Academic Conference Panels: Academia’s Microcosm

Academic conference panels normally consist of three speakers, who are optimally arranged as follows: The first speaker is normal and predictable. He or she gives the textbook expectation of the topic under discussion. The second speaker is dopey and forgettable. He or she hasn’t quite mastered the topic or is simply a bad presenter. The third speaker is crazy and brilliant. He or she puts an unexpected spin on the panel’s topic, which suddenly takes it to a new and hopefully higher level.

Perhaps the most fundamental justification for this arrangement comes from cognitive psychology, where ‘primacy’ and ‘recency’ effects in memory studies have been long known. People tend to remember the first and the last items in a sequence and blank out the middle. So a good academic panel organizer knows how to play to that bias, given the set of speakers on offer. (I’m assuming for the sake of argument the perhaps controversial assumption that an academic panel is mainly designed to maximize interesting academic discussion.)

But there are more specifically sociological reasons for arranging academic panels this way. And these points will help future anthropologists figure out something about how academics operate in real life. Much of the audience for an academic panel arrives after the panel has begun. In that case, it’s good to have the most normal speaker go first because then the audience will have effectively missed less ‘content’ (from an information-theoretic standpoint), given just how much stuff that this person says will be what the audience already knows. (Perhaps this level of semantic redundancy serves to reinforce a sense of common identity – I leave that to the anthropologist.)

One can even go ‘gonzo’ on this – as I have done on several occasions – by arriving in the last few minutes of the first speaker’s talk and then asking a question of this sort: ‘I realize that I’ve only heard the last three words of your talk, but given the topic of this panel, have you considered…?’ If you’re already on top of the topic – and even better the speaker’s published views on it – you’re almost assured a blindsiding performance. However, as I have tried to suggest, such a display of interrogative genius is, like magic, heavily front-loaded. Nevertheless, it makes one wonder whether the ultimate socio-epistemic function of the first speaker is anything more than to provide a minimal ‘portal’ to the topic, say, in the manner of a doorstop.

The second person on the panel really shouldn’t be on it. But there are mitigating circumstances. This person has friends in high places, or (typically a junior academic) has been told to join the panel by people in high places, or is simply not sufficiently incompetent to be ineligible for the panel. (Evolutionary biologists stress the importance of ‘neutral drift’ in just sense, which is something that neo-liberalism seems designed to weed out.) Since by this point, the audience is stuck into the panel, there will be considerable good faith listening to at least half of what is said. The Q&A, assuming there is one, will alight upon any distinctive persons and concepts raised by the speaker without serious engagement with what was said. Questions will be asked more in the spirit of throwing a life preserver to someone drowning, hoping that they can redeem the situation.

The final speaker is on the panel to remind the audience that the panel – either because of the speakers or the topic — is really not what it’s cracked up to be, and so something else is needed. Thus, the speaker will begin by saying s/he is offering a reflection on what the previous speakers have said, but really they simply provide this speaker with a platform to launch into ‘something completely different’ that might actually raise the wattage of the general proceedings or result in cognitive burnout – when it will be time for lunch. So not too much damage can be done by these intellectual pyrotechnics. Ideally the audience would rise to the occasion by articulating how the third speaker’s talk contradicts the nostrums articulated by the first speaker, with perhaps glancing nods to terms from the second speaker’s talk. The result would be a well-orchestrated panel that leaves everyone satisfied that at least on this occasion the suboptimal parts of academic life can combine into a harmonious whole.


Categories: Committing Sociology, Conferences, Higher Education, Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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