CSA Blog



Modest proposals for conference participants

After attending all five days of this year's CSA conference, reflections on my own participation as discussant and audience member led me to sketch some ideas about how I and others could best fulfil those roles. I sent them around to some friends, and Mark Stoddart provided such good solutions to issues I had been struggling with that I asked him to join me as coauthor. The results of our efforts are reproduced below (the full version can be found on the Conference website).

We invite your comments and additions, such as updates and revisions of the Wellman rules of 1993 for chairs and presenters. Let's keep improving the CSA meetings.

For discussants
1. Be brief and to the point. No one comes to a session to hear the discussant, especially one who is longwinded. A discussant ought to make points that help structure conversation within the session rather than providing a detailed summation and commentary on each paper. If your remarks are interesting and substantive, and leave time for the audience to ask questions, maybe people will start attending sessions because you are the discussant.

2. Reward good behaviour. If authors have sent you their papers well in advance of the conference, reciprocate by sending them detailed written comments before the session. The gesture will be appreciated, especially if your remarks help them revise or rethink their work as they proceed to the next stage. You can also follow up by  talking over the papers outside the session.

3. Keep it collegial. (This rule also applies to audience members.) If you think a paper is bad, make it known in your written comments, but don't humiliate the author in public. Don't be afraid to disagree and critique, but do so in a spirit of respect and good will. Fairness, grace and good humour will do more for your reputation than pulling rank, showing off superior knowledge, or attacking a presenter who happens to use an approach that you don't like.

For audience members
4. Look up occasionally. Yes, papers may be boring, and like students at your lectures, you will often find your mobile device more interesting. That's fine, but look up at the presenter occasionally so that it appears that you are taking notes rather than doing email. (An exception to this rule: if you insist that your students put away their mobile devices during your lectures, you should hold yourself to the same standard during conference presentations.)

5. Keep questions or comments brief. If you want to present all of your own amazing thoughts, do so in a proper paper, not in the Q & A. Some issues are best pursued in private conversation with the presenter, so give other audience members a chance and don't obsess about minutiae. (This also applies to presenters. If you are stumped by a question, don't try to bluff your way out: thank the questioner and say that you'll have to think about it.)

6. Stand up and identify yourself. As internet flame wars and aggressive driving show, anonymity can facilitate uncivil behaviour, so when you ask a question or make a comment, give your name and if you are able, make yourself visible by rising from your seat (which helps you be audible too: everyone should be able to hear you, not just the panel). 

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Neil McLaughlin

Jul 16, 2014

Here are suggestions from Steve Fuller worth considering, as we modernize our conferences...


Neil McLaughlin

Jun 20, 2014

Yes, what a potentially cool exchange. I also would love to hear Jim and Mark unpack the notion of not being a jerk.. I have seen Jim raise tough but respectful questions for years, so I know how he knows how to do it.. And I have seen Mark do it too, and perhaps he is more attuned to changes in culture over time, and the status dynamics that some of can forget. Love to hear how they would describe what Karen and Tom want, cause it is clearly something the meetings need to make them as productive and useful as possible. How would we describe grandstanding, being pedantic and unfair, in addition, so we can learn to avoid it... Or at least try... While creating an intellectually engaging, and vibrant INTELLECTUAL culture...

Karen Stanbridge

Jun 20, 2014

Thanks, Jim and Mark, for putting these together. Like Tom, I’m struggling a bit with #3, though. It’s not because I’m against collegiality, respect, and good will – how can anyone be against those things? But I would like to hear more heated critique and debate of the research and ideas that we present at conferences. These are really the only times we can have it out in person, when we’re in the moment and aren’t able to craft erudite responses that cite all the proper sources. No one wants to be humiliated, but is it so bad if sometimes some of us get carried away with describing or defending something we’re passionate about? How about changing it to, “Try not to be too much of a jerk.”

Thomas Crosbie

Jun 18, 2014

Thanks to Jim, Mark, Susan and Neil for all this --

Comparing Canadian with American conferences, the big difference is never in the presentations, but always in the questions (well, that's been my experience). I've found Canadians acquit themselves very well in international conferences when they present, but tend to be quiet and reserved when in the audience. At the CSA, I've found myself as several panels where I'm the only person asking questions, and on two occasions I've been a panelist who has received no questions.

All papers should receive polite but critical comments, and the temptation to remain a silent and brooding specter at the back of the room should be resisted, even if one is tenured.

As Veblen said, "The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before", which is what the question period is for, I suppose; and while we should also keep in mind George Eliot's dictum, "Animals are such agreeable friends - they ask no questions, they pass no criticisms"; we should also consider Tolstoy's warning, "Historians are like deaf people who go on answering questions that no one has asked them".

Neil McLaughlin

Jun 17, 2014

Great piece Jim and Mark. And really helpful comments by Susan.

One thing I would really like to underline, for presenters is the need to try to not read papers. There are times when that is appropriate... If you are presently in a language you are not totally comfortable with, it makes sense to stick closely to a text. And new scholars sometimes are better off, taking a conservative strategy. But if at all possible, it would be so cool if more and more of us, could "talk through" papers, highlighting key points, making it as interesting as possible for the audience. This is a great skill for job talks, and of teaching itself. Timing, as Susan highlights, and rehearsing. Deciding what you can present with the time you have before you get up there, so you can focus your energy on making it interesting for people.. A goal to aim for, even though there is no harm playing it safe, until you get comfortable really just talking to your audience and looking up, as much as possible.... The technical details have to be there, in the written papers. But i would love to see our association be a place where as many people as possible focus on presentation style as well as scholarly content. Both matter, and thanks to Jim and Mark for making this point so thoughtfully!

Susan A Mcdaniel

Jun 17, 2014

Jim & Mark,

Really appreciate your thoughts on CSA conferencing,as a conference participant and former Prez of CSA (then CSAA). Spot on and important advice. What we now need to add would be parallel pointers for presenters and session chairs/organizers. I would suggest the following may be helpful:

For Presenters:

-- Come well prepared for a professional presentation that covers the main points of your paper, including your findings or conclusions.

-- Be sure to rehearse so that your presentation fits the time allocated.

-- If new to presenting at conferences, seek advice from more experienced presenters. And then, take the advice offered!

For session chairs/organizers:

-- KEEP CAREFUL WATCH OF THE TIME. Too many times, presenters later in sessions run out of time because the earlier presenters run over. Must be fair in this.

-- Start session on time! If a presenter has technical difficulties, do NOT hold everyone up until those are solved. Seen this happen far too many times,and it is horrid for presenters to suddenly have far less time each than they were promised, particularly hard for newer scholars who may have planned their presentation for exactly the time promised.

-- Do NOT accept more papers than a session can reasonably accommodate.

-- Lastly, and very importantly, do NOT favour your own research or your research collaborators in the session, either in time allocation, acceptance or indulgence of time for questions on that one paper in which the session chair has a particular interest.

Hopefully, these pointers add to your wonderful suggestions. Again, many thanks for doing this list of tips. As Past Prez of CSA, I worked overtime to make the conferences more professional so that more sociologists would attend and participate. It is gratifying to see that happening, but more is needed.

All best wishes,

Susan McDaniel

Canada Research Chair in Global Population & Life Course, University of Lethbridge