Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Job of a Panel Commentator

Historiann has an interesting post up today about conference etiquette, with much of the discussion in the comments devoted to what is to be done about panelists who go over time, thus making things unbearable for everyone else. The responses seem to be threefold:
  1. Graduate students need better mentoring so they know the ropes
  2. Experienced presenters who ought to know better need to stop being selfish jerks
  3. Panel chairs need to enforce time limits

That third point got me wondering about another job, that of the panel commentator. The chair is there to introduce people and their papers, and hopefully to make sure that they don't go over time. The commentator is not always a part of a panel, but when they are, what is their job?

One of Historiann's commentators mentioned being peeved when commentators simply summarized the paper. Another complained (rightly, I think) about the impossibility of delivering a good comment when panelists don't get their papers in on time. But beyond that, what are we doing as commentators? I've done comment a couple of times, and after a few false starts, I was part of a panel at a legal history conference where I saw a friend and professional acquaintance deliver a comment so good that audience members came up to complement her on it. It really was incredibly productive to the discussion so ever since then, I've tried to model my approach on hers:
  1. Find at least one interesting thing in each individual paper that could serve for good discussion fodder, and ask a question
  2. Find at least one common thread running through all the papers and invite the panelists and audience to think about that thread more deeply

Both of these require some good knowledge of the topic the panelists are speaking about, and both require time to read and really think about the papers, and to write up a well-considered comment. Often, of course, the discussion takes on a life of its own, with purely factual questions, or ones that boil down to "How does this relate to the thing I know about?" But I see the commentator's job as primarily analytical (rather than summative or critical), facilitating a deeper engagement with the papers than that -- and whether or not the audience takes it and runs with it is up to them.

What do the rest of you think? What is the job of a panel commentator? Should there be a recap of each paper's thesis, to refresh the audience's memory? Should a commentator point out egregious errors? And a subsidiary question: assuming the typical humanities panel is 90 minutes long, with three 20-minute papers (plus a combined time of about 5 minutes for introductions), with the expectation of discussion at the end, how long should a good commentary be?


clio's disciple said...

I have only done the commenter thing once or twice, but I tend to agree:

1) The comment should be short--I'd say no more than 10 min.

2) I try to find themes or questions that link the papers.

3) I've prepared a question or two on each, but I don't use them all at once; I save a couple of throw out if the Q&A lags, or one person doesn't get any questions from the audience, or whatever.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Clio, I like that last point -- it's nice to make sure that all the panelists get some time to expand on their ideas. I think this is especially important when commenting at graduate student conferences, as the student audience doesn't always jump in to the discussion the way more experienced people do.

feMOMhist said...

ditto clio - commentator does not equal you getting to deliver essentially another paper, nor is this the place to deliver your devastating critique (I've been on the receiving end of both OUCH).

The best comments get the ball rolling on discussion so as to avoid that awkward moment when everyone looks at the ground waiting for some brave soul to ask the first question. A few questions prepared is the minimum. Even better, as indicated, is the ability to tie them all up in a neat bow abstracting out their commonalities and implications for the field.

ABDMama said...

I'm not sure if it is because I was a graduate student or just lucky, but I've always had really fantastic comments that tie the papers toether, ask questions, and suggest new evidence and directions to go. I'm usually scribbling furiously during the comment.

Janice said...

No recaps. Looking for linkages across the papers. Suggesting related sources or approaches not articulated in the paper. Being ready to punch up the question period should it lag (or should one panelist get no questions).

Susan said...

What everyone said. 10 minutes. Look for themes, questions. That said, sometimes there are three very different papers, and there is no theme. Then you say so, and address each paper individually. Or there is one paper that is an outlier. It just is. (this is especially true at small regional conferences, where organizers work too hard to accommodate proposals).

Anonymous said...

While we’re on the subject of conference etiquette, I was wondering whether there is a lead time in terms of declining to attend a Conference after they give you a favorable acceptance letter based on the abstract you submitted? Or is this NOT an option at all and considered academic suicide?

I’m new in this area and so far there seems to be little talk about the “unspoken rules” of declining for something you’ve applied for. Any help would be grandly appreciated!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Interesting question! I think I'll address it in a post of its own, and invite my readers to chime in, so stay tuned.