A couple weeks ago, we had a guest post from Danielle J. Deveau on “Conference Etiquette and Privilege.” Danielle told a personal anecdote of a terrible conference panel that she attended (not the one she presented on, notably, as I imagine that would be a little too risky) in which a speaker rushed into the room 50 minutes late and then presented for 5 minutes on his research interests, proceeding afterwards to become defensive during the question period. While this story was bad, sadly it is not completely unusual, and Danielle’s post established some baseline guidelines for, well, how to present a paper at a conference, about which apparently many [especially white, male] conference presenters are unaware. As Danielle’s post implied, perhaps we should be talking more about who gets heard at conferences, and for how long. There are countless tales of panels whose presenters who drone on, who are underprepared, whose moderators do not intervene, whose “roundtable discussion” turns out to be more of a self-aggrandizing insular dialogue between eminent scholars who barely glance at the audience. I have a friend whose moderator did not show up for the panel she was on, so they just recruited some random passerby from the hallway.
As scholars devoted to questions of privilege and equitable representation, whose work is often primarily concerned with giving voice to those whom have not previously been heard, these issues should concern us. We should be noticing, when we’re at conferences or public talks, who is qualified to speak, who is being ignored during the question period, whose panels are being attended and whose aren’t. Perhaps we should be more actively engaged in making sure all panels are adequately populated, and should take it upon ourselves to–for example–attend at least one panel per conference that we normally wouldn’t. As we all know, speaking to an empty room is just as bad as having to compress one’s 20-minute talk into 5 because of lackadaisical timekeeping.
These questions are particularly urgent for graduate students or other precarious workers who have a particular stake in being heard in such professional settings. With the rise of Twitter as a conference tool and alternative discussion medium, there are now other possibilities for making sure everyone’s voice is being heard, to achieving that ideal within the humanities of a polyphony of voices and thoughts. Unfortunately that medium is sometimes abused as well, and faces similar issues of silencing, underrepresentation, and/or professional grandstanding. This past summer I had the honour of writing a guest blog for the medieval website In the Middle about the use of Twitter at academic conferences. At the risk of copping out on this post slightly, but in accordance with H&E’s recent upsurge of how-to posts (c.f. how to ask for a reference letter, how to read a book, and how to write a lecture), I’m going to adapt and repost here some of the guidelines I established in that blog, under the assumption that most of you are not medievalists and have not previously encountered it (though the original post can be found here, happyface). I welcome your input and additions to this list, and hope that we can continue to find practical ways to acknowledge and address issues of privilege and silencing within the academy.
1. [This is the Most Important Thing]: Every single tweet must contain named attribution to at least the last name of the presenter of the idea, ensuring that ideas remain securely pinned to their owners rather than let loose online. It is also customary to include the session and conference hashtags (see the MLA’s official recommended guidelines here). Formats such as [#conference #session] [last name pinned to the end] are fine, though it is best if the first tweet contains a fuller statement of who is presenting, followed by briefer attributions in subsequent tweets. If you are adding your own ideas to a presentation or tweeting a thought completely your own, make that clear (eg. “Brown says X, and I would add Y” or “I wonder what Brown would make of Z”). This is no different than citing other voices in our own scholarly work, and should not be difficult. (sometimes we slip up. That’s okay.)
2. Try not to overtweet. Be aware, when tweeting, that the scholars whose ideas you are reproducing may not be thrilled to have every single point they make in their laboriously constructed paper haphazardly flung across the internet, attribution or no (and they might not think or wish to announce this preference at the beginning of their talk, as it might seem overly defensive and set a bad tone). Issues of consent and ownership are at play here, especially for young scholars.
3. Be aware of other tweeters. When choosing to tweet in real-time, follow the session and conference hashtags and observe what other people are saying. Twitter is supposed to be a dialogue, not a monologue, and as such you should listen to the multiplicity of voices around you. Favorite and RT other tweets, make it clear that you are listening and supporting other thoughts.
4. Be respectful of the physical space you inhabit as you are tweeting online. Try to maintain a courteous posture, make eye contact with the speaker, take manual notes perhaps, convey a sense that you are at least as much present in the room as you are present online. Being aware of your physical body as you tweet communicates respect to the diversity of persons around you—including the speaker—and minimizes misinterpretation of your twitter-stance as rudeness or boredom.
5. Be aware of which panels are and aren’t being represented. If one panel or paper is tweeted more than another, that panel or paper receives disproportionate representation online. I don’t fully know how to remedy this problem, but I wonder if, in the future, there should be an official “Tweeter” stationed in every room (or perhaps a job for the moderator) so that every panel and/or paper receives at least one or two summative and/or representative tweets. Until that day, just look around you and observe whose ideas are being tweeted and whose aren’t, and consider actively seeking out and tweeting an underrepresented panel.
6. Be aware of the form of your tweet. In my opinion a good conference tweet contains both local and global (or specific and general) components: local so that there’s substance for your claim, but global so that there’s some kind of broader takeaway, and also for the benefit of those who are not at the conference. Don’t fill your tweets—at least not all of them—with esoteric facts and alienating coded details. Tweets with general instead of or as well as specific content help avoid the problem, mentioned above, of overexposing the intimate details of someone else’s argument.
Here are a couple examples of my tweets from the New Chaucer Society Congress this summer, which I would like to think contain both local and global elements (y’all go ahead and let me know if they make no sense to you), as well as careful attribution to the speaker and session.
Corey Sparks conjuring sounds and smells of lost medieval Newgate, stench of streets contrasting moving Dunstable motet #s7A #ncs14
— Boyda Johnstone (@BoydaJosa) July 18, 2014
Seeta Chaganti: dance macabre as site to be reenacted, not reconstructed (implications for reconstruction generally) #9a #ncs14
— Boyda Johnstone (@BoydaJosa) July 19, 2014
What about you, readers? Have you had some particularly bad (or good) experiences tweeting at conferences? Do you have anything to add (or subtract) from the list? We’re listening.
*This post has been edited to reflect the fact that there are, in fact, six tips here, not five. Thanks to the reader who brought this to my attention.