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Modest proposals for conference participants

Modest proposals for conference participants

Jim Conley, Trent University

Mark Stoddart, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Over twenty years ago, Barry Wellman published a set of seventeen rules for conference participants, particularly presenters and chairs. Although many are debatable, and some need to be updated (when was the last time anyone used transparencies?), they are still essential reading for both novice and veteran presenters.

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

  1. 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 do the same during conference presentations.)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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).

As sociologists, we know that rules must sometimes be broken, and each of us broke at least one of them this year (no one’s perfect, and we promise to try to do better in the future).


Chiose, Simona. 2014. “Universities urged to develop new models of PhD study.” Globe and Mail, May 30. <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/education/universities-urged-to-develop-new-models-of-phd-study/article18937616>

Wellman, Barry. 1993. “Bum raps: Daydreams of a weary conferencer” Footnotes 21, 5: 14. <http://www.asanet.org/footnotes/1993/ASA.05.1993.pdf>