25th 2011
Academic conference etiquette: do we haz it?

Posted under: conferences, jobs, unhappy endings, weirdness

I’ve been hearing rumblings from different friends and colleagues lately about an erosion in history conference etiquette specifically focused on the performance and attitude of speakers on conference programs.  The complaints usually fall into two categories:  first, participants aren’t sending their papers to panel chairs commenters with sufficient lead time, and/or they’re sending 40- or 50-page article or chapter-length discussions rather than 10-12 pages that can be read adequately in 20 minutes or fewer.  Second, panelists and roundtable speakers–and some Chairs and commenters too–aren’t crafting their papers or comments to fit within their allotted times, and are taking time away from fellow panelists and/or the time allotted for audience discussion. 

One colleague mentioned that ze is shocked to see this behavior not just among eminent senior scholars–who were traditionally (if still resentfully) permitted more leeway than junior and/or more obscure scholars, but among very junior scholars and even among graduate student presenters.  Ze wonders, “Is anyone training graduate students in professional conference etiquette any more?”  But, to be clear:  the erosion of etiquette is not something my friends and colleagues or I are blaming on graduate students–this is an observation about the overall decline in conference etiquette by people at all levels of the historical profession.

I’ve always thought that one needed to respect deadlines (or at least communicate to your fellow panelists if you must miss a deadline) and time restraints in deference to one’s audience.  (NOTE:  I’m not claiming a perfect record here myself.  But, I don’t think I’ve ever been egregiously late!  At least I’ve never been publicly scolded by the commenter at the conference with the totally reasonable remark that “Professor Historiann’s paper didn’t get to me until very late, so I don’t have prepared remarks on her paper.”  Commenters have the right to refuse commenting on very late papers.)  If an audience has assembled to hear what I and some other scholars have to say, we owe it to them 1) to complete our remarks in a timely fashion, and 2) to permit them plenty of time, after sitting politely for an hour and a half, to add their thoughts or ask us questions.  Indeed–even when I’m on a conference panel or roundtable, it’s the audience discussion that is always the most interesting and most dynamic part of the session.  In short, you’ve got to give people a reward for showing up to hear your talk, and you just might learn something.  Right?

(Do any of these offenders ever worry about getting a reputation as a crashing bore?  Or are they so socially inept that this isn’t even on their radar as a legitimate concern?  This is academia after all, full of “nutty professors” who are almost by definition socially inept.)

What do you all think?  Is this something you’ve observed over the past few years?  If you too think there’s been an erosion in conference etiquette, what do you think is the cause?  If you’re not a historian, tell us if this is something you’ve seen in your field, too.  If you are a graduate student who’s been encouraged to participate in professional conferences, do your advisors talk to you about professional expectations for your performance?  Tell me!


52 Responses to “Academic conference etiquette: do we haz it?”

  1. Comrade PhysioProf on 25 Aug 2011 at 8:38 am #

    There is *nothing* you can do worse as a seminar or conference speaker than to go over time. It is an act of gross disrespect to your audience and–for conferences–fellow speakers. It is guaranteed to make everyone hate you, and leave thinking not “cool talk!”, but “what a fucken asshole”.

    And yes, this is all too common in the biomedical sciences as well. Younger, less experienced, scientists get the benefit of the doubt, but senior people should know how long it will take to give a presentation with a given amount of content.

  2. Indyanna on 25 Aug 2011 at 8:53 am #

    It’s a drag, and I’ve received papers as a commentator at the session itself. But I’m pretty sure that the erosion of conference etiquette has been going on as long as the rise of capitalism, the emergence of the middle class, or the consolidation of the nation state. At the first AHA meeting I ever went to many years ago (I may have described this here before and if so that’s an etiquette infraction of its own sort), one round table panelist jumped up and dropped something with about double the megatons of the F-bomb on another panelist–and kept repeating it as panelist two fled the stage in what may have been mock horror!!! My jaw was tangled in my shoulder length hair, of course, as an acolyte who had just that minute walked into the session late (possibly another boo-boo). I don’t think the provocation was a late-delivered or a too-lengthy paper or anything, but if it was, I must have missed the really interesting part of the run-up.

    All this said, I agree, it’s probably even worse today.

  3. New England Nat on 25 Aug 2011 at 8:59 am #

    As a junior scholar I find it more offensive the number of people who don’t show up at all, after taking a place on the conference schedule. The Aussies I’ll give a break to but I’ve seen a number of senior people do it.

  4. Rachel on 25 Aug 2011 at 8:59 am #

    In my experience, senior folks remain the biggest sinners. I was schooled very early on by my first advisor who made clear that 2 minutes = 1 page, thus 20 minutes = 10 pages, 11 if you talk fast (and I do, but I still aim for 10).

    When I’ve encountered youngins’ sinning, it’s mostly because they haven’t attended conferences or haven’t attended them to observe how to behave or have terrible models. It’s the “read like a writer” approach — you have to be actively thinking about what makes an effective talk/presentation/conference paper. Some grad students have great models and pay attention, some have great models and don’t pay attention, some pay attention but have terrible models, and some neither pay attention nor have good models (there’s probably a corollary there).

    In general, however, I think this is one of many areas in which graduate programs need to step up their professional development rather than leave it to the advisor and assume said advisor will follow through (or follow through well). Unfortunately, because few grad programs are in places that truly care about (read: evaluate in ways that matter) this type of mentoring/service, faculty can get away with doing nothing and leaving their students out to dry. Like usual, it’s the faculty who care anyways who make sure their grad students know what they’re doing when they’re fresh and new to the scene.

  5. New England Nat on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:00 am #

    I should add, the other thing that pisses me off more is people writing their papers AT the conference. I’ve seen very good friends of mine and even an adviser do it and I didn’t think well of it with them either.

  6. GayProf on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:24 am #

    I can’t say that I see any particular increase in this behavior, but all of it has always been annoying. Going over time, in particular, is such a no-no.

  7. Kathie on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:26 am #

    I am more forgiving of graduate students – my worst infraction was with the first paper I ever presented, and I really had no idea how long it would take to read it, no one had given me any advice, and I don’t think I even read it aloud in a practice session at home beforehand. At that time I had never even taught a class, so I was very inexperienced about talking before an audience. I stopped reading my paper when asked by the chair to come to an end, though I was only about half way through the paper, and I never ever made that mistake again! or at least not so egregiously. And not only was I new at the conference game, my two-month old son was in the back of the room with a friend – he behaved just fine, but as you can imagine, being pregnant and with a new baby in the months before the conference added to my lack of attention to preparing to present my paper.

    The next paper I delivered was at an international conference where the organizers sent very specific instructions well in advance of the meeting – most of the panels had 6 presenters, so each presenter was allotted exactly 12 minutes to present their paper, and that meant the paper should be no longer than 6 or 7 pages. Maximum!! And the panel itself went very smoothly, everyone adhered to the page and time limit.

  8. thefrogprincess on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:45 am #

    Graduate student here. Never got a lick of advice from the advisor on this matter, no surprise. But I’ve always been more professional in my demeanor and very conscious about rudeness, so I’ve always made sure that I never went over time. Always practiced conference papers, etc etc, and have always been angry when it’s obvious that others haven’t. Is it fun times to read my conference paper aloud at home? No, I’d rather be watching tv, but it’s a professional necessity, especially if you aren’t a born public speaker. (And despite this being a profession in which we do a LOT of public speaking, most of us aren’t naturally good at it.) I think I had a graduate instructor who made us do presentations, and I’m pretty sure ze was the one who first told me that it’s 2 minutes a page.

  9. C on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:00 am #

    I got advice in my graduate program (literature), and have followed it. One professor sat all the new graduate students down to talk about conferences and publishing, which at the time seems a bit premature but actually provides a lot of good information for those of us who paid attention. We also had opportunities for students to present their papers to the faculty at our uni before heading off to the world to share their research, which also allowed for a lot of good feedback on not only their paper, but also presentation style. Sadly, not all of my colleagues took advantage of that opportunity.

    I get very frustrated when people are obviously not prepared or don’t show up. I find it disrespectful. That said, I’ve only ever seen the egregious time selfishness when I’ve been in the audience at interdisciplinary panels – I wonder if that is a result of people not communicating expectations between disciplines, or just bad etiquette on the part of the perpetrators.

  10. Trapped in Canadia on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:04 am #

    I’m a graduate student and I find that we tend to be the most conscious of staying in our allowed time with maybe one or two minutes over for nerves. My only training consisted of attending conferences and seeing what to do by following others’ examples. I couldn’t stand people going over their time limits, so I promised myself not to do that. I’ve also organized several conferences, so I know that people not sticking to their time causes problems. I just attended a conference this summer where one historian said, “This paper is actually 40 minutes long, but I’ll read it fast to fit it into 20 minutes.” How successful was that? Not at all! At least she was aware she was over the limit, but refusing to cut it down and instead trying to “read it fast” was horrible.

  11. Notorious Ph.D. on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:07 am #

    I’ve posted on this for graduate students, who I cut some slack and blame poor (or nonexistent) mentoring.

    But I’ve also been an offender once myself — thought I was doing the nice thing by taking my whole panel (I was chair) out to coffee beforehand so we could get to know each other, then misjudged the time and brought the *entire panel* in, at a dead run, two minutes after the start time.

    In my defense, I will say that I was mortified at my own ineptitude, and resolved to be more careful in the future.

  12. sophylou on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:18 am #

    My first semester in grad school we were required to take both a methods course and either a research seminar or an independent study. We wrote the same research paper for both classes, and at the end of the semester we were required to present our papers as a kind of mini-conference — grouped into panels and everything. I’ve always thought this was genius — we learned how to write AND condense a paper, and how to present that paper, in a relatively (!) unthreatening setting. I transferred to another school to finish my PhD, and was surprised that that program didn’t offer anything similar.

  13. truffula on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:32 am #

    Major conferences in the natural sciences (my realm of experience) are fairly well regimented. Everybody knows the rules and the time warnings for 2 minutes remaining, 0 minutes remaining, or similar, are overt. Real time shaming is pretty effective. With multiple concurrent sessions spanning multiple days, sessions need to run on time so that people can duck in and out to hear particular talks. This means, of course, that when somebody cancels late in the planning cycle, the audience must sit and twiddle their thumbs so that nothing else is affected.

    As far as I can tell, science presentations are very different from those in the humanities. We are performers in front of graphics, rarely with a script, but sometimes with slides so loaded down with words that it they function as a script.

    In my experience, people tend to cram too many slides into presentations. I think this is the same as writing too many pages. The mindset is “these are the points I want to make” rather than “I have X minutes, what are the points I need to make?” In the professional setting, the result is that the speaker flashes through a bunch of slides looking for a place to wrap it up as the session chair waves the red card. Experienced speaker can get away with this but as CPP wrote, it is rude.

    My students and I storyboard talks and then they go off and make too many slides anyway. We spend a lot of time with editing but it is quality time. It is “what is the point of all this?” time. I strive to eradicate words from slides (and posters). They just get in the way and people tend to stand still, gaze up at the slide, and read the words, which is deathly boring. Some of the nicest presentations I’ve seen from graduate students in my department were ones where the student took a risk and went nearly text-free (save for axis labels on graphs, scale bars on maps, and the like). It takes some nerve and confidence in the material to do this.

  14. Rachel O. on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:41 am #

    I’m a PhD candidate in a history department. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few professors give practical advice about giving conference papers along the way. This advice tended to come in research seminars in which the professor required a mock conference at the end of the semester. My grad program, however, doesn’t offer any formal training, or even informal training, in these skills, as far as I know.

    I haven’t experienced the kind of problems you described at conferences I’ve attended, but I haven’t been to any of the large conferences yet–the only regional and graduate student variety.

  15. Matt_L on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:43 am #

    I’m leery of claiming that things were better in some bygone golden age. I am sure that there were people complaining about this in Ranke’s time.

    I don’t think I’ve noticed grad students doing this all that much. Most grad student presentations I’ve seen have tended to be conservative in format. They tend to be the most mindful of the instructions from the conference or the panel chair.

    The biggest malefactors in my eyes have been senior people with even bigger reputations who should know better.

    I would suggest that its not simply a matter of mentoring, but also instructions. It might seem tedious, but panel and conference organizers should insert a bit of boiler plate into their call for papers and the conference program. Something like:

    All papers need to be submitted to the chair two weeks beforehand. If not you will be dropped from the panel.

    Papers should be 20min long when read out-loud. Typically this is about ten pages typed.

    Presenters who go beyond the twenty minute limit will be politely asked to stop, shut up, and sit down until everyone else has had a turn to share.

    Explicit instructions will make expectations clear and might improve people’s behavior.

    Either that or every room in the convention hall needs a giant gong so someone can leap up from the audience, run on stage, and start hammering away on the thing at the twenty-one minute mark. That ought to put a stop to it.

  16. Historiann on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:52 am #

    [E]very room in the convention hall needs a giant gong so someone can leap up from the audience, run on stage, and start hammering away on the thing at the twenty-one minute mark. That ought to put a stop to it.

    That would certainly enliven conferences in history! Either that, or institute a “Survivor”/”Top Chef”-style vote off the island.

    The reason I thought standards might actually be slipping is that two friends of mine who don’t know each other at all attended the same ginormous conference this year and in conversations 2 months apart with me had the same exact complaints about people abusing their time limits. (One bit of evidence is an anecdote, two is a trend, right?) Either that, or as Matt and Indyanna say, yeah yeah yeah: the peasants are always revolting, the middle class is always rising, and masculinity is always threatened.

    Many of you make a pretty obvious but still necessary point, which is that enforcing time limits will lead to better behavior. If offenders continue to get away with time-limit and deadline abuse, they’ll continue to offend. If there is real time limit and deadline enforcement, then they’ll knock it off.

  17. Widgeon on 25 Aug 2011 at 12:02 pm #

    My pet peeve is the commentator who goes on too long–summarizes each paper (we just heard them, no summary needed!) and eliminates any possibility of q&a. I’ve been to panels where the presenters stuck to their 20 minute limit faithfully, but the commentator went on for at least 30 minutes. I’ve also noticed more folks who simply don’t show up; but to be fair one commits to conferences a full year in advance and sometimes life happens.

  18. LouMac on 25 Aug 2011 at 12:23 pm #

    I’ll channel the Grinch here, and suggest that advisors shouldn’t necessarily be held responsible if indeed there is a trend of younger scholars disregarding conference etiquette (which I’m not sure of – my own experience in the humanities is that students and the untenured are the most anxious to please). There are always minimal guidelines – at the very least, participants have no excuse for not knowing the time limit. Does it really require an advisor to tell people to stick to the limit and to time a reading of the paper to make sure it’s within that limit? Isn’t that very basic manners and common sense, the kind we should expect any reasonable person to intuit all by themselves? And if it does happen once, due to rushed planning etc., then – as other posters here have attested – you make sure to plan better next time. I mean, expecting advisers to tell advisees to behave like thoughtful humans seems a little infantilising (of the advisee). Are we also required to remind our students that they do indeed need to show up to teach their classes?

    I have seen a few people go over the time slot fairly egregiously and with a sense of entitlement, usually senior people. It absolutely drives me nuts. What bothers me just as much, though, is the people who parachute in literally just to deliver their paper, and then leave a few hours later. This happened to me at a small conference during which all papers were presented in a day and a half, no parallel sessions, very intimate, more of a workshop ambience: one local fellow arrived with one minute to spare, delivered his paper and drove away right after the questions. I understand that work and life can make it hard to stay for the full 2, 3, or 4 days, but a conference is for listening to your colleagues as much as for presenting your own work, and people should at least attend another panel than their own.

  19. Dr. Koshary on 25 Aug 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    And of course, one of the factors contributing to this is that, in my experience, at least, moderators *hardly ever* say a damn thing when a presenter drones on past time. And, as someone who once served as a session chair and did exactly that, I can say with sympathy that it’s hard to speak up when your colleagues are doing that. In my case, I was *the* junior scholar there, and I felt all kinds of discomfort at the idea of telling senior scholars that they had to cut it off. It felt almost offensive to do so in the case of several presenters who were not native English speakers, and were apparently trying their hardest to hold to formal and correct style. I felt even more awkward about that since I was the only male presenter out of four, and yet somehow I was chairing the session. (Why the organizers ever appointed me chair of that session continues to mystify me — I sure didn’t ask for it.)

    But even if you’re not a young and vulnerable scholar, it’s tough to tell a colleague that they literally have to stop talking now. Even if they deserve it, they might take offense, and depending on the dense and complex web of social relations that we work within, you might find yourself having to apologize in all sorts of ways to a thin-skinned person who has some kind of power over you. Academics tend not to be big on taking orders from anyone, and I’ve seen people actually blow off repeated calls from moderators to can it: they nod in recognition of the call, but their eyes and frantic voices communicate “YOU NOT THE BOSS OF ME!”

    In summary: it feels political and discomfiting to tell another person to cease speaking. Even when you’re supposed to do it.

  20. St. Exuperantius on 25 Aug 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    Let’s not forget being a respectful member of the audience, too. I’ve seen people sitting in the front rows leave while someone was speaking (and yes, I know there can be emergencies that justify leaving that way, but the general demeanor of such perpetrators rarely indicates an emergency).

  21. Bix on 25 Aug 2011 at 3:23 pm #

    I’m a graduate student coming to the end of my PhD. I didn’t receive any mentoring from my supervisors about conference etiquette, though I think it’s quite easy to learn by example.

    I have spoken at both social and natural sciences conferences (yay interdisciplinarity!) and, as truffula noted, these types of presentations tend to be slides that are mostly pictures, without scripts. As a result, I sometimes ad lib things as they occur to me. The first time I spoke at a big, international conference, I had practiced my talk a few days earlier and it was under time by about one minute. However, the day that I gave my talk something very topical in the news happened, so I added a new slide to the talk with that information the morning of, just to grab my audience. When I got up to give the talk, I had gone over by about two minutes (they had a clock set up for the presenter to see) and had just flipped onto the penultimate slide when the head of the panel stood up, announced my talk was over, and introduced the next person. I can’t really describe how mortified I was; I scuttled back to my seat and when the session was over, I fled the room.

    However since then I have never gone over time on a talk.

  22. ladysquires on 25 Aug 2011 at 3:34 pm #

    Advanced grad student here (American lit) with a dozen or so major conferences under my belt. I’ve had many grad seminars in which the midterm project was a conference length paper with an accompanying oral presentation, and several profs are very helpful in addressing the performance in addition to the conference paper itself. That said, I’ve witnessed utterly appalling conference behavior from faculty and students alike.

    I was an audience member at a panel where a senior professor condescendingly told the moderator (and everyone else in the room) that he was aware he was going over time and that he felt he was entitled to do so.

    I’ve organized a panel (for a regional MLA conference) only to have two of the three panelists withdraw the week leading up to the conference.

    I presented at a major national conference last year where it appeared to be perfectly routine for audience members (and panelists, for that matter) to get up and walk out of the room while a panelist was speaking. At my panel at this same conference, one speaker (a junior professor):

    1) Showed up to the panel in grey sweats.

    2) Ran over time and then hurried to summarize the remainder of what was obviously an article-length manuscript.

    3) Got up from the table and left during the next speaker’s presentation, came back, and then got out her knitting for the remainder of the panel two.

    During my paper, which was last and which I had meticulously honed to come in three minutes under my allowed time, an audience member (senior scholar) began talking–not whispering, talking–to one of his neighbors. I was so irritated by that point that I just stopped speaking and stared at them until he took the hint and proceeded to finish in as professional a manner as I possibly could.

  23. Janice on 25 Aug 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    I don’t think this behaviour has gotten more common in the twenty-some years I’ve been going to academic conferences. But it’s never any less annoying!

    The best scheme to hold presenters to their time that I heard used was to have students sit in the front row of the conference, holding up boards noting the time used and standing up to indicate a timeslot was done. That would take lots of people power and guts to organize, but it’d be public enough that even the old-timers couldn’t deny it was happening (as I’ve seen some do when a chair has tried to quietly pull the plug on a overlong presentation).

  24. quixote on 25 Aug 2011 at 4:16 pm #

    Seconding truffula. You’d never get away with running over time at the bio conferences I’ve been to. The organizer gives a 2 min warning, and stands up at 0 min. And on the two or so occasions over a couple of decades where even that didn’t work, goes and stands next to the speaker and repeats the point. That’s always done it. I’ve never seen it get to the turn-the-microphone-off stage.

    Keynote speakers can be another matter, but since they’re usually experienced, I’ve only seen problems once or twice.

    What I really climbed into comments to say is, “Historians listen to 90 minute talks? And retain enough consciousness to ask questions?” I’m in awe!

  25. Comrade PhysioProf on 25 Aug 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    “This paper is actually 40 minutes long, but I’ll read it fast to fit it into 20 minutes.” How successful was that? Not at all! At least she was aware she was over the limit, but refusing to cut it down and instead trying to “read it fast” was horrible.

    What a ridiculous dumshitte. At least if you give half your talk, the audience has the opportunity to absorb half the content. If you race through it, the audience gets nothing, and leaves thinking you’re a fucken dumshitte piker.

    I always try to impress upon my trainees that their goal is to make the members of their audience feel smart and clever. Because if *they* feel smart and clever, then they’ll conclude that *you* are smart and clever. And if *they* feel stupid and ineffective, they’ll conclude that *you* are stupid and ineffective.

  26. Mary Anne Mohanraj on 25 Aug 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    As someone who has moderated a lot at conventions which do tend to respect the time constraints, a helpful tip:

    If you note, as you’re introducing yourself at the beginning, that you’re the moderator and that you will be strictly enforcing the time constraints (and maybe even take off your watch and put it in front of you), that tends to worry the panelists, who then typically do a much better job of self-enforcing in order to avoid public humiliation. It works a treat, and saves you having to scold.

  27. History Maven on 25 Aug 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    I’ve always recommended to students Linda Kerber’s advice for conference papers:

    I have to admit to have been late once, in my first year of teaching, in delivering a paper to a commentator. He sliced and diced me, but in so doing insulted the audience as well. If you don’t know your commentator, you don’t sometimes know what you’ll get.

    Then again, when I was delivering a paper in Australia, I was about to go over my limit by a little more than a minute. My plea for just that much more time was backed by a promise to buy everyone a beer at the reception that night–and I was cheered! (They deserved it–it was a great conference with great people, and I’ll never forget it.)

    My pet peeve is when senior scholars read from the introductions to their books. In an OAH session on rethinking the Gilded Age some time ago, two of the three presenters read from their well-known books. Most folks in the room attended the session because they had read said books!

  28. wini on 25 Aug 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    The local graduate student conference in my husband’s field had an automatic power cutoff at the end of their allotted time. Mic off, slides off, podium light off. Now, THAT’s what I call mentoring.

  29. MCM on 25 Aug 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Regarding going over time and audience members who leave a session mid-paper, may I suggest that they are related? I’ve had to get up and leave a session many times because earlier presenters had gone over their time, delaying later papers and messing up the whole flow.

  30. Digger on 25 Aug 2011 at 6:55 pm #

    Thanks Truffela for the idea of the red card. I’m chairing a session early next year of presenters all senior to me. The papers are to be only 15 minutes, not the usual 20, and it’ll be up to me to keep folks on track. I like the idea of the cards: yellow for “2 MINUTES!” red for “YOU’RE DONE!”. I’d rather incur the wrath of a presenter than the wrath of the conference organizers…

  31. Indyanna on 25 Aug 2011 at 7:48 pm #

    What Janice suggests above is exactly what I saw done at a conference in Hong Kong a few months ago, to good effect–except for the standing up part. The organizers had the student members of what would have been the History Club positioned in frontish seats flanking the platform, and they held up “5-minute” and then “1-minute” signs. They were working their butts off doing very visible logistics tasks for the rest of the conference, so this presumably added a “moral economy” dimension to the process. There were very few if any eggregious over-riders at any of the sessions I attended.

  32. Sharon on 25 Aug 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Thanks, History Maven, for mentioning Linda Kerber’s “rules.” I’m outing myself as one of Linda’s students, and we who worked with Linda are all united in our memories of, and gratitude for, “the rules.”

    For those who are interested, Linda wrote a three-part series for the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2008: rules for chairs, rules for presenters, and rules for comments and audience members. They are golden rules indeed.

    For presenters, the basic rules went thus: present a prepared text, because then you know exactly how long it is. BUT, practice it until you know it by heart, so that you aren’t really reading. Mark it up to remind yourself how to speak it effectively. Writing for readers and writing for listeners isn’t the same. And slide the pages silently to the side as you finish them, so they end up stacked in reverse order. Turning pages is distracting.

  33. Liz2 on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    At a recent conference a grad student went so over time – even after being told hir time was up that finally someone just said “stop – don’t say another word”. And then the commenter said “I can’t comment on that paper because I received it last night”. Oh it was bad. The commenter tore up the student. Although I will say that the commenter fell asleep during another panel the next day. It was a bizarre small conference full of bad behavior by a number of the participants.

  34. Indyanna on 25 Aug 2011 at 9:26 pm #

    Second what Sharon just said about Kerber’s rules. As I think about it, there ought to be some rules for conference apparats, too. Historiann, remember that guy in Toronto who barged into the session at its start to *demand* that the presenters stand at the podium instead of delivering remarks from the table, because they were taping the sessions for sale on cassettes and wanted to ensure audio clarity? I was the only one who caved, but that’s mostly because I like to stand at a fixed surface, the better to slide the pages unobtrusively. Our very *senior* and steely chair/co-commentator then basically ran the kid out of the room. Well, I think Historiann helped run the kid out of the room as well!

  35. truffula on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:05 pm #

    I once started clapping when a speaker went over, and over, and over, as the moderator first signalled and then asked hir to stop. Once I started, others joined in and the next speaker gained the courage to walk up to the podium, close the first speaker’s slide set and open hir own. It was dramatic. I later heard people asking each other who had started the clapping. I would not have minded taking responsibility but HA!

    FWIW, rude audience members are just as bad as rude speakers. Earlier this year I sat behind somebody who was ordering fish pond supplies, checking hir investments, and so on, during a talk. Do you really think nobody notices? Same person, years ago, had a portable printer set up in the next seat during a session.

  36. polisciprof on 25 Aug 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    1) As a grad student, I was encouraged to attend conferences before I actually presented at them. If a grad student hasn’t seen presentations being done, it’s hard to plan your first presentation. You don’t have to travel to the AHA or its equivalent. A local conference will do.

    2) It would not have occured to me to even submit a proposal for a conference without asking my mentor’s advice. These days, however, I see plenty of students who are clearly working on their own….often with disastrous results.

    3) In political science, where we summarize our papers rather than read them, the “time remaining” cards are standard operating procedure. The system works pretty well, with the exception of some senior scholars who are clearly too important to be bound by the rules of mere mortals.

  37. Feminist Avatar on 26 Aug 2011 at 2:55 am #

    Presentation skills are now a big thing in the UK, and so most u/grad courses require students to do at least one course where they do a timed talk in front of an audience. Most masters research skills courses include a timed-talk as part of the assessment as well. So, ideally, by the time people get to PhD, they should have had a couple of experiences of doing this.

    Plus, there is now a large number of p/g conferences and p/g seminar series (most dept’s or faculties have one of these), to give PGs their first few chances to present papers in a less stressful environment. There are quite a number of these as there is quite a lot of money circulating for P/G skill building, so it is actually much easier to finance a P/G conference, than a ‘proper’ conference! As a result, I think that most UK P/Gs are reasonably well prepared to present papers (which is not to say that they can’t do stupid things like everybody else).

    On the lack of prep thing, I have noticed as an editor that I have been receiving quite a few articles from P/Gs that I very much doubt ever saw a supervisor – some of them have basic structural issues (even if the content is quite interesting) that a good supervisor would have caught right away. And, so it makes me wonder whether P/Gs are no longer being encouraged to submit work to supervisors first, or perhaps as uni’s take on more P/Gs but not more staff, that supervisors don’t have the time to do this sort of thing anymore? Don’t have an answer to this…

  38. Belle on 26 Aug 2011 at 5:33 am #

    The worst example I’ve seen was a grad student reading a 50 page paper, and refusing to stop. The chair, the audience, the rest of the panel tried – and he wouldn’t stop. And then he *ran* out of the room to catch transport back to the conf hotel – last of the day AND the conference – on which we were all going as well. I had about 2 minutes to present my paper, and I was the last one to speak.

    2nd worst: somebody who showed up with 250+ power point slides, each of which had dozens of links to other stuff – and he wanted to go through all of those as well. I was chair, and told him I’d keep him to his 20 minutes. He was angry, told everybody that his presentation was less than he’d wanted because of time constraints – and I’m sure was mortified (and blamed me) when no one was interested or made comments on his presentation.

    As bad as going over time is, my own pet peeve is people who simply read a paper, with no ‘presenting’ involved. No looking at audience, no inflection, no possibility for interaction. Just blah blah blah.

  39. Adam on 26 Aug 2011 at 6:31 am #

    Wow – amazing stories. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something so egregious (but then, I’ve only been at history conferences for a few years.)

    I advise my students (and fellow junior colleagues on occasion) to undercut the time by a LOT – 15 minutes for a 20 minute paper, 10 for a 12, etc. People almost never that a paper was too short…if it’s a mediocre paper, they’ll be glad it’s done, if it’s a great paper, they’ll ask questions and you can talk some more.

    (obviously this doesn’t mean unprepared, and in my experience, unprepared doesn’t = short. Sometimes quite the opposite.)


  40. Juvenile Instructor » Conference Etiquette at Mormon Symposia on 26 Aug 2011 at 9:06 am #

    [...] (if you are a young Mormon scholar interested in academia, you should really read her blog) has a new post on the ethics of conference participating. Partly because I am lazy, and partly because I think we can generate a good discussion, I’d [...]

  41. Leslie on 26 Aug 2011 at 9:24 am #

    “As bad as going over time is, my own pet peeve is people who simply read a paper, with no ‘presenting’ involved. No looking at audience, no inflection, no possibility for interaction. Just blah blah blah.”

    I presented at a conference last year put on by an organization whose mission is providing continuing education for professionals in that field. We were told very clearly that not only did we have to stay on time, but we needed to either memorize the paper or speak from notes. The presentations needed to be both informative and dynamic–after all, attendees were perfectly capable of reading a paper at home; they didn’t have to spend good money and take time from their professional obligations for *that*. An academic conference is a little different, but I still think the basic premise is sound.

    In my opinion, the most important thing any presenter can do is practice with a timer. I find that the discipline of honing the presentation or paper to fit the allotted time leads to greater clarity.

  42. Historiann on 26 Aug 2011 at 9:31 am #

    “In my opinion, the most important thing any presenter can do is practice with a timer. I find that the discipline of honing the presentation or paper to fit the allotted time leads to greater clarity.”

    Hear, hear! I’m glad I’m not the only one who rehearses. I’m kind of shocked that younger scholars don’t do this more. I’ve even seen some of the bad behavior described above in JOB TALKS, which is really mind-blowing (i.e. too long of a talk and no apparent rehersal, etc.)

    One thing that helps with conference presentations is writing (or revising) your conference papers in a different voice than traditional academic writing. The differences are not always really obvious, but they’re there, and they become apparent if one rehearses with a timer, as Leslie suggests. (Example: instead of “this essay will argue that. . . ,” try “Today, I’d like to demonstrate to you that. . . ” It makes you sound like less of an automaton and more like a real person talking to other live humans.)

  43. Janice on 26 Aug 2011 at 10:20 am #

    One of the mandatory elements of our graduate students’ directed reading classes is to help them prepare and present a department seminar. It’s helpful even for the vast majority of our M.A. students who don’t go further in academia to learn how to prepare and present in a semi-public venue.

  44. Contingent Cassandra on 26 Aug 2011 at 10:59 am #

    Obviously, there’s no excuse for running over (and not practicing, and following standard advice — even if one has to search it out oneself — for not running over, and otherwise presenting well). And some people (the same ones who don’t bother to practice, or don’t think it matters if their practice reveals that the talk takes 35 minutes to deliver, when they’ve been allotted 15-20) will always ignore yellow and red cards, passed notes, and probably also any sound not loud enough to absolutely drown them out (I like the clapping idea). I do wonder whether some chairs’ difficult in enforcing the rules stems from the way that panels are often put together by conference organizers, with the assignment of chairs often an afterthought (and many drawn from relatively junior attendees). It would be interesting to note whether running-over and other problems are most prevalent on panels assembled by conference committees, those assembled in response to a CFP by the panel chair, or those assembled collaboratively by scholars who already know each others’ work. My guess is that the latter kind of panel has the least problems, and the first the worst — and that perhaps, as academia in general gets larger, and conferences more numerous, more panels are being assembled in more-anonymous ways — which is probably good for giving lesser-known scholars a chance, but perhaps results in worse behavior among people who may never have met each other before, and may not meet each other again.

  45. ga on 26 Aug 2011 at 1:46 pm #

    Kind of late but I cannot resist adding the worst I’ve ever seen—the presenter was informed by the commentator of our panel that he would not offer comments on the paper because he only got it the day before. But, he said he’d tell the audience that because of circumstances beyond the presenter’s control, it didn’t arrive in time for a fair reading.”

    The presenter, newly degreed, was miffed and said: “I don’t think that is fair. Seriously, no one reads these until the night before anyway!” The commentator (a *giant* in his field) very kindly said: “Well, that is not how I operate …” and the presenter then proceeded to argue about that with much of the front rows of the room’s audience in place.

    The commentator said bland, nothing things (damning with faint praise) about a spectacularly disorganized presentation—then those front rows of the audience got him. It was not pretty, but it was well-deserved.

  46. Historiann on 26 Aug 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    Hee-hee. Perhaps he learned something? (The commenter certainly did.)

    Perhaps this whole clash of etiquette is the fact that most panels (not to mention audiences) are composed of both no-one-writes/reads-these-till-the-night-before people as well as the that’s-not-how-I-operate people. If only the half-assed/night before people would just stick to their own kind and run their own conferences!

  47. Susan on 26 Aug 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    Another thing that is going on is that the pressure to be part of conferences means that lots of people submit to too many: then they are either prepared late, or cancel at the last minute. Anyone who has served as a program chair can tell you that — at least in history — you’ll get a whole bunch of people who discover two weeks before the conference that they can’t get travel money, or can’t come, or whatever. (There are also the genuine emergencies — illnesses or deaths in the family, etc. — but a lot of it could easily have been anticipated.

    When I chair I do keep people to time, and give them a two minute warning. My worst experience was a senior person, in a set up where I had to walk across about 20 feet of a stage to give time warnings. I think she wanted to give a 45 minute paper in a 25 minute slot — I kept her to under 35 minutes but she was really recalcitrant.

    As commentator, I have indeed received papers the night before. I do not struggle to write a profound comment. I often wait until late to write my comment, but I always do it before the conference starts.

  48. undine on 26 Aug 2011 at 9:07 pm #

    In earlier posts, I’ve jokingly suggested a hook to yank those who talk too long off stage, but these stories of rude presenters are a revelation. Like Leslie and Historiann, I always rehearse my talks both for time and for finding the places I want to emphasize.

  49. Maureen Ogle on 27 Aug 2011 at 11:05 am #

    I’m an escapee from academia (historian), but am jumping in to say (as others have): There’s nothing new about rude behavior at conferences. Indeed, I’d argue it’s the rule rather than the exception.

    I’m obsessively organized (hey! raised Catholic!), so I ALWAYS got my papers to the commentator by the deadline, but it was clear that others on panels I was on simply didn’t bother.

    The one time I was asked to serve as a commentator, there were three presenters. Only one sent me a paper in advance, and then the paper he read was completely different than the one he sent me. So when it was time to give my comments, I simply told the audience I’d just heard the papers for the first time, and opened up the session to audience questions (which, as someone noted above, is always the most interesting part of any session).

    So, as all historians know, there really ain’t nuthin’ new under the sun.

  50. Another Damned Medievalists on 30 Aug 2011 at 8:04 pm #

    I made up signs this year. Didn’t work in one case, but all the others were fine. For me, the worst sin is going over AFTER the moderator has signaled time is over. Then going over at all.

    But then, I rehearse and I know I have just about 3000 words, period.

    As for the other things? All of my papers were late this year. I finished a paper at 7:00 the night before I gave it, rehearsed it from 1:00 to 2:00 am for an 11:am session, knowing I was moderating at 9:00. Gave it, it was rehearsed and on time. I hated it, because I was stressed for the entire conference. But a long as it ends up solid, it isn’t anybody’s problem but mine. Why should anyone care when it’s finished, as long as it’s decent?

    On the other hand, I got a different paper to a commenter pretty late, and only managed to get her a draft. THAT I feel bad about, because it adds to someone else’s stress, and that’s not fair.

    For me, every other thing that people have mentioned is not a problem if it’s not something that happens consistently. And as long as it doesn’t affect anyone else, then I don’t get upset.

    Unless people go over time. That is always a problem.

  51. MLO on 31 Aug 2011 at 7:42 pm #

    I have been at this for a while, and have not noticed any significant deterioration in conference etiquette. I think that all of the problems identified in the original post can be eliminated if the chair is willing to take the job seriously and if he or she is willing to step on a few toes.

  52. Late PhD bloomer on 15 Oct 2011 at 6:20 am #

    How interesting! While we’re on the subject of conference etiquette, I was wondering whether there is a lead time in terms of declining to attend a Conference after they give you a favorable acceptance letter based on the abstract you submitted? Or is this NOT an option at all and considered academic suicide?

    I’m new in this area and so far there seems to be little talk about the “unspoken rules” of declining for something you’ve applied for.

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