference and maximizing the panel experience for both presenters and audience alike continues to be challenging. Like many others I did not agree with much of Wampole’s very negative take on conferences although I will admit that on occasion individual sessions can be terrible. As you point out this can be overcome if people might be willing to change their approaches slightly, conference organizers allow some variety to the types of panels offered, and perhaps most importantly panelists make some changes too. I have found in the last few years that moving from the 3-1 to various roundtable hybrids seems to offer historians -in theory at least- a brighter future.

    This year (pathetic…humblebrag) I was on my first state of the field panel at OAH. The panel was structured according to the Historica panel taxonomy as a Roundtable 2.0/Charlie Rose hybrid. Each of the four panelists (the fifth was unable to attend because of illness) had 5-7 minutes to describe their approach to the field by touching upon a work in progress. In addition each person had received a list of 10 questions about the state of the field that they were expected to prepare for in detail, and be ready to talk about at length after the introductory component to carry discussion for the remaining hour plus. Everyone was ready and things went well. We had a quick and able moderator and all the panelists were zoned in and were ready and willing to share. Knowing that I would spout nothing but gibberish if I spoke with just an outline for that short an amount of time I wrote a specific six-minute talk that included a joke, a quick overview of one chapter of my current project, and five PowerPoint slides. I was happily surprised to see you really can do a 15-20 minute talk in 6 minutes. You just have to write it out first as a very specific talk and practice it beforehand.

    You are correct that a flaw in roundtables is the introduction of new materials, much less bringing in new material in depth, but a Roundtable2.0/Charlie Rose lets you split the difference. People do need to write a different version of their work for a panel but it is not that difficult nor is it that time consuming. It just needs to be done before you get on the plane or arrive at the conference hotel. The only talk most people ever admit to preparing for at length is a job talk, and after that, winging it at a session with a 50-page chapter is often considered acceptable.

    For better or worse the 3-1 is probably never going away. One of the biggest problems I have experienced over the years with that format is session-chairs who do not enforce time limits and intercede with panelists who have not pared down their papers to meet the specified time. When some people start to go over time some panel chairs sit there transfixed, frozen, acting like they can do nothing but watch helplessly in horror. Meanwhile the audience holds on for dear life watching a scene unfold into either the stateroom farce from a “Night at the Opera,” or worse yet a train wreck in real time.

    In my experience two types of scholars traditionally go far over their allotted time. The first group consists of graduate students who are new and inexperienced, have not practiced their presentation enough, or just do not know any better. The second group is composed of tenured/senior faculty who are experienced, do know better, and just could care less. There is also the additional subset of people who fall into both categories that are completely clueless and are just so laser focused on what they are doing they could filibuster for 19 hours on their research topic never noticing that the room had emptied out completely about ten minutes in.

    In all three cases the chair should be able to step in and move things along. Politely stopping people at 15 or 20 minutes and telling them their allotted time is up is not a crime. Especially if you pass along notes unobtrusively that say “5 minutes left” and “1 minute left.” Allowing any speaker to ramble on long past their allotted time is unfair to everyone in the room, but most especially to the other panelists. If people feel really conflicted about doing this they should seriously reconsider ever being a panel chair. For the record this has never happened to me as a panelist but I have sat through it too many times while sitting in the peanut gallery.

    As for commentators…I think they can be useful but should probably never speak for more than 5 minutes. And not at all if time is short and the audience seems excited and engaged and has many potential questions. The commentator can pass along detailed comments-which has happened on occasion- to the panelists afterwards.

    1. Hi Gerard — thanks so much for your comment! You bring up some great points here, particularly regarding the importance of a chair/moderator with a strong hand in keeping the panelists on task and actually moderation the conversation afterwards.

      And your mention of committees reminds me of an important point:
      To build less boring conferences we need less boring conference selection committees. They must be willing to experiment, and embrace new formats. But of course this means that scholars must submit experimental panels in the first place — the committee can’t accept them if they are not submitted …

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