Thursday, November 19, 2009

What's the Point of Conference Comments?

Like a lot of people, I periodically comment on the work of others at conferences. At a recent conference, I noticed an odd pattern. At a typical conference, the talks consist of four main parts: A) the main presenter presents her work; B) the commenter presents some comments, criticisms, or suggestions; C) the main presenter responds to the comments; D) the audience members discuss the paper with the main presenter.

The odd pattern was that part (D) often proceeds as if parts (B) and (C) never happened. Nobody asks the commenter any questions. Nobody mentions anything the commenter said in questions addressed to the main presenter.* If somebody confides that he's nervous about giving comments, I tell him not to worry because nobody pays any attention to the comments. This seems weird, since standard operating procedure is to employ commentators, and almost every conference does it. I started to wonder, though, what the point was. Would we lose anything if we got rid of comments at conferences altogether?

As it happens, I recently attended a conference that did not make use of prepared commentary--that did away with parts (B) and (C) of the standard formula. It seemed to me that the quality of the discussions were not harmed by this fact; the absence of commentators seemed to make no difference in the overall discussion whatsoever. What did seem to be affected was the number of people at the conference. It had the feel of a really small, 1-day conference, even though it was a multi-day several-concurrent-sessions kind of a deal. Maybe that's not bad: there's something to be said for intimacy. But usually you want a lot of people at your session if you're a main presenter. So one nice thing about having commentators is that it doubles the amount of people who attend the conference without doubling the amount of sessions.

--Mr. Zero

*There are exceptions. This typically indicates a problem with the main paper. I've seen this occur only in cases in which the main presenter was responding in a specific and narrow way to some other paper, the author of the other paper served as commentator, and the commentator's paper was way better or more interesting than the main presenter's paper.

This was an exaggeration, but was not hyperbole.

Having poster sessions is also an efficient way of increasing attendance. And I suspect that posters, though less efficient, are better than commentary, since posters are intrinsically more interesting. When I did a poster, I had lots of good discussions about it outside of the poster session itself; I've never really had a discussion about some commentary I was giving.


Anonymous said...

For the past two years I've done commentary for North American Circle "x" and it has been a great opportunity to engage with the main presenters whose work is usually established in the field. Also, doing commentary keeps me out of the field of fire, which I appreciate.

Over these past two years alot of well established and reputable scholars, most from ivies, have come to know me and interact with me in a meaningful way--dare I even say respect my viewpoints.

So while commentary seems unnecessary upon the face of it, I really enjoy the interaction it provides and as a way to get involved from the sidelines without getting toasted, so to speak. Finally, my commentary has been published in the conference proceedings which is an added bonus, and I used to think that that wasn't so special--but some of the major scholars in the field "x" have also done commentary, and then my work stood just as well alongside theirs. So that was nice.

In the end, commentary lets you hang with the big dogs in a safer way (for a young scholar such as myself who is just beginning to establish himself.) In the end those big dogs have in turn invited me to other conferences at big name ivy schools, and I've had a paper or two looked at with big name journals due to the rub. It has also increased my visibility for the job market. For example, during my previous introduction the moderator introduced me as commentator as well as the fact that I have a forthcoming book through a reputable and very good press (he mentioned the name.) Because of that, another press, even better than the one that I am now working with, expressed interest because someone who was there at that conference happened to be an editor in a particular series that my work related to, and just happened to be sitting there listening to my introduction.
Good deal.

I say commentary works well to do bigger and better things, get experience, and rub shoulders with established scholars. Its a safe bet and can be a valuable tool for networking.

Anonymous said...

I've commented on a handful of papers and each time either I got asked a question directly or someone repeated a point I had raised, with a nod to me--e.g. "going back to a point raised by [the commentator]..."

I always find that serving as a commentator isn't pointless, it *does* facilitate discussion, and that it is sort of your job as commentator to summarize in 5 minutes what the speaker said in 25, just in case any bozos nodded off.

There are some cases where no one pays attention to what the commentator says, but I generally appreciate when there is one--it's helpful to have at least one person in the room who has carefully read the material, excluding the speaker.

Anonymous said...

Good comments can give the discussion some shape and help the audience understand better the paper's arguments. Ideally, they prep things for what's to come. Extra ideally, they introduce some interesting objections and raise worthwhile questions.

My first APA session the first questions were addressed to my commentator because someone in the audience thought that their commentary missed the point.

Past experience tells me that a commentator is a good thing to have in the case of food poisoning. You can have the commentator read the paper and answer questions. This will be terrifying for the commentator if the commentator is a graduate student who was already in over his/her head in having to give comments. (Which has happened to yours truly when the Q&A got dumped in my lap and I became an instant action-theorist.)

Rex said...

Nobody asks the commenter any questions.

Good. And a good session chair should keep it that way. I commented on a paper once, and when audience members asked me questions, the chair redirected discussion to the presenter. This is as it should be. My commentary was meant to facilitate discussion of the presenter's arguments, which had been selected for presentation (unlike my commentary).

That said, commenting on others' papers is worth doing, for a lot of reasons, some mentioned above. And it is a chance to shine. It's just that that's not your purpose up there.

Mr. Zero said...

I didn't mean to suggest that comments were useless, exactly. I've received very helpful sets of comments, and I've been told that I've given very helpful sets of comments. And I agree with anon 9:47 that commentary is a good way to practice your public speaking without being the focus. I think there are good reasons why commenting is standard, and we ought to keep it that way. But I don't think these reasons have to do with how much better they make the discussion.

Anonymous said...

I've had my own work accepted a lot for presentation and I've also commented a fair amount. I really enjoy commenting, and I find that it repays hard work. I disagree with Rex that nobody should ask a commentator questions. When I'm presenting, and I have a commentator who has worked hard preparing good comments, I'm perfectly happy to share my stage time with her. In fact, if she’s produced good comments, I almost feel an obligation to do so, and I’ll refer back to her comments in the Q&A if no one else does! On the other hand, I feel it’s almost always inappropriate for a commentator to interject herself into questions directed to the speaker. That happened to me at my first APA presentation (my first year as a grad student). I had a really pushy, senior professor as a commentator, and he totally ruined the experience. (Some professors in the audience told me later that was his general M.O.) I’ve had one or two really good experiences commenting, where the audience directed questions to the speaker and me and the atmosphere of the Q&A developed into a really nice, collaborative, group-discussion. I know from the speakers in these cases that they didn’t feel upstaged or mind sharing discussion time with their commentators. They enjoyed these experiences just as much as I did. In one of these cases, the speaker later had a version of his paper accepted to a top journal and my comments were accepted as a response. So, as others have pointed out, comments can often pay off even beyond the conference.

I expect that the reason commentators don’t play a larger role in the Q&A of a conference is that they often don’t give good comments. I think this can be due to the very thing some have pointed to in defending comments—the fact that commentators are often young, inexperienced philosophy grad students. Which is not to say this shouldn’t be the case. I acknowledge the benefit in allowing grad students to get their feet wet in this way. I’m just saying...

Anonymous said...

Sometimes ya just gotta go all Rick James on someone (philosophically speaking)!

Anonymous said...

One thing I've noticed in grad student conferences is that many commentators devote a large portion of their comments to summarizing the paper that was just given. Half of me thinks this is a good idea, at least when papers have not been circulated or read in advance. The other half of me thinks it's a big waste of time.

Have other people encountered this practice? What do they think about it? What do you think makes for a good or bad set of conference comments? Are the criteria different for, say, written responses in a journal?

Polacrilex said...

Anon 6:36:

In my experience, I have found that commentary with a summary works very well at large conferences, especially the APA. At specialized, smaller conferences, I really don't see the necessity. Typically everyone there knows everyone's work already.

Rex said...

When I'm presenting, and I have a commentator who has worked hard preparing good comments, I'm perfectly happy to share my stage time with her.

I understand, and have some sympathy for this. Two things to consider:

1. Last commentator for me did not work hard. I didn't get his comments until we met at the conference, day and time of my presentation. Worse, the comments were crap. The guy had obviously waited until the last minute, hadn't read carefully, and didn't seem to understand the area I was working in. (This was APA, Main Program, by the way.) Commentators aren't all bad, of course, but there is no guarantee they will be good. Your paper, at least, survived peer-review. I know, so what? But I still think it means something.

2. When I go to your talk, I go to hear you talk about your idea. If the commentator talks too, that's fine, but odds are you've got a lot more to say about your idea than commentator does.

This is just fwiw -- I understand your pov, but don't share it.

Anonymous said...

I would just add that comments are useful in a way not mentioned yet. The commentator has access to the written version of the talk. This may or may not be precisely what the speaker presents at the conference. I think it can be useful to have specific comments to the written version in this manner, as the commentator will usually have time to reflect on the argument and come up with a more developed response than is sometimes possible on-the-fly in a presentation. Of course, this only works if the comments are good. But there is something to be said for having written comments on a paper and seeing how exactly the written version comes accross to the reader as one intends.