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