Can The Comment

Like many academics, I’ve spent many hours this summer in conference rooms with fluorescent lighting and insufficient air conditioning. For the most part, this has been a real pleasure—after a year of teaching, it is always invigorating to hear others present their research and engage in fruitful conversations. But one part of the experience always fills me with dread: the comment.

(To be clear: here I am referring especially to annual conferences such as the AHA, OAH or SHEAR annual meetings. Smaller or more specialized conferences may have some use for comments, though much of what I say below may still apply).

After listening to three papers in an hour, the last thing I want to do is listen to another presentation—all the more so when the custom remains for conference panelists to read their papers from a script. Quite simply, after an hour, there needs to be a break in presentation style, switching to questions from the audience to allow a little more interactivity. Aft all, few of us would recommend lecturing to an audience for over 70 minutes with no break.

The commenter, too, is left in an entirely unfair position. The expectation seems to be that a comment should achieve most, if not all of the following—summarizing three or more papers, offering a brief critique, and situating the panel in a broader literature. That can’t easily be done in the time theoretically allotted. So, just like the panelists themselves, there’s a tendency to go over time. What starts off as a full thirty or forty minutes for questioning vanishes very quickly.

In one conference session I attended, a room full of 50 people was given less than ten minutes to question the panelists. And that is not the worst story I heard. One recent conference left well under five minutes for questions from the floor. As invariably happens in these cases, questioning then moves into time left by the conference organizers for a break—fundamentally necessary to recharge batteries ahead of another 90+ minutes of intellectual engagement. If conference attendees are basically prevented from asking questions at a panel session, we’d all be better served by uploading YouTube videos and saving on the airfare.

Sometimes the commenter may be briefer, but instead of suggesting broad directions for future research, they move toward the pedantic: questioning the organization of the paper, or factual minutiae, or worse still, asking questions about footnotes that the audience hasn’t even seen! None of which justify the privileged position the commenter has as first responder to the research presented.

All of the above, I hope, should be enough to convince you that simply opening the floor to questions from the audience is far preferable to the comment.

But even an exemplary comment—succinct, asking thoughtful questions, and situating the papers in broader literature—comes with strings attached.[1] Firstly, the panelists will be asked if they want to respond to the comment. That, of course, is necessary professional courtesy, but which further reduces the chance of engaging the audience. Granted, the panelists will often throw the floor open immediately—yet the first questions are often dealing with the agenda of the commenter, and it can take some time for questioning to shift its focus. The very structure of the comment is one that tends toward narrowing discussion, rather than opening the panelists to the full level of expertise present in the room.

After all, surely the point of a conference is that it brings academics together in the same place in a way that simply cannot be replicated by other means? Yet a comment can easily be replicated via email and other media. If we are going to congregate in large groups to listen to, learn from, and offer constructive advice about the newest research in the field, we should also let conference attendees play their part in a successful panel. We certainly shouldn’t put in artificial and structural impediments to engaging the audience in the room. That means we should can the comment—and the sooner, the better.

Perhaps, instead of the comment, the chair should simply open the floor to questions at the end of the final paper presentation. If there are enough questions to fill the session – great! If not, then that’s when the chair should step in, perhaps offering their own thoughts on the panel topic, or encouraging more conversation between panelists. That way, the last part of any panel session would be filled by interactive conversation, engaging the audience more directly following the presentation of more detailed ideas. Let the conversation flow!


[1] I should note here I have been fortunate to present many papers whose commenters have delivered such exemplary remarks!

34 responses

    • I agree with pre-circulation. Even if people did not have a chance to read them in their entirety, they could skim and refer to them during the conversation.

      I enjoyed the model that the Revolution Reborn conference adopted last year. Each panelist pre-circulated a 4-7 page paper. This length ensured that even the busiest scholars could make time to read them. The panelists had 5 minutes to offer remarks at the start of their panel, most summarized their papers. After the remarks, the chair opened the floor to discussion. I found this to be intellectually engaging and the time for each panel flew by because the audience not only listened, but participated throughout.

      • I agree with you both as well. I thought that perhaps the most important innovation coming out of the RevReborn conference was actually the format, which was excellent. Three panelists who pre-circulate 10-page papers and then get 6-8 minutes to summarize or expand on their papers and the rest of the panel’s time was for Q&A. The Q&A would be much more useful and lively (as it was at RevReborn) if attendees could have the papers 2 months ahead of time and therefore have enough time to think about the papers seriously and formulate questions as opposed to trying to critique an argument one just listened to delivered in the less-than-engaging, just-read-your-paper style. If the delivery of the papers was only 30 minutes instead of 60 minutes, I would be less inclined to totally can the comment. In that situation, the comment format itself could be changed a bit and limited to 2-3 minutes.

    • I actually disagree about pre-circulation for larger conferences with concurrent sessions. It works very well for narrow, topic-oriented conferences where everyone is going to sessions together and there are therefore “only” 10-15 papers to read.

      But at SHEAR, there were 6 panels per session over the course of 10 sessions. That’s something on the order of 150-200 papers on topics covering the breadth of American history from 1776-1861 (and a few even outside those boundaries). Of course no one would read all of them or even most of them, but honestly, if SHEAR were set up that way I’d be likely to read almost none of them — I just don’t have that kind of time, even in the summer.

      That said, we should as a group do better in terms of presenting our material. Very few people give lectures in the classroom — even if they do formal lectures — from an entirely prepared text, and there’s no reason we should do that to one another at conferences.

      • Agree with you here, Joe. Precirculation for a general audience attending maybe 10 panels in a weekend is too heavy a workload for an annual meeting.

        • Say, 9 panels with 3 8-page papers at each. That’s 216 pages assuming you read the entirety of every paper for every panel you planned to attend. Papers that short would be much easier to skim and get the argument and evidence down quickly anyway, allowing you to give more attention to the panels in your field or those that interest you the most. For non-specialists on a topic, it’s often hard to engage enough with the minutiae of an argument being made in a paper just read to you for the first time anyway.

          RevReborn had 14 papers for a total 140 pages altogether (and two papers were not double-spaced and used 10pt font). So it’s not actually that much of a difference between the two. I guess it just depends on how badly you want to avoid having to sit through listening to 60 minutes of someone else reading at you every panel.

  1. I think we should try this at SHEAR next year. No comments, just audience discussion. But let me ask, what’s the history of the comment? Why _do_ we do panels this way?

    • Unfortunately, SHEAR seemed this year to be going in the opposite direction by having a Chair and a Commenter. I saw a number of panels where both ended up commenting, which cut the time for audience participation. I don’t see any reason why the Chair shouldn’t also be the commenter. If anything, it might get more junior historians chairing panels, which would be a good thing.

      • From what I picked up from the chairs that did comment, it was part of a move by SHEAR to stop the chairs having such a passive role on panels. As you say, that could easily be solved by making the chair and commenter the same person. Indeed, if we did have to have commenters, simply changing the role to that of a chair – thus all comments are with the aim of facilitating better discussion rather than being a ‘set-piece’ of its own.

        • That makes good sense, Ken Owen, and it works quite well. I’ve been both chair and commenter on a panel, and that achieves all that you suggest that it would achieve. Sometimes, though, if a comment is done well, it can be both a set piece of its own and a means of facilitating discussion. Whenever I give a comment, and when I’ve been both chair and commenter, those linked goals were uppermost in my mind.

          • SHEAR has long had a tradition of having two commenters on panels–one that I’ve never understood (although, as Craig Friend points out below, it’s a way to increase participation on the program). It’s the only conference I go to that uses this model, and frankly, it drives me nuts.

            At the C19 conference this past year, we tried a seminar format that worked really well–I think we swiped the idea from a Modernist Studies Assn. conference. There were six 2-hour long sessions around a particular theme, each led by a senior scholar (Michael Warner, Meredith McGill, Ken Warren, etc.). The seminars were capped at 15 participants. Each person had to submit a short statement (5 pages) about their work as it related to the topic of the seminar. Those statements were pre-circulated to all of the members of the group, who were expected to read all of them; the seminar leader was responsible for leading discussion in such a way that it brought in everybody’s work. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and it was a great way to get another 90 people on the program without extending the conference by a full day.

  2. Mild dissent.

    (1) I had always thought that one was supposed to do pre-circulation for a panel, and so on any panel on which I’ve served, I’ve pre-circulated my paper if I’m a presenter, and I’ve asked about pre-circulation if I’m a commenter. Usually that produces the desired results.

    (2) I think that a commenter *can* do all the things that Ken Owen outlined as what most people expect of a comment: “The expectation seems to be that a comment should achieve most, if not all of the following—summarizing three or more papers, offering a brief critique, and situating the panel in a broader literature.” In fact, I’ve done it. Also, I’ve tried whenever I’m a commenter to put into the mix some new idea or analysis, some new perspective from which to view the papers presented. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun, and if it’s done well, it really opens up the discussion to other new ideas and perspectives.

    (I will add that, at some conventions — I’m thinking of the American Society for Legal History [ASLH] — some paper-givers don’t write a delivery draft, but stick the commenter with the text of a 100-page law-review article manuscript. One of my colleagues, when she was a commenter, was abused that way, by all three paper-givers, and she still is not happy about it, years after the fact. Thus, the lesson is to insist on receiving delivery-draft versions (8-10 double-spaced pages maximum) and that long enough before the convention for the commenter to be able to read all three papers and then devise a comment of appropriate length (5-8 double-spaced pages maximum).

    (3) A comment that contextualizes the papers also is of use to those in the audience who may be there simply to “show the flag” for one or another paper-giver but may not know the field beyond knowing his or her friend’s paper, if that. Done well, it can help frame the discussion.

    (4) Paper-givers and commenters alike ought to obey the basic rules of how long one should speak. One double-spaced page Courier 12 equals two minutes of talking. Thus, as observed above, no delivery-draft should be longer than 10 double-spaced Courier 12 pages, and preferably 7-8 pages. A comment should only be 5-8 double-spaced Courier pages.

    • I don’t necessarily disagree with what you say here – not least about all presenters, panelists included, keeping to time-honored guidelines on length of paper.

      I think the one thing that would definitely be lost from the best comments is your third point – a good comment can draw the papers together for a less informed attendee. I’d counter, though, that that may well be a failure of the presenters to situate their paper.

      And I would also wish to point out I have heard several good comments this summer, too. But only one (maybe two) comments have provided me with a major ‘takeaway’. And the structural problems with the comment I outlined above mean that I’d want more of those ‘takeaway’ moments before I’d be convinced to keep the comment.

      • At an ASLH conference some years ago, I was drafted, last-minute, as a commenter on a panel on the intellectual origins of the Constitution. I had no chance to read the papers, for I was drafted 2 minutes into the panel. I had to sit there, listen, scribble notes, and think hard — while damning the panel chair who drafted me. Then I did my best to fit the papers together into a coherent pattern, while situating them within the historiographical context in which everyone is looking for one ur-body-of-knowledge a tthe core of the Constitution’s intellectual origins, and then I channeled Prof. Commager (mentor #1) and pointed out that the one thing that was missing here was the recognition of the diversity of the American Enlightenment, of the numbers of bodies of ideas, knowledge, and experience on which Americans were drawing, and that the one thing they all had in common was an epistemological mindset about how knowledge could be sorted, then blended, assembled, and synthesized, and that, if there was any one thing holding all these disparate ideas and experiences together, it was that epistemological mindset. I like to think back on that panel as an example of how a commenter *can* be of value.

    • I would second the point about contextualization. It’s not necessarily a failure of the paper writer, as Ken suggests, not to do that work for the three papers. That is, papers can work together as a coherent panel and address common issues that a commenter can highlight without the papers having to address identical historiography/context.

        • I was taught that that’s how it should be done. I don’t know what’s being taught on these issues now.

          Still, if you use a chair who is also a commenter, and pre-circulate the papers (in delivery draft form and length), the chair can then do all the things that we want a chair/commenter to do, and not overtax the audience.

  3. I’ve never understood why commenters should feel obligated to summarize papers that a majority of the audience just listened to. If that practice went away at would free up more time for the better part of the commenting (contextualization) and more Q&A.

    • You needn’t summarize in depth — often the gist of a paper can boil down to 2-3 sentences, and the challenge facing a commenter is to tie those sentences back to your assembly of the papers into a coherent whole fitted within a larger scholarly context, while providing a platform for the commenter’s contribution to the discussion. It can be done; all that is required to do this is (a) a set of cooperative paper-givers who get you their delivery drafts ahead of time, and (b) a knowledge of the field, and (c) a talent for terse, deft prose.

    • I did notice a lot of that at SHEAR. For me, the commenter should take a few minutes to tie the papers together and to situate them as a whole within a broader historiographical debate or question. That would be useful for those who are attending a panel outside their specialty and would still involve some active creativity on the part of the commenter.

  4. A quick word from a first-time attendee at a big conference (SHEAR). The idea of pre-circulating papers sounds fantastic as I am sure it engages the audience in a way that I did not experience. But I am not sure that abandoning the formal delivery of comments in general is the right way to go. At SHEAR, two comments in particular stand out to me as being succinct and pointed and offered both criticism and praise to senior scholars and students alike. More importantly, both comments did NOT summarize the papers but for a single sentence including an author mention and something like “his/her paper on X looks at the economy of Y.”

    Other comments, however, were not as tight and as a result were less thought provoking. For example, one spoke for twenty-five minutes or so and ate up almost all of the active engagement time. Perhaps this was the result of the failure of the chair to step in. Still, the chair pushed the Q/A time as far as he could, but It got to the point where hotel employees opened the door in a clear “get out of here now” gesture as we dipped into some post-panel minutes.

    Overall, I like the idea of pre-circulating papers in the Revolution Reborn model, and I would add to this list (if it is not done already at some of these major events) the comments as well. If all elements of a panel are known to the audience beforehand, the disorienting effects of a rambling comment may be lessened as the audience can reorient the discussion around the panelists or the commentators own more coherent written thoughts.

    Thanks for this post. As a conference newbie, now I am looking forward to my exposure to cutting edge scholarship and overall conference organization!

  5. Ken, I agree with you that many conference panels suffer from the problems that you raise here. However, I’ll raise two points in defense of the comment.

    First, because commentators are tasked with thinking about papers in advance of the conference, they are positioned to make more trenchant and thought-out critiques than are audience members who have only just heard the papers. I know I’ve attended more than one panel where audience members have shared general sense of unease about papers’ framing or arguments, and where commentators have crystallized that critique in a productive way. Attendees would have needed time to carefully re-read each paper to fully develop that critique themselves. (And, as others have suggested above, pre-circulated papers have their downsides.)

    Second, conference comments function as a kind of peer review and help scholars (particularly junior scholars) to make new connections with others. Outside of readers’ reports on fully-drafted articles and manuscripts, is there any other formal context besides conference comments in which scholars can receive in-depth comments from those outside of their institutions? Moving away from the comment would, I think, increase the importance of informal favors and mentoring.

    These two considerations make me wonder whether the problem is the execution of the comment, rather than the concept itself. Many of Ken’s objections, it seems, could be addressed by shortening conference papers from 20 minutes to, say, 10, thus preserving a bit of space for the comment while freeing more time for questions.

    • I agree with your first point, Sara – though I would argue that having outside readers review work doesn’t need a conference setting, in a way that group discussion does.

      On the second point, I’d have thought allowing more people to ask questions and engage with work would be better as a networking opportunity. I know after my first conference presentations, it was the people engaged enough to ask questions, rather than the commenters, who provided the fullest engagement or assistance after the event.

  6. I totally disagree. Many commentators do it badly but that’s no reason to ditch it. Ideally the presented paper is stage 1, article is stage 2, in the career of an intervention in the field. The threat of a difficult comment can push presenters to be bold, thoughtful, thorough, etc. Without a comment papers can be glib, clever-but-unproveable, or a sad recapitulation of an old argument that the paper-giver hasn’t heard about. Without a comment a paper session is not really a review process, and can insure that the trip to the conference is worthless to the paper-giver.

    Yes, many commentators screw up and will ramble, self-promote, and snipe. But a big part of the problem is paper-givers who take far too long to present, eating up the time for comment & audience. (Timekeeper is the job of the chair, but the chair often completely fails in doing this). Yes, commentators sometimes read the papers too quickly and better comments often come from the crowd. It’s maddening when there’s no time for comments from the floor. Commentators shouldn’t summarize but should critique, yet many, many papers at conferences have no argument, which forces the commentator to come up with a summary that the paper lacks. Commentators have the burden of reading the whole paper (not skimming), checking material against other work, and really drilling down into the paper. Paper presentations should be shorter and pre-circs are a good idea, but the comment – when they’re done properly – is often the best reason to come to a conference.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever considered the potential for a difficult comment on a panel as an implicit threat (whether presenting or commenting). And I don’t know that a trip to a conference is ever worthless, even if there’s not a formal comment. But I do agree that panel chairs do need to step in more actively than they often do to keep things on track. Which is why it may be sort of confusing to ask a chair to also give a comment.

      • If we don’t think the audience is informed enough to pick apart a bad paper, why do we have conferences in the first place?

        The model you seem to be suggesting, Scott, seems more suitable for an individual seminar or workshop than a conference. Indeed, I’m concerned that if we all thought of conference papers this way, we’d see fewer innovative papers – a paper at SHEAR or the OI conference shouldn’t have to be as polished as a draft journal article

        • Hmm, I think you make a good point here, Ken. Yet I would argue that any innovative conference paper must pass the critical eye of the commentator–who is able to check footnotes and spend more time “drilling down” into the paper, as Scott mentioned–as well as the audience, which often brings up issues neglected or missed by the commentator. Aren’t both necessary? How can a conference paper be innovative if it is lazy and, perhaps, flat-out wrong? It seems to me that, without commentators, you’d run the risk of diminishing the scholarly integrity of a conference like SHEAR, which embraces everyone from the lowliest graduate student to the professor emeritus.

        • Ken, this is a false dichotomy. You said “can the comment.” I didn’t say “can the audience,” I just said that the commentator had an important job: to closely read the paper & critique it. The audience can pick apart certain kinds of bad papers but not others, particularly the glib paper with weak or misconstrued evidence. I think the paper is often the first draft of the article and that a good commentator can help presenters get to the next step of an important article if they do their job well. The audience can also do that but are hindered by not having the paper to read or (often) the time to read it.

          I think that Sara Damiano and I are making the same point but her response wasn’t visible when I posted mine (I write slowly). I would’ve just seconded her point.

          Like Craig & Robert said, I’ve often learned more from thoughtful comments at a conference than I have from papers.

  7. This is a fascinating topic to me–an annual conference coordinator. I have no preference: I think there are many different ways to present, comment, and engage audiences. My observations over the years have been that:

    1. Presenters who do not read from pre-written texts do very poor jobs of relating their content to the audiences. Additionally, by not producing and delivering a coherent text to the commentator, they provide little for the commentator to comment on.

    2. The reason we have a chair/commentator and an additional commentator at SHEAR is to increase participation. By having a second comment in panels, we increase the program size by 50+ people.

    3. Each panel at SHEAR is 1 hour 45 mins., broken down as 20 mins per paper (or 15 mins per paper for 4 paper panels), 15 total minutes for comments, and 30 mins for audience conversation. If the chair keeps the presenters and commentators on task, there is sufficient time for audience conversation. About half of the panels at SHEAR this year ended early, so while an occasional panel may warrant more time for discussion, from an organizational point of view, the allotted time is appropriate.

    4. SHEAR has typically had two panels every year with pre-circulated papers. The results are mixed. It does create more conversation between presenters and audience. But having sat in on several of these panels, it also leads to less informed audience members because they haven’t read the papers and rely solely on presenters’ brief synopses to raise issues.

    That said, I would be interested in other panel formats with which people are familiar. There is no reason that we cannot try new things, as we did last year with the pecha-kucha which is now the most popular panel at SHEAR.

    • Craig, thanks a lot for such a lengthy and thoughtful response. My two cents on some of your points:

      1) I think most graduate students are taught to write better than they are to present. There’s no reason not reading a script couldn’t be done well or engagingly. Though I agree some ideas are sufficiently complex or with unfamiliar material may justify a script.

      2) has there been consideration of the cost to wider audience participation? also, if I remember correctly, conference rules *demand* a separate chair and commenter. Is there any chance of those being relaxed?

      3) I’m surprised to hear about the panels ending early – I’m not sure any I attended did, and if one did, it was missing a panelist. But I’d rather see more interaction between panelists than having an extra voice at the front.

      4) I agree per-circulated panels are spotty in quality.

      • Ken,

        Actually, I was not thinking of grad students with point one, although it certainly could apply.. I agree there should not be any reason reading a script could not be done well, but I have yet to see it done well by some of the most tenured of scholars. Most are bumbled and fumbled. And I have heard plenty of scripted papers that were delivered with enthusiasm and entertainment. Most often, I find, those who read from notes just didn’t invest the time to prepare a good paper.

        But I reiterate that the real problem here is that a commentator cannot produce good comments to a paper if there is no paper. I had three commentators this year complain to me that they received only notes from a presenter and they could not make much sense of the notes. If you want good comments, you have to provide substantial texts (with citations) for commentators to read and consider.

        As to your second point, I guess at the heart of this entire discussion and your initiating comments is the question “who is a panel for?” Is it the conference’s goal to assist presenters in developing and honing their scholarship? Or are we trying to inspire a wider professional dialogue about a panel topic? They need not be exclusive, but I think the string of comments on this blogs testifies that they often are. My thoughts are that conferences are meant to advance the development of scholarship, and for that reason, the comments of specialists to carefully crafted and thoughtful papers are far more useful than the questions and comments of an audience, only some of whom specialize in the topic.

        It seems to me, and correct me if I am wrong, that you are making the case that audience interaction with the panel is far more valuable than the comments of specialists. If so, I think that is probably true for roundtables where the goal is a larger dialogue but less so for three-paper presentations where the primary intent is to assist the panelists in developing their projects. Ideally, I think a good conference should have a mix of panel types that allows for different levels of participation by presenters, commentators, and audiences alike.

        Yes, I recognize that not all papers are good and that not all comments are useful, but you can leave a panel at any time. It is rather common practice for individuals to leave after one or two papers, or before the comments. I often see people leave after the comments, apparently uninterested in the audience’s questions. Next time you come to SHEAR–and I hope you will come again–just get up after the final paper, cough loudly and trip over a chair, and walk out! (That’s what I do.)

  8. I could not agree more strongly with the previous two posts by Scott Nelson and Craig Friend. Some of the most insightful remarks I heard at SHEAR this year were delivered by commentators, not panelists. Meanwhile, some of the least helpful remarks/questions I witnessed were raised by audience participants, who, unlike the commentator, hadn’t read the papers (obviously I am setting aside the pre-circulation argument for the moment) and simply didn’t have the time to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the panelists’ arguments and evidence.

    As a first-time presenter at SHEAR last summer, despite only getting an audience of about 10 (yes, it was a panel of graduate students on Sunday morning at 8:15), the entire weekend suddenly became worthwhile for me after receiving the wonderfully trenchant and helpful critique of my commentator, Jason Opal. Perhaps the value of “the comment” varies depending upon the perspective of the panelists and audience members, but for most graduate students, anyway, it is surely indispensable.

  9. Pingback: Wednesday Link Roundup #60: Conferences, Comments, & Writing Tips - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart


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