By Randy Laist
It’s conference season, and that means we will soon be suffering together in some drab meeting room. The minutes will tick by as an earnest scholar reads — word for excruciating word — a jargon-filled essay advancing an indecipherable thesis about an esoteric subject that no one in the audience knows anything about.
We’ve all been there. Maybe you’ve even been that earnest speaker. I know I have.
For more than a dozen years, I’ve participated in conference panels all over the world, and I’ve had stimulating, thought-provoking, and engaging experiences — just far, far too few of them. Rather than inspiration, what I remember most from those sessions is trying to calculate — based on the number of pages the speaker was holding at the lectern — how much longer the droning would continue.
The brain-melting boredom of most academic panels is surprising when you consider all the factors that — in theory, anyway — should be working together to make a conference panel a uniquely stirring occasion. Not only does the panel bring together a group of scholars who share a common intellectual and professional cluster of interests, but the panelists have invested months, and sometimes years, of effort in preparing their work for this event. They have flown in from all corners of the globe. They are the leading minds in their particular area of inquiry. And they are supported by a vast architecture of IT technicians, conference coordinators, and caterers.
Everything seems to be working together to make the panel meaningful, memorable, even transformational. Why, then, does the whole enterprise so often wind up fizzling out?
The answer is obvious to anyone who teaches for a living, which is, presumably, most of the attendees of an academic conference: Panel presentations are woefully "teacher-centered." They emblematize many of the worst aspects of uninspired pedagogy: the "sage on the stage" (i.e., lecturing) and the "banking concept" of education (in which students are containers into which educators must put knowledge). The obligatory 15 minutes of discussion at the end of a typical conference panel is the one opportunity for engagement with the audience, but it comes too late. Intellectual torpor has already set in after being read to for an hour.
Panel presentations should be the highlight of the conference circuit, yet they tend to be thought of as the "vegetables" that attendees must eat in order to deserve the good stuff: the dinners, social hours, and other special events that allow for meaningful and thought-provoking conversations.
It is embarrassing, from a professional point of view, that academics who bring so much creativity and enthusiasm to their classrooms and their work check those impulses at the door when it comes to formally addressing their peers. There is no question that the panel format is broken. Or, at least, this 20th-century holdover has outlived its usefulness.
Fortunately, we have the tools at our disposal to transform the panel from a dreary snooze-fest into an energizing encounter — if only we would use them. Here, then, are seven ideas to get the ball rolling.
Ban presenters from reading papers aloud. This one should be obvious. It is not unjustifiable for scholars to fetishize the prose document as the sine qua non of their profession. But writing, at least academic writing, is meant to be read, not heard.
When it comes to articulating complex ideas, the same qualities that make the written word ideal — its impersonality, precision, and pristineness — make it unsuitable for communicating meaningfully in real time. To be a compelling speaker, you must adjust your delivery to suit the audience. A face-to-face encounter requires at least a minimal degree of rhetorical improvisation, which is unavailable to a speaker reading verbatim from a prepared text.
This ban would also work to the advantage of presenters, since summarizing and talking about their research in the supportive space of a conference panel is much more likely to bring them new insights and perspectives than simply reading a prewritten paper aloud.
Flip the presentation. A panel might still be organized around 10-to-12-page written essays, but they could be made available in advance. The important innovation — the flip — is to replace the typical read-through with a discussion of the presenters’ arguments.
Attendees would be asked to read the presenters’ papers in advance and come prepared with questions, with a quotation that they want to discuss, or with ideas about how a particular paper might apply to other research areas. Each panelist could begin with a quick summary, for those attendees who have not done their "homework."
This technique can also work with PowerPoint presentations, which, rather than being delivered during the panel, could be recorded as narrated slideshows and uploaded to YouTube or to the conference site before the session.
Distribute handouts. Whether or not the full text of a panel paper is available in a "flipped" format, presenters should prepare and distribute a written document that summarizes or outlines the argument of the presentation. Having something in writing makes it easier for people to follow the complexities of a presenter’s line of reasoning. Preparing such a document can also encourage presenters to reflect on what they hope to communicate.
This flier should be more than simply a transcript of your spiel. It might contain discussion questions, illustrations, sources of further information, a glossary of key terms, even something like a crossword puzzle, in which the answers have to do with the presenter’s topic. With a little creativity, these handouts can become documents that attendees will be reluctant to throw into their hotel wastebaskets.
Rethink the moderator’s job. Moderators typically play a low-key role. Their main duty is to introduce the speakers (usually by reading bios verbatim from the conference program). Later, if no one speaks up during the Q&A, the moderator compensates by filling in the awkward silence with questions (although I have also seen moderators flub even this minimal responsibility).
Moderators, however, are in a unique position to foster dialogue. They’re usually experts in the panelists’ field and familiar with their work. Moderators could set the stage by offering their own insights into the shared themes, connections, and concerns that make the proceedings a panel instead of a cluster of random presentations.
A good moderator should feel comfortable editorializing on the presenters’ work, invite them to address one another about common threads that connect their scholarship, and conclude the session with remarks that provide a sense of overview and closure.
Introduce the audience. The largest reservoir of untapped potential in a conference-panel environment is certainly the audience. Most of the attendees have traveled great distances, they have chosen this panel from among perhaps a dozen options, and they are full of expertise and passion. Most of the time, however, they sit there like ciphers, nurturing their own thoughts, which may frequently turn to the clock.
Just like disengaged students in a college classroom (who have also traveled great distances and chosen to enroll), conference-panel attendees should not be criticized for their silence, since they are usually responding rationally to cues in their environment that tell them that their participation is not really required or even sincerely requested.
In both college classrooms and conference panels, the solution is not to shame, plead, or command, but to change the structure of the environment so that collective participation is built in. If the audience is small, ask people to introduce themselves; that can lay the groundwork for the conversations to come. If the size of the audience makes introductions impractical, the moderator could ask for a show of hands in response to key questions.
Incorporate writing. As a teacher, when I want to kick-start a class discussion with a shy or sleepy group of students, I ask them to write a short answer to a discussion question. After I collect the responses, I can confidently call on the students, since I have visual confirmation from their paperwork that they have something to say.
In a conference panel, a moderator might also pose a question before the session starts and encourage attendees to compose a response over the course of the presentations. In other variations on this idea, the moderator might ask people to paraphrase each of the presentations briefly, write down a few keywords, or come up with a question for each panelist. Those written observations can become the basis for a robust discussion.
Use your smartphone. I mean, for something other than checking the time. Encourage people to live-tweet the proceedings — or not. Record the panel as a podcast or a YouTube video, or stream it using Facebook Live. The moderator could open real-time discussion questions. Presenters could make their work available on Google Docs for collective editing or annotation by the audience. Hit your attendees with a pop quiz using Quizlet or an interactive exercise from BookWidgets.
There is no limit to the possibilities for innovative, multimedia engagement via social media and educational apps. In addition to making the panel itself more engaging, such sites can also connect the panel proceedings to the outside world and exist as a space in which the panel discussion can continue days, weeks, even years later.
Academic conferences are a unique cultural phenomenon. In a time when higher education faces questions about its social role, when anti-intellectual sentiments impugn scholastic inquiry, and when academe finds itself sidelined in public discourse, scholarly conferences present a rare opportunity for us to affirm our sense of purpose and demonstrate the relevance of the work we do.
Conference panels can sometimes seem like Exhibit A in a case for everything that’s wrong with modern academe. With creative thinking and active initiative, however, these sessions could be showcases for the value, impact, and excitement that constitute the essence of advanced scholarship.
Randy Laist is an associate professor of English at Goodwin College, in Connecticut.