Conference and workshop formats that work

I’ve found myself explaining these things to colleagues a few times in the past month, with the response always being “wow, that makes a lot of sense — I never considered that” — so I thought I’d try to share more broadly here.

After attending lots of conferences and workshops, I have learned what formats actually work to produce meaningful discussions of papers and thus useful feedback for presenters. I am not alone in this — everyone, and I mean everyone, with whom I have participated under these formats agrees with this sentiment. The ideas aren’t my own but rather inherited from colleagues who participate in EGAP (link) and CAPERS (link) and who also come together on occasion at the big conferences like APSA and MPSA.

In my home discipline, political science, conferences and workshops are usually organized around the following two “traditional” formats:

  1. Short format panel presentations with discussant: typically a 1-2 hour session with authors of 3-5 papers given about 15 minutes each to present their papers, followed by a discussant or two providing summary comments on all of the papers, followed by floor Q&A.
  2. Long format presentation with discussant: typically about a 1 hour session with author of paper given about 30 min to present a paper followed by discussant comments and then floor Q&A.

I don’t know anyone who likes format 1, mostly because of the ridiculous way that the discussant role is defined and the fact that the Q&As tend to jump around between papers rather than following any intellectual progression. Format 2 makes sense for really big plenary type talks, but when the group is smaller, it’s a highly inefficient way to use an hour if the goal is actually engage with the material.

Here are some alternative formats that tend to generate much deeper discussions in the same amount of time:

  1. Short format panel redux: Take the sessions and divide the time evenly into blocks for each of the papers. So 2 hour session with five papers has 24 minutes per paper. Then, in each block, presenter can start by giving their presentation for a bit less than half the time, followed immediately by discussant for that paper and then immediately by floor Q&A for that paper. Also, instead of one discussant for all papers, a nice thing to do is to have a “discussant round robin”: each paper presenter serves as discussant for someone else’s paper. You can use the round robin to actually assign discussants in a way that emphasizes overlapping interests. We used this on all of my MPSA panels this year and it was SO MUCH BETTER! If you are really organized, an even better thing to do is to organize in advance both with panel participants and those who will attend in the audience. Among that group, you commit to read the papers before the panel. Then, you can actually skip the paper presentation altogether, and rather lead with the discussant who provides a short summary of the paper followed by comments to get a conversation going, altogether taking less than 10 minutes. Then you have a good chunk of time for an open discussion of the paper. This is the way to really get a lot out of 24 minutes. It is also a miniature version of the “no presentation” long format, to which I now turn.
  2. The “no presentation” long format: This is the best way that I have experienced to have a deep discussion of new academic work. EGAP, CAPERS, and NEWEPS (link) are organized around this format. It requires that all those attending the workshop/conference do some homework before arriving. The format is simple: there is no author presentation, rather there is simply an entire hour devoted to having a discussion with the author about the paper, which everyone has read in advance of the meeting! You can have a discussant who serves to “get the ball rolling” by providing a really short summary of the paper and offers some starting comments or questions. That’s how CAPERS and NEWEPS work, although EGAP doesn’t even do that. You might think that this format will tend to result in a bunch of people sitting in silence for an hour. But I can tell you that has never happened. Sometimes it takes a little time for the discussion “momentum” to build, but when it does it is always energetic and there is always the feeling that we wished we had more time to discuss (that’s a sign of a good discussion!). The format is fueled by a strong ethic among the group of reading and critically engaging with papers prior to arriving at the meeting.

Either of these formats benefits greatly from the following:

  • Session chairs that are dynamic in promoting the discussion and managing time. Whereas the standard formats privilege presentations and leave floor discussion as an afterthought, these revised formats do the opposite. For that reason, the role of the chair is really important. The chair needs to scan the room actively and maintain a list of people wishing to raise a question or comment. The chair can also help to clarify questions or comments that paper authors misunderstand or address inadequately.
  • Rules for managing the discussion. Very useful are to use what are known as the “one finger” and “two finger” rules. (I’m not sure from where these rules originate, but I’ve seen them used in settings ranging from academic workshops to formal conferences at the United Nations.) The session chair manages a list of people who want to ask a question or make a comment to the author. To indicate to the chair that you want to be added to the list, you show one finger. The session proceeds with the chair going down the list allowing each person to ask their question or comment, and then allowing the author to respond. But, if you want to contribute to the discussion at that moment (rather than waiting for your turn on the list), you signal to the chair at that moment with two fingers. The chair then has the option to suspend the list for the moment and take two-finger comments or questions. This is useful when people want to dig deeper on a point that is being discussed at the moment. When the session is nearing the time limit, the chair has the option to declare “no more two fingers” and even to tell the author to withhold any responses so that the list of one-finger questions and comments can be cleared. It might sound a little rigid, but the rules work really well in keeping the discussion lively and on track.
  • Keeping it manageable and fun. For NEWEPS and CAPERS, we’ve established that we are going to limit things to four papers per meeting. That is the maximum that members of the working groups think that they can really commit to read, and read deeply, in advance of the meeting. So, NEWEPS and CAPERS are organized as semi-annual (Fall and Spring), four-paper meetings that kick off with lunch, followed by the four sessions (with a short break in the middle), and then end with a group dinner. That makes it a manageable, engaging, and fun format.

I find these revised formats to be so much better than the traditional formats that I actually feel sorry in situations where the traditional formats are still used.

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