I enjoy lots of things about conferences (see this post on conference fun and another post on conference inspiration), but I actually only sometimes actually enjoy presenting. Early mornings, small audiences, and lack of engagement can lead to a major let down after time spent drafting an article and preparing for the presentation. However, I’ve realized one thing distinguishes memorable and productive(!) experiences of presenting at sociology’s major conference, ASAs, from the less positive experiences is the level of engagement of the “discussant”.
I have had the role of discussant only three times, but find myself enjoying it more and more each time.* Yet, inevitably, each time before I find myself in a panic about what am I supposed to do. I think most academics have little training or conversation about how this role works (though, be sure to check out this fantastic write up on a (queer) discussant role and this helpful informational). Since I have spent some time agonizing about it myself, I thought I would outline different tactics that can get the job done, and some that are sure to help elevate the panel overall.
- Skip reading the papers and furiously jot notes down during the presentation (while simultaneously missing new information shared) and then wing the discussion portion
- Ask a straight-forward question that has been addressed in the paper ( like the “how did you measure X variable” question I once received) or a question that can be answered simply (ie., yes or no questions).
- Read the paper and formulate a well-thought out discussion question for each panelist.
- Name something the author did well, give constructive feedback for something they might improve for publication, and ask a detailed, well-thought out discussion question for each panelist.
- Think of a thread, puzzle, or debate that ties each piece together, overview the thread/puzzle/debate, state how each paper contributes to it, and direct questions for each panelist within that conversation.
- Doing so allows you to pose a larger question to the whole room (i.e., “let’s all think collectively about X problem”), and a contextualized question for each individual piece (i.e., “here is how you enter into debate, now, how would you address this additional question that arises?”).
- Think about a larger thread, puzzle, or debate, overview the thread/puzzle/debate, then state how each paper contributes to a smaller, related thread, puzzle or side of the debate.
- This allows you to put the papers into direct conversation with each other – sharing how one author might consider another’s contribution, which jointly can offer more significant implications.
- Doing so provides constructive and critical feedback about each paper, the larger theme pulling the session together, and encourages the audience to think about the panelists collectively, which I find ultimately shifts the levels of questions from the audience.***
A few additional considerations:
- Email the authors prior to the session so all can be acquainted, and let them know about the format, including your basic plan for engagement, speaking deadlines, etc.
- If you have written feedback, send it to authors after the session.
- DO NOT take up more time than the panelists. I suggest a max of 10 minutes.
* Honestly, if you’re not presenting at all or only once, I suggest volunteering for this role. You’re name is still in the program and you get the opportunity to read only a handful of smart working papers on a related topic (as opposed to all submitted papers as the organizers do).
** Please excuse use my corny use of this meme (or phrasal template), but I’m trying to stay young the labeling seemed fitting.
***I’m still working on this. But I’ve witnessed my PhD Adviser, Tony Brown, do this masterfully a few times and it is such a provocative route.