Bulldozed by a Moderator

November 15, 2005

Question (from "Pinky"): At our last national convention, I was on a panel with two other young scholars and a mature moderator ("Dr. Attila") who usurped 45 minutes of our 90-minute session with his "opening remarks," which included unrelated video clips and strange right-wing tirades.

When he finally introduced us (as "the unholy trinity," sans our names), we gave our truncated talks, but even then he interrupted and heckled us with questions. There was no time for audience reaction at all. Should we have murdered him?

Answer: Murderous musings are not uncommon at academic conferences, and they inspire some of our cleverest fiction. The first in Ms. Mentor's ken is Deadly Meeting (Norton, 1970) by Robert Bernard, in which the victim -- bigot, philanderer, all-around wretched scholar -- is dispatched at the Modern Language Association's annual meeting.

As Elaine Showalter shows in Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) academics revel in murder mysteries. By the time D.J.H. Jones published her Murder at the MLA (University of Georgia Press, 1993), she was tapping into a universal yearning, an impulse that Pinky obviously shares.

Things needn't be so final, Ms. Mentor thinks. Panel discussions, which began with Plato's Symposium, have taken many forms. The late Crossfire on CNN is one of the foulest in Ms. Mentor's files, but academic-meeting discussions are much more decorous. Shouting is rare, as are overt insults: "My esteemed colleague may have failed to notice" is more common than "Who gave you a degree, you pusillanimous pedant?"

In the sciences, what are called panel discussions are often -- not. Usually they're consecutive lectures by half a dozen researchers in the same subfield, all clicking their PowerPoint slides. When one ceases, the next hops right up. The panel members rarely discuss much with one other, but they will take questions from the audience. They are generally not boors, though some do drone.

Of course, academic panels do take place in darkened, overheated hotel meeting rooms, and often one hears the light snoring of a few esteemed worthies -- or the scratching of Ms. Mentor's quill as she nimbly takes notes for you, her readers.

Panels in the humanities may be more sociable and spontaneous -- although the flamboyant disruptions and walkouts of the 1970s rarely happen anymore. (Yes, academe used to be peopled by giants.) Panels most often consist of four "papers" read aloud, in order. Audiences are always told that "we'll take questions at the end" -- but that hardly ever happens. Most presenters love their own discoveries too much to confine them to a mere 20 minutes. And so the eager youngsters who want to know what the great elders are thinking rarely get to ask.

Ms. Mentor's favorites are the genuine panel discussions: unscripted conversations, sometimes called roundtables or fishbowls, in which a moderator serves up a question or case study for reactions. Sometimes the questions are distributed ahead of time, but Ms Mentor finds it much more exciting when they aren't, and panelists have to improvise, squirm, blush. Ideally, panelists are soon chatting wittily and wisely with one other, after which the audience is invited to join in. Roundtables work especially well at writers' conferences, where verbal dexterity is prized -- unless there's a dominant narcissist.

And that might bring Ms. Mentor back to Pinky's query, if Ms. Mentor had a time limit and a martinet of a moderator, which she doesn't. And so she will expatiate on the hidden little skills that academics ought to be taught.

Everyone learns research methods; many, especially in composition and languages, have formal teacher training. Most fledgling scientists learn about grant getting. But no one ever takes a tutorial on how to run a committee meeting, and no one, except maybe in student development, is ever taught how to be a good panelist or moderator -- how to work and play well with others.

Panel members not born with exquisite tact may have to discipline themselves not to be Mockers, Interrupters, Know-It-Alls, or Attackers -- types that Ms. Mentor finds in the excellent, idea-filled BlogHer Discussion Guidelines.

Meanwhile, moderators have to figure out on their own how to be Comics at first (opening with enthusiasm) and Devil's Advocates later ("How would you answer someone who says armadillos are the unsung geniuses of the animal world?") Moderators, as the BlogHer notes, have to be Diplomats, quelling impossible arguments and changing the subject. But most of all, they're Traffic Cops. They keep time, nudge or pass notes to panelists ("2 minutes left"), and courageously cut off verbose presenters in mid-sentence: "I'm sorry, but we need to move on. I hope we'll be able to return to that subject in the question period, or afterward."

There are also more forceful ways to enforce time sharing -- such as using a "designator," an object indicating that someone has the right to speak. A microphone is the most common designator, but Ms. Mentor has seen other varieties used in small groups: plush pea pods. scepters, pitchforks.

Pinky and her colleagues might have smuggled in a pea pod, or seized the microphone -- but Ms. Mentor thinks the best strategy is a well-oiled conspiracy. It can gain you allies for life. Pinky and colleagues might have networked with each other in advance, making a pact not to go overtime. They might have quietly consulted colleagues at other universities -- not asking, "Is Dr. Attila a pompous bloviator?" but e-mailing (or even better, phoning) to ask, "How is Dr. Attila as a teacher? A moderator? What are his strengths?" (If there is a long pause, that is a clue.)

They might have e-mailed Dr. Attila to confirm the time: "I notice my presentation, the first one, starts at 11:30. I'll be ready with my slides at 11:25. I hope you'll signal me if I go overtime." Just before the session started, they might have whispered genially to Dr. Attila: "I have 15 minutes, right? How will you signal me if I go overtime?"

Yes, all this strikes Ms. Mentor as extremely tedious, like reminding a child to tie his shoelaces and stop drooling. But sometimes a show of deference makes a difference.

Once Dr. Attila roared into his "remarks," however, what might Pinky and the others have done? The one closest to him - -or the one with tenure -- might have pulled on his sleeve or passed him a note ("It's time for me!") Someone might accidentally kick him or knock over a water glass. Or -- if the grapevine had suggested that Dr. Attila was inclined to wax poetic at great length and crowd out his underlings -- a friend might be planted in the audience to shout: "Let's hear Pinky's presentation now!"

Ms. Mentor has seen only half a dozen such interruptions in her long, long career. She always finds them thrilling. Murder is not a good career move, generally -- but learning to muscle in on someone's time and turf is great practice. And sometimes seizing the floor is not a coup but a mercy killing.

Question: My most creative student is writing an academic novel in which several professors are garroted and disemboweled, but he tells me not to worry. Should I read it very carefully?

Answer: Yes.

SAGE READERS: Ms. Mentor congratulates her flock on surviving October. Now most conferences are over; midterms are graded; students have shaped up or dropped your courses -- and for those not going to the doleful Modern Language Association job market at the end of December, there will be joyful naps.

As always, Ms. Mentor invites queries and commentary, venting and vilifying, and anonymity is guaranteed. Ms. Mentor rarely answers letters personally, but many readers have found their solutions in her archive and in her tome, Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is

Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.

Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, by Emily Toth, can be ordered from the University of Pennsylvania Press by calling (800) 445-9880 or from either of the on-line booksellers below.  Barnes & Noble