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Conference Papers are the Worst: An Unfair and Biased Diatribe

I’m recently back from my fourth or fifth Modern Language Association Conference, and one of the best that I’ve ever attended. Partly that was due the fact that I purposefully spent my time (and shared a room) with some of my favourite academic women, and we’re going to talk more about that aspect of the conference (and its relationship to radical feminist self-care) next week. Partly it was because Austin is amazing, and I had the chance to eat delicious vegan tacos twice a day, take long walks along the Colorado River in the sunshine, and drink some really excellent local beer. And partly it was because I largely avoided going to panels of conference papers.

My MLA looks rather different than it once did. I mostly teach, rather than talk–this year, I co-facilitated a breakout session on DH in/and the Dissertation as part of the joint DHSI@MLA pre-conference workshop, and later in the conference taught graduate students and administrators how to start identifying, and taking action on, the reproducible parts of all those PhD transition stories that seem so idiosyncratic. The Canadian representation at the MLA has shrunk in the last few years, so there’s rarely a panel squarely in my field in which I’m interested, and I mostly attend panels on which my friends are speaking. I find conference presentations a singularly bad way for me to learn anything–despite the fact that the idea of learning styles has been quite thoroughly debunked, I simply do not process complex arguments well when they’re spoken rather than written. And nearly every post-panel debrief amongst my friends had the same complaints: the papers were too long, they were often badly written and/or presented, the chairs were weak in their attempts to keep to time, there was never enough time for questions, those questions that did arise were more often quomments (what I like to call comments, often self-aggrandizing, disguised as questions), and issues with gender and power abounded (from the classic “congratulations! you have an all male panel,” to if the panelists allowed the chair to have the power to properly moderate, to who sucked up all the little Q&A time that existed). Perhaps I feel the freedom to finally say it because my career success does not hinge on giving conference papers, but I have decided that it is time to declare that conference papers are the worst.

The MLA seems to agree with me, at least a little. They already recognize three kinds of standard conference session formats–formal-presentation sessions, roundtable sessions (which may be interactive electronic demonstrations), and workshops–and are advocating for people to propose alternative, innovative sessions for MLA 2017.

I’ve been in some of these sessions, at the MLA and its regional conferences, and they can be really fantastic. A group of us interested in innovative dissertations did a pecha kucha/ignite-style session at MLA 2014, and perhaps the most interesting (and valuable) aspect of that format was how much time it left–because there’s no way to go over, when your slides advance automatically–for genuine discussion and questions, which then informed Sydni Dunn’s article on the panel. The other great thing about pecha kucha sessions is the way they–because you only have six minutes–force you to distill your ideas down to their most important core. The MLA regional conferences are seemingly more willing to do seminar panels than the main conference, which are very common in other disciplines and subfields, and the chance to read (rather than listen to) papers and then have a genuine discussion is a valuable one, for presenters and the audience. But we can go even further than that, and if you’re looking for some ideas for innovative panels, I’ve curated three for you:

Chain-Reaction Panel

Panelists are responsible for reading each other’s papers in advance, and on the day of, each panelist spends ten to fifteen minutes interviewing the panelist directly to his/her left about the research and argument contained in his/her paper. The moderator begins by interviewing the first panelist, and ends by making connections, thanking the panelists, and setting the stage for an engaging q&a. People are required to succinctly and clearly explain their research and thinking, not just read half an article disguised as a conference paper, and this format has the advantage of providing plenty of time for questions and collaborative thinking between the panel and audience.

Research Speed Dating

Speakers are seated at smaller tables scattered around the room. Participants select the table (and paper) in which they’re interested, and after a very brief intro and contextualization by the moderator, speakers are given thirty minutes to present their research and then discuss it with participants. Participants then switch tables and do it all over again, and the session ends with a summary and large-group Q&A that makes connections across papers. The advantage for both speakers and panelists is that everyone at the table is interested in that specific topic, and will hopefully enter into a discussion that is informative (and perhaps transformative) for everyone. For those who are worried about missing some of the speakers, paper summaries can be shared at the end of the session or online.

Table Talk

This format might not work terribly well for a traditional research presentation panel, but the MLA does all kinds of other things, and there are many panels–especially the ones that I tend to belong to–that are about problem solving rather than just presenting ideas. Table talk panels are great for that. (That said, so much of the way we frame our research is about solving problems, even if that problem is just a gap in knowledge, so this format could work for more kinds of topics than I perhaps think it might.) The panel begins with a brief 10-15 minute presentation from the moderator that sets out the topic and problem of the panel–how do we understand the role and form of the dissertation in the 21st century? how can we create more useful and engaging conference sessions for non-academic job seekers? how can we best edit unruly objects? what can theory do for the Victorians?–and then each speaker takes a table along with participants. Speakers are responsible for coming up with, and guiding the discussion of, a specific question and/or discussion cue at their table. After the discussion concludes, the moderator invites some or of all of the groups to share the major insights or answers generated during the discussion. And now that the MLA Commons is in fairly wide use, notes from each discussion could easily be shared online so that participants have access to the entirety of the conversation, not just the one that happened at their own table.


I’m taking the MLA up on their call. After participating in far too many panels that are just four people with non-professorial jobs sharing transition stories, I’m thinking of proposing a meta table-talk panel for MLA 2017 on how we can create more useful and engaging conference sessions for non-academic job seekers and the faculty who serve them.

What about you, dear readers? Do you share my opinion that conference paper panels are often quite terrible? What innovative formats have you proposed or been part of? And if you like conference paper panels, what aspects of them are valuable to you, and how can we do them better?

3 thoughts on “Conference Papers are the Worst: An Unfair and Biased Diatribe

  1. Brilliant ideas. I think the real barrier to more interesting panels is that many people see the point of presenting at conferences as ticking off some box. They need to have this on their cv. The idea that it's not about the presenter but about the audience will come as a shock to a lot of people.

    Of course it should be about the audience. And about generating discussion which will also provide feedback to presenters as they develop their own arguments (which they should also publish somewhere accessible to people not at the conference). As I said in another conversation recently, this whole thing would be much better if people focused on who their knowledge served and how this particular interaction serves the advancement of knowledge.


  2. How about a panel on “Scone” and “Paper Graders” and “Notes from the Academic Underground,” all by former Graham Spanier nemesis and award-winning English and honors faculty person, Barry Roberts Greer.


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