Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Discussants at conferences

Mike Allison has a post on panel discussants.  I have really come to think that discussants are usually not very helpful.  I say this as someone who has to act as a discussant at a small conference (NC Political Science Association) in two days.  I would suggest the following guidelines:

1.  Do not try to tie the papers together artificially.  There is no point.

2.  Keep your comments as brief and focused as possible.  No preambles or tangents.  The audience did not come to listen to you, unless you are very clearly an expert on the panel's topic.

3.  Don't whine about how long it took someone to get their paper to you.  We're all busy.

4.  If time is short after the last presentation, give it up to the audience Q&A and give the authors your comments privately.  Interested audience members very often have better insights.


Mike Allison 9:58 AM  

I can't say that I ever understood the need for both a discussant and a chair.

Do we really need a official timekeeper position? Maybe if they were an official scorekeeper as well.

Greg Weeks 10:23 AM  

And that actually increases the number of people talking, which is especially problematic when there are already a lot of presenters.

I like the scorekeeper idea. Hold up a number saying how good the presentation was.

Brooke Harlowe,  8:41 AM  

Yup. There are some lousy discussants out there. Here's my take on it....

I often volunteer to be a discussant at conferences I attend regularly (Northeast PSA,NCCLA, LASA, my state conference). 'Can't tell you how happy section chairs are to have long-time scholars who volunteer to read and comment on papers (I know; I have also been a section chair).

If I don't know the section chair, my email includes suggestions as my areas of expertise. Over time, sections chair--at small meetings we tend to be the same people year after year--get to know where I can be of most help.

Rather than try to pull the papers together on panels, I just address my comments to each individual. Unless it is a big conference like LASA or APSA, papers aren't submitted as a panel. The section chair is doing her best to get as many papers on the program and come up with some reasonable panels based on a small abstract. Why try to make something that is not?

As a discussant, you have to think in terms of what I can do to help improve the presenter's paper. I have found that the most valuable role I have as a discussant, especially for graduate papers, is to point out literature that is useful to their research but they have not read. Sadly, most of them haven't read anything published before 2000.

So here is a question for the group...In the past few years, I have had to comment on papers from graduate students that in no way should have been allowed to present. I once had a paper that was so bad that I almost told the presenter that it did not belong on his CV (his paper was based on the premise that there no literature existed on democratic consolidation in Latin America). I did apologize to the other presenters, who were real faculty, that I was going to have to rip this paper apart and it wasn't going to be pretty.

Worse, the presenter was not schooled on how to make a professional presentation. I don't mean reasonable rookie nerves; I mean really obvious things like working on your laptop when someone else is presenting.

I have often considered dropping a note to the student's advisor or department chair...Not a nasty note but one that would raise concerns about the student's performance and would hopefully get the student some guidance for the next time. Your thoughts?

Anonymous,  10:49 AM  

I'm holding you to all of this this afternoon. Especially #3. In any case, I suspect you'll buck the trend and be helpful.

Greg Weeks 8:29 AM  

I have discussed some not very good papers, but nothing that bad. My own response would probably be to explain the serious problems, but not to go further than that. First, you don't necessarily know who the adviser is. Second, you run the risk of generating ill will for little or not payoff--the adviser may resent your intrusion. I am not sure how often doing so would really end up helping the grad student.

Mike Allison 4:14 PM  

I didn't mean to just call out discussants. They have a tough job especially when they the papers that they have to work from are not as well developed as one would like. I admit to having sent off papers that are not as refined as I had hoped.

However, there really is no excuse for all those that present without a paper. There should be some significant punishment for that one.

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