By Drew Thomas |
Another summer has at last arrived and with it, a new conference season. Whether large conferences with overlapping sessions or a small postgraduate conference of only a few dozen scholars, you’ll likely be sitting in on a few of these this summer. Perhaps you’ll even be presenting a paper or two. However, there is one aspect that often gets overlooked during conferences: chairing a panel. A good panel chair can greatly improve the dynamics of a conference session. When done properly, they guide the discussion, keep it interesting, and most importantly, ensure a timely conclusion. If you find yourself chairing at a conference this summer, follow these tips and you’ll be a pro in no time.
For most members of the audience, this is probably the first time they have heard any of the speakers present. The introductions are a nice way to give some background on their research and any projects they are a part (like Pubs & Publications! — Write for us!). Don’t just read their names, institutions, and presentation titles. That can be found in the programme. Yet, you’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen chairs simply read the programme and say nothing more. Ideally, the conference organisers requested biographies from each presenter beforehand. If not, there is no shame in emailing the speakers prior to the event for a short introduction. Mentioning their previous research helps the audience put the presentation into context and brings a sense of familiarity to the speaker. And of course, a good panel chair always makes sure there is water for each speaker prior to the beginning and assists them if there are any A/V problems.
“A good panel chair always makes sure there is water for each speaker prior to the beginning and assists them if there are any A/V problems.”
2. Time Limits
Let’s go ahead and say this upfront: the person most interested in your research is yourself! While I’m sure you could speak on your topic for hours on end, academia has decided that twenty to thirty minutes will do. Going over time is unfair to the other speakers, rude to the audience, and a bit selfish to think that your research is so important that you can run over into time allotted to another presenter. A good chair will emphasize time restraints and keep the panel on schedule. Before the session begins, instruct the speakers of the time limit and ask them to respect the other speakers by honouring the schedule. Sometimes it’s appropriate to say any time beyond the allotted amount will mean less time for questions at the end. If they do go over, there is nothing wrong with politely asking them to wrap it up.
“Going over time is unfair to the other speakers, rude to the audience, and a bit selfish to think that your research is so important that you can run over into time allotted to another presenter.”
3. Question time!
The Q&A is where the talents of a good panel chair are on full display. Some people prefer to have questions after each speaker, whereas others reserve questions for all the speakers at the end. I’m a fan of the latter, as it is easier to stay on schedule. It also allows people in the audience to discuss links between the papers. The talented chair will ensure each speaker takes questions. If the audience is keen on directing questions at the same speaker or if one speaker is clearly left out, ask the audience if there are any questions for other members on the panel. This keeps the questions moving and ensures everyone gets a turn. And most importantly, as chair, you should have questions for all the speakers in case the audience has no questions and you need to help prompt discussion. You also might need to ask a question to someone who has not yet had a question. Furthermore, you can help facilitate discussion about how the papers relate to each other, which demonstrates that the panels have been well chosen. No one likes awkward silences or seeing someone ignored. A seasoned conference chair will easily overcome such instances and help facilitate a thoughtful and engaging discussion.
“The talented chair will ensure each speaker takes questions.”
Chairing a conference session is not a difficult task, but with a little extra effort and by following these tips, you can take something that at times seems dreadfully boring and help transform it into a helpful and engaging event.
Drew Thomas is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Philosophy from Saint Louis University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. His PhD is a study of the rise of the Wittenberg printing industry during Martin Luther’s Reformation. He is currently the Technical Editor for Pubs & Publications, the Communications Manager for the Universal Short Title Catalogue and the Project Manager of the Caroline Minuscule Mapping Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrewBThomas or on Academia.edu.
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