Being a Better Conference Panel-goer

Chad and Simon have chimed in this week with advice on how to apply some of the basic principles of good teaching to good conference presenting.  I completely agree with their comments, but I want to point out an opportunity presented by one of Simon’s comments–that the reason some presenters may stick to a rigid script is to avoid opening themselves up to probing questions and potential humiliation.

To me this says as much about the audience as it does about the presenters.  While Simon notes that conferences should be about constructive debate, I’m not convinced that the wider conference-attendee public behaves with this goal in mind.  In some cases, presenters go over their time limits and leave no time for questions at all (a panelist and chair problem) but in others, it is the audience who is at fault, with questions designed to demonstrate their own knowledge and ability to tear down an argument.

Now in teaching, we can structure incentives and develop norms in the class to encourage certain behaviors in our students.  Certainly norms do develop: certain fields and sub-fields are more likely to read papers than others, and some conferences develop different norms of critique and socialize newcomers into that system. As the ‘students’ in these scenarios, we have an additional advantage in that we can examine the problem and self-regulate our own behavior: that is, focus on constructive criticism and tamping down the urge to destroy arguments that we all fine-tuned in our early grad school days.

Regardless of whether we fix our behavior on the presenter side or the audience side, it is important to recognize how the principles of good teaching apply outside of our classrooms, and to use conferences as a chance to practice some of those principles in new settings.

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