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Academic Conferences: Discussants Discuss

I have spent many years involved with different academic conferences. This has provided ample opportunities for networking and the next phase is giving back and serving as a chair or a discussant on panels. I have had the distinct displeasure of having some terrible discussants and then some wonderful discussants. I remembered each and have channeled the good examples and make sure that I do a few things. This list is a suggestion and certainly is not exhaustive.

1. Give the panelists as much as time as possible to get their draft to me. I’m usually traveling to the conference and I am perfectly fine with reading papers and making comments on the plane. I know that many prefer the papers a week prior; however, I rather have a more complete draft.

2. Explain to the panelists how much time they will have prior to the conference starting, so that they are aware of this prior to the actual conference. Then, reminding them at the panel and having a five minute and one minute warning. This is good to make sure that everyone gets ample time to present. There is nothing worse than the last panelist getting half as much time.

3. Read the paper closely and try to place it within the proper sub-field and make constructive comments and suggestions. This includes offering possible places for publication and other general supportive points. By reading the papers closely, the discussant should also tie the panel together with the preliminary comments to the audience.

4. Show up on time to the panel and make sure that the technology is in working order and that the panelists all have water. These little things are important and the panelists might vary from the seasoned presenter to the undergraduate co-presenting with their mentor.

5. Make your comments and then field the question and answer period with the audience. Thank everyone for coming and then give the hard copy of the papers back to the panelists or email them the copy with track changes or other comments.

An organized discussant can really help the panelists’ conference experience. We go to conferences to network, but the presentations are incredibly helpful to share works in progress or other research with our colleagues. The conference experience should be positive and a good discussant will contribute to this. Let me add that I now really understand certain conference policies about getting faculty to serve as a discussant. The discussant role is a time intensive one and this person should have some expertise if not more than familiarity about the area of research. I welcome other suggestions to my five points.

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