Receiving the invitation to act as discussant or respondent at an academic event can be accompanied by all kinds of emotion – excitement, relief at not having to prepare a paper, fear of not having anything to say… Recently, Conference Inference editor Emily was invited to act as a discussant for a one-day colloquium at the SARChI Higher Education and Human Development Research Programme, University of the Free State, South Africa. This was a new experience, as previously she had taken on this role at smaller events with one or just a few papers. As usual, being a conference researcher meant that the lived experience of this role took on the added intensity of reflexivity. Following the event, Emily and James (the other editor of Conference Inference) reflected further on the experience and decided that a fuller discussion on the discussant role – and its queerness – may be of use.
The discussant role is simple in name, queer in nature. The basic definition of a discussant is someone who participates in a discussion, particularly a prearranged discussion. In practice, acting as a discussant does not exactly match its name, in that a discussant tends to have to come up with a set of ideas based on the seminar or conference papers, which acts as a sort of impromptu paper in its own right. Dialogue may follow, but more often than not being a discussant involves something of a monologue. Sometimes, the presentation/s may even be supplied in advance so that the discussant can literally write a paper on the paper. There is a lot of variety in this role, and the format varies hugely, but we have brought together our thoughts on the topic to give experienced discussants some further things to think about, and to introduce this somewhat queer phenomenon to novice conference goers.
The (queer) discussant experience
I began my discussant day with difference already marking me out from the other colloquium participants, many of whom were scuttling around meaningfully, trying to get print-outs of their papers, calming their nerves in huddles or sitting alone with their coffee. Others were just settling in for a day of learning. I was nervous, yes, but in an unfamiliar way – I didn’t know what to be nervous about exactly. I couldn’t anticipate a tricky question about my paper, or running out of time or someone saying something earlier in the day that would duplicate my work or show up my weaker points. Yet still I would have to deliver a paper of sorts to a room full of people I admire and respect or have never previously encountered. I walked into the room and wondered where to sit – where does a discussant sit? Sometimes a chair will be designated, and here one of the PhD students gestured to a chair and table at the front of the room, but I fled thinking that I couldn’t be on show, listening and thinking, for the whole day. I settled in among the other delegates, but I was nonetheless conspicuous as my participation in the day was of a different quality – a feverish quality, sucking idea after idea out of the day. One of my friends drew my attention to this conspicuous participation by saying how she felt sorry for me, having to plough through the day with such avid concentration for all of the papers. I had been so absorbed that it hadn’t occurred to me that I was a spectacle in my own right. The day involved several presentations across a wide range of contexts and issues and I felt my brain go through phases, from the fresh morning feeling of adjusting to a new environment and stimulating topics, to a gear shift realising that I couldn’t keep it up at the same intensity, to a stubborn maintaining of stamina against all messages I was receiving from my brain and body, to a heightened state of hyper-awareness of the meta processes of the day and frantic collation of ideas…all ending up at the final tea break before our slot. Throughout the day I was aware of sharing the space with another discussant, Thierry Leuscher, whom I had met the evening before but did not know well. He was sitting in my eyeline, with his back to me, also frantically scribbling all day. It was a shared space between us – sometimes I felt we were the only people in the room, as I was aware of the shared heightened listening that came from the responsibility that Melanie Walker, chair of the colloquium, had bestowed on us. Like athletes, we shared an individualised but common experience of testing ourselves to the maximum, and we communed in that way after the event – I know that if I see Thierry again in another context, I will greet him like an old friend. We sat together in the tea break and put our thoughts together in a lovely twist of this individualised role, and worked out some spontaneous discussant pedagogy – each of us delivering our response within a curated set of thinking exercises for the audience. At the end of the day, I had reached a level of mental exhilaration that I have seldom experienced. It made me wonder what I had been doing in that room, and why, and how others think about this role.
The discussant role
From these reflections, some initial thoughts emerged about what this role entails. Is the purpose to summarise the day? To capture the mood or responses of the room? To refer to all of the presentations or all of the major points made, to act as a linker and looper? To act as a steward for the curriculum of the day? Are there more cynical readings of the purpose of the role – is it about the discussant showcasing their own intelligence or opinions, or indeed showcasing their own work in the guise of responding to others? Or is the discussant an empty signifier to round off the day, to make sure that people don’t leave or switch off during the presentations? What is the content of a discussant’s contribution, and how should they put it together? We turned to some of the writings that exist on this topic to see what others make of it.
There is a wide array of writing (and even some videos!) on the art of being a discussant. According to much of the literature the role of the discussant is as follows: “they use their expertise to provide a general commentary on individual papers within the session and explore how the papers (in relation to each other) help advance the topic” (Association for contextual behavioural science). Most of the writing we have found comes in from an advice angle, and pieces are typically titled “How to be a good/effective discussant”. Some follow the Question and Answer format, such as this post on the blog The Hidden Curriculum, where an experienced colleague breaks down some of the expected roles and responsibilities. There are numerous posts that have broken down the discussant role into a number of different steps for a novice to follow (if anyone is looking for such advice you can click here, here or here). Some offer particular advice to graduate researchers such as this post by Patrick Jackson. Interestingly, Jackson also surfaces the way power relationships are heightened for graduate researchers, writing of the complicated role strain that graduate students might encounter if they are acting as a discussant at a conference with more senior presenters. There is recognition out there of the potential for the discussant contribution to be boring and awkward – to be sure, this is not a celebrated role.
In a recent Twitter thread, @NovkovJulie shared seven points on the discussant role:
- It’s not about you and your work and your brilliance. Place the papers front and center. It’s helpful to the presenters and the audience if you can ID some common themes or put them in dialogue with each other.
- For a grad student, it’s a great chance to see how someone outside the bubble of the committee reads the project. React to the ideas and the evidence. Don’t dwell on the organization or presentation style.
- Go ahead and point the person toward relevant literatures not addressed but don’t use your time to present a full bibliography. That should be an email afterward.
- You can almost always find something to admire about any paper. Find it and say it!
- A hard one for me – don’t take up too much time. Save time for the audience; cut down your remarks if the presenters have gone long.
- Most of all, do volunteer to do this work. Sure, it’s time consuming and doesn’t have a huge immediate payoff, but it can be a great opportunity to meet new people and learn about great new work.
- And last – it can be really helpful to the authors if you email your detailed comments after the conference. That way the authors can listen and think while you’re talking instead of scribbling frantically.
There have also been more formal considerations of the role of the discussant, such as this piece from Keith C. Barton (2005) in the Journal of Educational Research. Barton’s piece begins with a complaint about the habitual failure of discussants to effectively contribute to the promotion of meaningful dialogue. Barton identifies three rules for discussants:
- Discuss the papers – as opposed to discussing one’s own work, complaining about government funding priorities, or saying that you don’t have anything else to say.
- Balance synthesis and individual attention – each paper should be mentioned individually, but also all of them should be drawn together into an overall synthesis
- Balance praise and criticism – while he notes that in some fields ‘those who do not feel the sting of discussants’ remarks may feel shortchanged’, this is not the case in the field of education, where ‘we tend to be less harsh, and it would be a violation of the conference’s norms if discussants criticized individual papers too severely’ (p. 25). He frames the task as follows: to recognize the achievements of individual presenters while, nonetheless, rigorously evaluating the contribution of their work.
These useful sets of tips and guidance points echo many of the thoughts that we had about the role as Emily emerged from her colloquium discussant experience. However we also think there are some other thoughts which emerge when the kind but firm tone of guidance is laid aside.
For who is the discussant, and what is their contribution? We speculate that the discussant can play a queer role at conferences. They can upset the neat and familiar order of things, for example the attachment between presentation and presenter is altered as the discussant’s presentation is a non-presentation, a collection of material gathered from others’ contributions, a presentation turned back on itself. What does this make the discussant-as-presenter? Is it a maverick role, the role of a jester, a quick-thinking bullshitter who can reliably spin something of anything? To Emily on that day it felt like a queer role – that some queerness, some oblique thinking and normativity bashing was necessary in order to perform the non-presentation with panache and to make something of it. To take that line of thought further, Jamie and I wonder if queerness (in the identity sense) in some ways helps with being a discussant too, or might even make for an ideal discussant candidate, because leading a queer life so often involves quick-thinking improvisation and oblique thinking in normative scenarios…? A comfort with discomfort, a self-awareness of toying with norms, a familiarity with occupying hyphenated roles?
Queer-ish thoughts for discussant practice
Because others have given such comprehensive and helpful guidance on making a success of the discussant role, we have decided to just include some thoughts on developing a discussant practice that embraces the queerness of the role.
We wonder if the discussant needs to be open to being surprised, to being reorientated and interpellated differently by the day? Preparation may be necessary or comforting, but the mood of the day cannot be prepared for, and a discussant may prefer to live the day without a prepared script in order to be open to the rescriptings which may underlie the more obvious topics covered in abstracts and papers. Emily has included an image here of her ‘meta’ notes from the day, where, in addition to the notes on the content of the presentations, she noted down the meta knowledge production processes and conceptual contestations that constituted the fabric of the colloquium – particularly through the Q&A sessions.
We also have questions about what constitutes the substance of the discussant’s contribution. Embracing the queerness of the discussant role might also entail thinking obliquely about what the discussant is responding to. This treads a fine line between airing a personal agenda and responding with respect to the presenter/s, but we do think there may be space for some bravery within this role – thinking about the unsaid, the assumed, the absent, the invisible and the invisibilised, acknowledging the norms that have governed the knowledge production of the day, and pointing to sparks and connections that are only recognisable from the heightened state of discussant thinking. There is also a linked question here about which material uttered by whom is to be considered as possible substance for the discussant’s contribution. At the UFS colloquium, Emily chatted with different groups of attendees during the day (particularly some groups who were not contributing to the Q&A), to garner their sense of the event and their concerns. Although caution should be exercised here if attendees are unaware of the discussant’s role and share private thoughts, but Emily found that comments could be carefully derived from these discussions that brought a fresh and even queerer angle to this discussion.
Discussant pedagogy is also open to queer thinking. Conferences rely on obedience to a certain extent, in terms of time-keeping and speaking in turn. Perhaps the discussant role is more open to disobedience, provided this is enacted with respect for the conference organisers and audience. At the UFS colloquium, Thierry and Emily took their time slot as belonging to them and reshaped it to include some activities for the tired delegates, interspersing small tasks with their discussant contributions. The activities took the following forms:
- 2 minute paper – 4 questions (eg. what was your highlight, what are you still unsure of), attendees write their answers down over 2 minutes and hand them in, then the discussants collect them up and read randomly selected answers
- 3 minute buzz – conversations in small groups about eg. ‘take home messages’ – then groups report back
There was a feeling of a curated performance within our slot, rather than a tailing off as can be the case with the discussant-as-bookend, and the day ended on a high. This curation of the session also blurred the boundaries between Thierry and Emily as two individuals responding in the height of their minds to the day – they did still deliver non-presentations about the day, in respect for their designated roles, but the conditions that they created reorientated the taking up of space and time away from two discrete minds delivering their contribution.
Finally, the discussant has a body as well as a mind. Traditionally the role calls for a disembodied, omniscient perspective on the conference. There is room in this role to acknowledge bodies – not least for the discussant who will doubtless be suffering from ‘discussant’s headache’ by the end of the day (thanks to Thierry for the painkillers!). Reconsidering the day from an embodied perspective, as is often unavoidable for queer bodies in normative spaces of knowledge production, can bring out politics of positionality, of the performance of hierarchy and identity – and can also assist with drawing out alternative meta-narratives of the event.
We look forward to hearing from discussants who are trying queer-ish things in their roles!
Emily Henderson @EmilyFrascatore and James Burford @jiaburford are the editors of the Conference Inference blog.