Monday, April 14, 2008

The hook

Pilgrim/Heretic recently posted about conference etiquette from the conference organizer's point of view. I'd like to ask readers what you do when you're the panel chair and you have to give someone the hook when he or she is rambling on far past the 15-20 minutes that are allotted for the presentation and far, far past the audience's patience.

In vaudeville days (or so I understand) or at talent competitions, there used to be an actual hook that would emerge from the sidelines and drag people off the stage, to hoots and jeers from the audience. I've only seen this happen in old movies, so I don't know if it really happened or if that was just a plot device.

But at conferences, sometimes you're the chair and you have to get the presenter to shut up so that someone else might have some time. What do you do?

Here's what I've seen:

  • Panel chair sits in the audience, moves to the edge of her chair, and beams at the offender with a bright and determined smile, trying to catch his eye so that he knows that time is up.
  • Panel chair sits at the end of the table and tries pointlessly to catch the eye of the presenter, who is now gesticulating wildly at the podium as other presenters cross big chunks of text out of their papers.
  • Panel chair sits next to the presenter, who's standing at the podium. Chair tugs at the presenter's coat, since it's obviously not possible to catch his or her eye.
  • Panel chair passes a note. Sometimes, if the chair is sitting at the end of the table, you can see all the stages of this: chair looks at watch, writes something in large letters on a piece of paper, passes it along the row of panelists (each of whom looks at it with something like relief), and finally sees it in the hands of the startled presenter, who says, "Oh! I will just have to skip to my last three points and my conclusion, then."
  • Well-prepared panel chair has the sign already made up and passes it along to the presenter.
  • A year or so ago, the MLA tried installing lights (green, yellow, and red) that panel chairs and presenters were supposed to use, but I didn't see any of them go off. In the sessions I saw, most of the lights were unplugged and left up at the podium. So much for the technological hook.

    Is there any really graceful way around this dilemma? Have you seen any panel chairs that were really good hook-wielders? Inquiring minds want to know.
  • 6 comments:

    Pilgrim/Heretic said...

    Heh - option 2 made me laugh out loud. Mostly I've seen the sign-passing strategy, and I don't have any better suggestion than that to a problem that happens all too frequently. (time to bring back the vaudeville hook, or perhaps the Gong Show gong!)

    Jeez, am I Miz Judgmental lately or what?

    cero said...

    I do the note thing, but it is of course imperfect / awkward / etc. - although that also depends on how the presenters handle it.

    The first time I ever did this I was a new assistant professor and I had organized a panel of mostly big names for a very big conference. I was last, before the discussant, who was also famous, and I wanted to make sure I and he both had time to speak. I made everyone caucus ahead of time, like undergraduates, and told them I was the director and stage manager and they were going to have to follow directions. I made them show me their papers, which predictably enough were 12-20 pages long, and said to start cutting now so they could deliver this in a way that would make them look good, because each one really only had 17 minutes.

    They were somewhat bemused but then throughout the rest of the conference people kept congratulating us all on how clear everyone's presentation had been, how smooth and easily comprehensible the panel, etc.

    I had prior experience as a stage manager and I guess this helped. I should do it again.

    Miriam said...

    I was just at the NeMLA conference, which had very small sessions, so the chairs were just making easily-visible significant gestures. At the conference I was at two weeks previously, though, I watched one (senior) presenter blithely ignore the (much younger) chair...

    Most of us at the MLA were staring at the lights with vaguely bemused expressions. I don't think I saw anyone try to use them. Perhaps a big red "Stop" sign is in order?

    StupendousWoman said...

    I once had a chair look me straight in the eyes and say out loud, “You need to stop. NOW.”

    She had not stopped nor signaled me for the normal 20-minute period, even though I had previously asked her to do so (and which I would have respected); she let me drag it on for 30 minutes, thus preventing any question period -- and my conclusion, of course.

    She's just lucky I did not smack her with her two-minute card.

    The Bittersweet Girl said...

    I've seen panel chairs show up with their own, homemade, laminated, color coded sheets of paper: a yellow sheet with "5 Minutes" printed in bold letters; a red sheet with "Time's Up," etc. I am envious of their enterprising spirit but it doesn't do much to solve the problem of how you get the speaker to notice the signs, let alone follow them.

    Personally, I'm for a trap door.

    undine said...

    pilgrim/heretic, if that's judgmental, there are two of us. I wonder if there's a correlation between the problem you were talking about (big names not wanting to register, not responding, etc.) and those who ignore panel chairs.

    Cero, I'm impressed that you got them to caucus ahead of time AND got to see their papers ahead of time. Having a discussant must have made that somewhat easier, but still.

    Miriam, I didn't see anyone trying to use the MLA lights, either. I think nobody wanted to be the first to try to work them, or maybe they thought that using them would indicate that they thought their panelists would go over the time limits. That scenario of senior panelist ignoring a junior moderator is something that's hard to watch, although I've also seen very junior (grad students) try to fit in what seems to be a whole dissertation chapter as a talk and looking annoyed when told to stop.

    stupendouswoman, that chair is lucky you didn't smack her with the card. She should have signaled you earlier. If she had a two-minute card, why didn't she use it?

    bittersweet girl, those laminated signs suggest some bad experiences in the past trying to get people to stop. Now I have this vision of people dropped through a trapdoor but climbing back up through it, still talking, with their papers in their hands.