- Graduate students need better mentoring so they know the ropes
- Experienced presenters who ought to know better need to stop being selfish jerks
- 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:
- Find at least one interesting thing in each individual paper that could serve for good discussion fodder, and ask a question
- 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?