kaigou: this is the captain. we may experience turbulence and then explode. (3 experience turbulence)
[personal profile] kaigou
Okay, this is for [personal profile] brainwane. The idea is to take some facets of the AAS conference and apply them to tech, as a way to incorporate people who might not normally present on their own.

The first thing to note is that each panel is run by a moderator, who might've also organized it. How/why/where they found the other presenters, I'm not really sure. I got the impression that sometimes the panel was presented by a group of people presenting together, and sometimes it was several people grouped together by the conference due to covering similar topics/regions/issues, etc.

Nearly every panel (excepting one, and I attended ten over four days) consisted of five people. One person was moderator and panelist, three people were panelists, and one person was a discussant. This sometimes varied; I saw one panel where the moderator was not also a panelist (the group had organized two panels, and he presented at the previous panel, but moderated both), and another panel where the discussant was the moderator.

Short version: the moderator gets up and introduces the general theme of the panel (ie "the Tang/Song Dynasty", "Big Data in Research") and the panelists. Then the panelists go in order of their announcement, speaking for 5-15 minutes. Sometimes the moderator introduced each person before their own speech, giving a little more bio than the cursory introductions at the beginning. Some panels were expecting more discussion, so the panelists abbreviated/truncated their presentations to allow more time for that. When the panelists were done, the discussant spoke for about 5-10 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, being an academic conference, the discussant (who may or may not be a panelist on another panel) played a role not unlike an adviser/respondent. Several mentioned they'd been sent the papers for presentation ahead of time; they weren't replying off-the-cuff. I saw discussants highlight details they found particularly interesting, critique a presentation for glossing parts or not explaining their argument thoroughly, ask questions raised by the presentation, or even suggest areas of further investigation that hadn't been mentioned. Nearly every time, the panelists were taking notes, preparing their responses. When the discussant was done, the moderator had the panelists speak in turn, replying to the discussant's points.

Then the audience could ask questions, and again excepting one lousy moderator, the rest all found a way to rephrase or broaden the question to include the other panelists. Failing that, several moderators would hold off on the next question (after the panelist answered) to get feedback from the other panelists. Or, if the question was broad enough, the moderator worked their way down the line to get each panelists' comments. The discussant only got involved in that question-and-answer three times, so that didn't seem to be a regular thing.

There were a few panels where the panelists were clearly meeting for the first time, and had only the vaguest of overlaps. Like the panel on history of gender in China -- prostitution in the Tang, widow's rituals in the Qing, marriage rates in modern Beijing -- we're talking across over a thousand years! So sometimes it was a little bit of a stretch, but other times things dovetailed pretty neatly. Another thing I noted was that panelists seemed to be given each others' information ahead of time, once they'd been grouped together. At least two panelists mentioned finding out that a fellow panelists had done research and passed it along (due to being hooked up together in a panel) that had enlightened them in areas they'd missed. Otherwise, how would an archaeologist, an art historian, and a political scientist end up in a bar together?

I think what kept the discussant from feeling like a token was the fact that the discussant, in a way, was almost 'grading' the presentations. I heard that one discussant essentially eviscerated the panelists -- but in a very nice way. (He's quite charming, too, which helps.) We're talking professors/teachers, so the chance to teach people, give constructive feedback, is probably invaluable. (I'm pretty sure that was also a case of four grad students getting the chance to have a distinguished, published, professor give them heavy-duty feedback. You really can't beat that with a stick, if it helps you get ready for orals.) I haven't seen that at any other conference. Not that I go to tons of them, but it just seemed like a really excellent thing, to get considered and thoughtful feedback on how well you'd gotten your point across.

In a tech version, I'd give panelists about 5-10 minutes to present, maybe just 5 minutes (about 3-4 slides, 2-3 pages written). Group it around a series of positions, or a loose topic where the different positions become arguments by virtue of comparison. Frex, "javascript frameworks" where one panelist talks about Knockout, another about Ember, another about Angular, the last about Backbone. Let the discussant be the authority that binds these four panels together, and treated as such: comments accorded dignity, and the panelists respond with respect. It's like what I tell people all the time, that we're all experts about ourselves, and in a tech situation, the discussant is therefore an expert about hir own response.

Which might be a way to get people into joining panels, even if they're insistent they don't have anything to present. Okay, maybe the person doesn't have a "position" on something, but they can still be an authority on their own reaction. In some discussant cases, I might even say that being a novice is also a kind of authority: it's just as much feedback to say, "you really lost me at this point, and it wasn't clear what point you were making; I think you need to step back from the weeds and give a higher view before you dig down". That's just as valuable as if I sleep and eat recursion and have 'prototypical inheritance' tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.

It also means -- as long as the moderators are aware, and lead/enforce that respect for the feedback -- that some panelists might get feedback from a source they've never before had to listen to. We all have confirmation bias, after all. Maybe someone up in the clouds really needs to have to sit there and listen to how ze isn't getting the point across like it was intended.

As for whether the discussants are taken seriously, I think the moderator is really what leads, here. I had never seen this pattern before, so I was like, "what? now we listen to someone talk about what everyone just said?" It didn't help that the first panel I attended on thursday night was four men, with a woman discussant. So I was totally thinking tokenism, to be honest.

But when the woman was done speaking, the moderator's response made it clear that he was totally appreciative of her time and input. He gave a thoughtful, reasoned response to the points she'd raised. Everyone else followed his lead.

It could also work in the opposite direction, too: where the panelists were mostly women, and the discussant was male. I mean, really, the respect is going both ways, if you think about it. Like the panel with four women grad students, all of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, whose panels were given serious thought and reflection by an older Korean man. He didn't dismiss their effort/time out of hand; even his criticisms were delivered in a respectful manner that recognized they'd worked hard. Dismissal is when you can't even be bothered to reply to a person's words. Respect is when you listen closely, balance praise with critique, raise questions, and find something to discuss.

In that way, I think having a discussant might also be a good thing for newbie panelists, to know they'd be getting feedback. The most important thing is that it can't be antagonistic; it must be done with a thought that a) we're all in the same/cojoined industry, and b) a sense of mentorship. If someone doesn't want to mentor, or be mentored, they don't belong as a discussant or on a panel.

I also saw several cases of the discussant's comments raising questions that the audience then followed up on. So even if one wanted to say the discussant is just a token, that's impression is undone when the audience (or moderator) takes the discussant points as a jumping-off place for questions.

The other thing is that no one really gets to be 'the star', in this system. I've seen my share of Front-end-dev conferences broadcast online, and it does seem like the same names dominate every stage. Giving one person a half-hour or more (up to an hour, for some!) is fine when the person has that much experience to impart. A name in their field for fifteen years, sure. A newbie grad student (the equivalent of a junior dev in the scheme of things, really) -- hell, the average seemed lucky to make 10 minutes without padding, to be honest. Curtailing the star down to 10-15 minutes evens things out, and gives others a chance to speak, while also giving the message that these unknown names have equal billing.

Where to pilot this out? I'm not really sure. It would probably need to be a conference where there's a variety of topics, in order to arrange a series of panels. It would probably be a bit more work -- I mean, you can't just rely on the same five big names, after all -- but perhaps a conference could suggest 5-10 topics, and request 1-2 pages' response, and pick from those. Having a written response would help keep things more organized, and (hopefully) limit those who might dominate with an hour rambling, if left to their own devices (or a really weak moderator).

If I think of anything else, I'll add it. Let me know where/when/how to send you the full post, B, although I reserve the right to cut a lot of this wordiness the hell out! I also expect [personal profile] starlady and [personal profile] branchandroot will probably be able to weigh in, too, being academics.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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