Why do some conferences have discussants? It’s awkward

If you’ve ever been at a conference that had discussants, I’d like to know if you thought it’s as awkward as I thought it was. If you’ve never attended such a conference, good for you! Read this post to know why you also want to avoid them in the future.

A couple of weeks ago, I presented a paper on moral hazard in the insurance industry at a Netspar meeting on meeting on pension decisions (I know, that’s a bit weird). The Netspar Editorial Board had finally accepted the paper after three rounds of reviews (read it here) and I was asked to present our most important conclusions at one of their conferences. In this case, a group of academics and people from the insurance and pension industry came together to discuss research and its policy implications.

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So, I presented the paper. I gave a brief summary of our literature review and tried to convince the audience that they should run experiments if they want to test the effectiveness of different policies. When I was done, the discussant was asked to come forward to discuss our paper and my talk. Like every other discussant I’ve seen, he prepared slides and started a presentation about my presentation (meta!).

This is where the awkwardness began. However, I don’t want this post to sound like a personal attack on the discussant—he made good comments and constructively criticized our paper. Therefore, I’ll write about why having a discussant is awkward in general, instead of describing just this single awkward instance.

The discussant takes the floor

Where do I sit/stand/vertical?

The discussant should have the audience’s full attention, so the speaker should get out of the way. But where does (s)he go? Sit back down? Stand on the side? Is there a special ‘wait-until-the-discussant-is-done-chair’? This needs to be clear in advance because otherwise, changing presenters looks more like a scrimmage than the start of a professional discussion. I might go to the wrong conferences, but I’ve only seen scrimmages so far.

The discussant presents

After the discussant opens the powerpoint (s)he often starts with a summary of the paper. A summary of the paper that was just presented. That’s weird. Because the paper was just presented. It seems that most discussants only realize this after they start their presentation however, because they say things like:

“In the paper, the authors claim X and Y..”

*2-second silence*

“basically it’s what the presenter just said”

*another 2-second silence*

“but (s)he explained it way better than I just did of course”

Awkward.

Compliments

Inevitably, the discussant will compliment the presenter. Publicly complimenting someone is awkward. Publicly receiving compliments is awkward. If there’s eye-contact, it’s awkward. Avoiding eye-contact? Awkward.

Critiques

What’s possibly even more inevitable is that the discussant critiques the paper. In that case, what should the presenter do? Sit there, meek as a lamb, waiting for the discussant to stop? Respond to each point right away? Interrupting the presentation to respond to a critique may turn out to be somewhat awkward, so most people wait until the discussant is done.

In those cases, the presenter has to memorize the points the discussant makes and reply to them at the end. Most presenters I’ve seen—including myself—have no clue how to do this. Stand back up? Get back in front of the audience? Does the entire audience need to be adressed or is it really a discussion between the presenter and the discussant? The combination of uncertain things makes the whole enterprise very awkward.

The end

After the presenter and discussant close their awkward public debate, it’s the audience’s turn.

Grasshoppers, providing the soundtrack to awkward silences since forever

“Any other questions?”

*grasshoppers in the distance*

“Comments maybe?”

*chirp chirp*

Nope. Nobody wants to partake in the awkwardness. In addition, the discussant is likely to have raised the most important questions and usually, the discussion has been held on a very abstract level already. That makes it awkward for the audience to ask questions about details or things they missed. So above and beyond making things awkward, having a discussant ironically kills the discussion.

Solution

The solution to awkward discussants: beer

Don’t have discussants. They make things awkward and prevent the audience from actively participating in the discussion. Instead, why don’t the discussant and the presenter have a private discussion? Perhaps over a beer, but definitely not in front of an audience and with slides and everything. If they just meet with the two of them, they can have a real discussion, talk about the research, and avoid all the awkwardness. Sounds like a big improvement to me.

I’m curious whether more people have had awkward experiences with discussants, so please let me know about any positive or negative discussant experiences you’ve had and feel free to propose a better solution!

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About Job van Wolferen

PhD-student at TIBER / Tilburg University. Research: Moral hazard and fraud in the insurance industry. Interested in behavioral economics and JDM
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2 Responses to Why do some conferences have discussants? It’s awkward

  1. Ryan says:

    I have never seen the need for discussants on a formal level. We know the role is surely to stimulate and mediate some kind of discussion. But if the discussant’s actions make the presenter more uncomfortable, then surely there is something wrong here! Discussants should encourage the audience to make some kind of contribution towards the paper. Hence it needs to be less formal than the presentation itself. Why sit through another presentation prepared by the discussant? This just stifles audience participation. What is required, I feel, is to connect the presenter’s message with the audience. A discussant cannot isolate both through a) making the presenter uncomfortable and b) boring the audience with a PowerPoint. It is formality that prevents participation.

  2. John says:

    Yes, indeed, it’s a ludicrous concept. It shouldn’t even be a word.

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