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A small note on panels and timekeeping

12 June, 2011

Please do this. Try to keep to time. This is really important. It’s being considerate to your colleagues on the panel, and also to the people who would like to hear papers on two panels. Your paper is probably interesting. It might be the most interesting paper in the world. Everybody might want to hear more, but you know? that’s what question time is for. If it is the most interesting paper in the world, the questions will reflect that.

I have been at conferences where senior scholars have gone over — a lot (one went over 40 minutes, and made it necessary to carry the questions over to the next morning, so that the two senior scholars who had stuck to time — and incidentally given much more interesting and solid papers — could answer questions). It’s really unforgivable. But if you are a senior scholar, especially one who is well-known, you can get away with it once in a while. If you are a well-loved senior scholar, you might be able to get away with it more often, but if you make a habit of it, you won’t be as well-loved.

If you are a junior scholar, it depends on how good you are. If you’re scary good, then you can probably get away with it in the manner of senior scholars. But if you aren’t? Best to be extra-polite.

If you are a grad student? We all get how involved you are with your subject. We were there once, too. But there’s a good case that you aren’t as plugged in to the community at the conference yet. You might want to consider that people on your panel and in the audience are folks who can be useful to you, or whom you want to impress, but you ave no idea what they look like. And this can be true on a larger level. When, for example, someone who appears meek and polite (not me, btw) makes a comment and asks a question, think carefully before correcting them abruptly. That person could be someone whose research and teaching have included your topic since before you started grad school, and the question might be going somewhere that would help you. They might be making a different point that you weren’t expecting. And sometimes, that person is also a person who organizes conferences in your field, or edits a journal you want to submit to, or will recognize your paper when it comes across her desk for peer review.

I happen to be a person who teeters between absolute fear at conferences (yes, I spend hours asking patient friends if my paper was ok, or if my question was dumb!) and trying to be really polite, and then stepping into things and being perhaps too blunt (and in fact, I just jumped in and argued with a colleague over something). There are many people who are better at conference behavior than I am. But I do think that considering all the dynamics of what could be happening around you, and that every person you don’t know (or do), might be worth at least trying to be polite to, is probably something to aim for.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 June, 2011 4:54 pm

    I agree wholeheartedly, which is why I was so chagrined that my recent paper here in Blerg City, slated to be 30 minutes (I think — no one ever told me!) ran to 45 minutes. But in this case, I can only plead the fact that I didn't understand how much more slowly I would have to speak to make sure my Blarg was comprehensible, especially since I was reading directly from the page, and hadn't had adequate rehearsal time.Yes, in case someone's counting: that's three presentation sins in one single presentation. Let's hope it goes better next time.

  2. 12 June, 2011 5:51 pm

    Ideally, people giving papers wd reflect on the fact that a well-balanced session makes all the papers in it look better.But then I have seen established scholars (ok, just one) pull out what looked like a whole book ms and read until the chair stopped them. Raised by raccoons?

  3. 12 June, 2011 9:36 pm

    Steve? Most raccoons that I've seen have better manners than that!My sense is that a good conference paper should be comfortably under the time limit if one is provided (and if one isn't? Ask!). Before your grad student goes off to do their first presentation, talk with them about the issues involved and give them a chance to have a dry run.And if you have seniors making presentations in class, even if they're shorter, give them the same kind of support & modelling you would want new scholars to have in academe. Don't just tell them to make a presentation on a topic. Give them a sense of how that's done (formally writing out material to such a length, practicing it, checking to make sure you fully explain any new concepts introduced, etc.0. Even if they don't go on to present at Kalamazoo or the Berks, it's a useful skill!

  4. 12 June, 2011 9:44 pm

    Absolutely, Janice! And Steve? that is a wonderful expression!

  5. 13 June, 2011 7:02 am

    Time-keeping is so important – and that is why there are chair-people. As you said, it's politeness. I've got to chair at Leeds, and am resolved to be firm about endings. Bit scary when you don't know the people involved, though.Am also going to be timing my own paper so strictly…

  6. 13 June, 2011 7:45 am

    Practice = good! Also, print out a couple of numbers. I have a big 2 and a big 5. Sit in the line of the speaker's sight, and just hold them up!

  7. 13 June, 2011 6:15 pm

    Running over time is just unforgivably thoughtless. It says implicitly that you are the most important person in the room. Which you may be, but you may not be. As chair, I tell people in advance that I'll be letting them know 5 minutes before. The only time that didn't work was when the speaker was too far from the place where the chair was sitting. I had to walk across the stage. Not subtle *at all*! And the speaker still went to 45 minutes instead of 20.

  8. 14 June, 2011 1:43 am

    I agree with every point! With my seniors' research presentations this Spring, I sat in their line of sight and held up a yellow card at 18 minutes and a red card at 20; I told them that they had to finish their papers within that time frame and the yellow card told them when the window was open, and the red meant it was closed. It was fascinating to watch their panic at the appearance of the yellow card, and their (rather admirable) efforts to wrap everything up in the next two minutes. With one exception, they all managed. Since many are planning graduate school, I hope this helps set them on the path to good conference behavior!

  9. 15 June, 2011 5:40 am

    one of my colleagues told me after that she was impressed at how, when the chair was preparing to give me the 5-minute signal, I signalled back without stopping that I had it under control and finished just under time. One of the other people on my panel cut about two pages while speaking, and I saw people cutting while speaking at other panels. I really don't get that. 20 minutes is about 3000 words, give or take 200. You read your paper through at least four times to make sure it's to time and to be comfortable with it (and so you can look at your audience and still find your place and present, rather than read, the paper). Even if you don't practice, if you know what your 20-minute word count is, then you're unlikely to go over if you stick to that …

  10. 15 June, 2011 2:39 pm

    Were you at my Leeds session last year? One of the other speakers spoke for 40 minutes and the other for 35, leaving no time at all for questions. Both senior scholars, who ought to know better, and they are the usual culprits. Grad students tend in my experience to commit the other sin of trying to read a 40-minute paper in 20 minutes at break-neck speed. I know that I can read 3000 words in 20 minutes and try to write papers less than that long. Simple as. There's really no excuse.

  11. 16 June, 2011 4:25 am

    I was — I came in a little late, and was confused at the timing. That explains it! and yes on the timing. I know a grad student who has run over and ended up trying to cut mid-talk more than once. I am not entirely sure how it has not sunk that the problem is not the pace, but the length. Mind-boggling, really.

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