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Conference Etiquette and Privilege

This June, I attended the worst conference panel ever. What transpired was absolutely shocking and I feel that it is important to have a discussion about the codes that exist for conference participation. Fortunately, Hook and Eye has had many posts about conference etiquette over the years, so I think this is a great place to start.

Part 1: Worst panel ever
I attended a two-presenter, 1 hour panel just before lunch on the second day of a three day conference. I should note now that the rest of the conference was awesome. One of the best I have ever attended. This panel however….

The chair announced that one of the presenters (listed first in the programme) would be a little late, so the other panelist would present first. They finished their presentation, about 5 minutes over their time, but as the other presenter hadn’t shown up yet, they did a little more analysis then we launched into comments and questions. As the presenter was in the middle of responding to a question, with 10 minutes left in the the panel time-slot, the other presenter (who we will call ‘Mr. WTF?’ entered the room, allowing the door to slam behind him, interrupted the speaker, and said, ‘I’m meant to give a talk at half-past.’ The chair said curtly, ‘actually the panel started on the hour’ (in any case it was already ten to, so Mr. WTF? was 20 minutes late for his half-past timing!!!!). The presenter finished responding to his question, then took a seat in the audience, allowing Mr. WTF? to take the last 10 minutes of the session. He sat in the first row (even after the chair suggested that he should probably sit at the front), and spent five minutes summarizing his research interests (the way you might in the first class of a graduate seminar). His summary gave the impression that he had not considered any of the relevant cultural theories for his project, and really had the tiniest inkling of a case study, about which he had not even bothered to prepare an academic paper. At the end of his five minute summary he said “any questions?”

To my surprise, the many very senior scholars in the room actually humoured him. In fact, they even tried to help him. They gave him recommendations about the glaring blindspots in his project and asked for clarification on issues that did not seem to hold up. Rather than be collegial, appreciative, or humble, Mr. WTF? was defensive. When asked to define his use of the term “popular imaginary” and explain his source for his claims about this concept, he said “I’m not a literary scholar, I’m a political scientist. We use statistics.” It may interest you to know that many (i’d say at least 50%) of the people in the room were themselves NOT literary scholars!.

Following the panel, Mr. WTF? helped himself to some conference lunch then took off, having attended exactly 10 minutes of the conference, those being the 10 minutes where he himself was speaking.

Part 2: How to present a paper at an academic conference (in 5 easy steps)
1. Attend the conference
The paper that you present is really the least important aspect of conference participation. Yes it is important to showcase your work, and yes the feedback from your peers can strengthen your research, but at the end of the day the professional relationships that come out of regular conference participation are generally formed during coffee breaks, lunches, dinners, and nights out at the pub. Be prepared to participate in these things. You should also be an active, considerate attendee to other panels. Basically, Mr. WTF?, no one in that room will EVER hire you. You failed to even accomplish the most basic requirement of attending a conference, which is to say, you did not actually attend a conference.

2. Attend your panel
It is beyond inappropriate to simply NOT show up to the other paper(s) on your panel. That Mr. WTF? had apparently planned to arrive 30 minutes late to his 1hr panel indicated that he did not care to listen to the other speaker. This is completely shocking behaviour. Did he really think that people should be interested in hearing what he had to say even when he clearly wasn’t interested in anyone else?

3. Present a paper (or a presentation)
Showing up to a conference with absolutely NOTHING prepared is a completely inappropriate waste of everyone’s time. We have all presented under-prepared. This is a fact of our busy academic lives, but I have never seen anyone show up with nothing to present. You don’t need to write an academic paper if that isn’t the norm in your field, but seriously, have SOMETHING to tell your audience.

4. Know your audience
Don’t assume that your audience knows nothing. Don’t assume that your audience knows everything. Don’t assume that because you are attending a conference on “culture” that everyone in the room is a literary scholar and therefore (apparently) won’t understand numbers and things. Conferences, particularly special topics conferences, tend to be interdisciplinary. Don’t use the fact that you are from another field as an excuse to be unprepared, make unfounded assumptions, and lack scholarly evidence for your claims.

5. Be gracious, or at least collegial
I was shocked that my colleagues were willing to be so kind to Mr. WTF?. He met their kindness with arrogance and defensiveness. When scholars take the time to listen to your work, then engage with it through questions and suggestions, take that feedback. This is about professionalism. Don’t brush aside criticisms with wholesale dismissals of the disciplinary perspective from which you assume that they are coming.


I guess what I am trying to say is, no matter how bad you think your worst conference presentation ever was, it definitely wasn’t the worst ever. Unless of course you are MR. WTF?, then yes, it was the worst.

I know that my reading of his behaviour and motivations is likely a biased one. But too bad Mr. WTF?. Because at the end of the day, if I see a man at a conference from a “masculinized” discipline being callous and dismissive of his participation in a conference in a presumed “feminized” field of study, I see privilege.

So did I win? Have I really witnessed the worst conference presentation ever? Let me know your horror stories.

3 thoughts on “Conference Etiquette and Privilege

  1. Ah, there are many things that can go badly. At one conference session back in my early career days, the format was to be a 20 minute talk, a 10 minute commentary, and half an hour for questions and discussion. The eminent Dr. Bloggs gave a very interesting 20 minute talk, exactly as scheduled. The perhaps even more eminent Dr. Nobbs the stood up and talked for 35 minutes about his own research, which at best was distantly connected to the topic at hand.

    Which is all bad enough. But the faux pas was mine. In the washroom during the break, I was washing hands beside a friend who asked how the session went. I said something like “Isn't it shocking how older scholars lose the ability to keep fine distinctions in mind. Like the one between speaker and commentator.” Whereupon Dr. Nobbs came out of one of the stalls.

    Oh well. One place that was never going to hire me.


  2. Ah yes, the shame of humiliating yourself at a conference in front of a senior academic…I know it well. At least you were right! It is shocking when someone who should know better takes up more than their fair share of intellectual space.


  3. I have two bad stories.

    Story 1
    I was at a conference which was otherwise great. One session had two presenters. The first was good, but the second was a conspiracy theorist convinced of his own brilliance. He went over time by 30 minutes. One of the audience members pulled out a can of beer (it was about 10:00 am), spilled it all over a desk, and picked a fight with the first presenter. The conspiracy presenter answered for her, and spoke for about 10 minutes! The Chair seemed too shocked to react, so I intervened and told the conspiracy person to stop talking. He was so shocked that he actually did!

    Second Story
    I was a presenter and Chair for the last session of the day. There were 4 members in the audience (2 were my friends). The first presentation was good, and then I presented. The last paper was by a team of two women, both wearing picture hats. Before the session started, I had asked them why the hats, and they explained that the hats were a homage to the Famous Five suffragist women, their topic for the day. They asked if I wanted to wear a hat too because they had an extra, but I declined. The presentation consisted of information from the internet. The presenters could not identify all the Famous Five in a photo of them. I should say that one of my friends there is a recognized authority on the Famous Five. I asked them in question period why they chose this topic, and they proudly said that as Americans, they wanted to let Canadians know that our suffragists were better than the American ones. They seemed to think that we didn't know about them. At least they ended their presentation on time!


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