On the Art and Politics of Chairing Panels

I have considered chairing panels at academic conferences for a while as a topic for a potential blog post. This aspect of academic life isn’t self-evident and there are only a few guides on how to do it. But here’s more: chairing is a political act that nobody talks about.

Quick disclaimer: As some of you may know I’m in the board of directors of the German DH Association (DHd) and the annual conference in the week before this post was published, I wanted to clarify that this is a general discussion of a topic I had been thinking about for a while. It was not prompted by any events at the DHd conference in Passau. Although, this isn’t to say either that I think the DHd community is exempt from such things happening, as that would be misguided vocational awe (Terras 2023), thinking that injustices cannot happen in a field like DH (they do). If anything, this post was motivated by the fact that I got to meet my great colleagues from the DHd Empowerment working group (open for everyone to join; we talk about how to do academia things well in DH contexts but also discuss the wide umbrella of equality-related topics in research contexts) and we always have lots of discussions like that.

So what does it mean to chair a conference session?

Essentially, a panel chair or moderator organizes the session, ensuring speakers adhere to their allocated time and facilitating discussion. Particularly, if audience engagement is low, perhaps due to the niche or less engaging topics, the chair intervenes to avoid silence, posing questions to stimulate dialogue.

I’ll list a few administrative issues that chairs are commonly expected to deal with – but hopefully, also highlight how many of them are inherently political:

  • Making sure people respect time so that everybody gets a fair amount of time to have a Q&A: Everybody loves their topic and it’s quite easy to go over time, so the job of the chair is to make sure everybody stays in the allotted time and to manage the discussion.
  • Avoiding awkward silences: In many cases, if there aren’t any questions from the public, then it’s the moderator’s job to ask the first question, for example, until other questions are coming in, or if not enough questions are asked, to ask questions yourself, so the presenter doesn’t look bad.
  • Making it less visible when a talk doesn’t vibe with the audience (for whatever reason), so that everybody can save face: When there aren’t so many questions from the public, this may happen when a talk is kind of boring (it happens) or the subject is very niche. I think this is often the result of people just not listening. Then, at the end of the talk, they don’t know what to ask and were expecting somebody else to ask questions (don’t worry if that happens to you, it’s not necessarily related to your performance at all!).
  • Making sure everybody gets something out of their conference talk (visibility, networking, feedback): To come back to the topic of chairing, that’s what the moderator is for: to make sure there isn’t an awkward silence at the end, and that everybody gets questions. So that everybody at least gets a little bit of discussion out of their talk, because honestly, sometimes talks are not put in the right panel and, thus, the audience doesn’t vibe very much with your paper and so there aren’t that many questions (not your fault!). In some cases, moderators even ask the presenters to first give the all talks, then make a round of questions for everybody, which puts less of a spotlight on talks that get fewer questions (but, on its own, also doesn’t ensure that everybody gets some feedback/discussion).
  • Making sure people get feedback while feeling welcome: In all those cases, a moderator or chair can help give you a little bit of feedback, so you get something out of your talk, or make you feel welcome despite not being known in the community. Although I guess that is not necessarily a common characteristic of chairing. But it should be.
  • Introducing speakers and their talks: But, of course, the probably most obvious way chairs moderate the session (beyond the Q&A) is by introducing panel speakers. This, of course, is full of power structures and probably the most important aspect that makes panel chairing a political act.

I don’t think that this is a general sentiment or anything that people would necessarily agree upon, but many of the things that a chair does are political in that they can make academia more diverse or keep it non-diverse like the status quo. I can tell from my own experience that people who are quite privileged themselves and have never felt unwelcome at a conference will not necessarily see chairing that way.

What resources are out there?

Karen Kelsky has a blog post on How to Organize a Panel for a Conference but I haven’t seen one on how to chair and panel and the politics of it all.

There are a few lists of tips such as these:

My experiences making people feel welcome in the jungle of power dynamics

I’ve chaired a few panels and I am convinced that my job as a chair is to make people feel welcome and make sure that everybody gets equal chances. Although I think most other chairs (I don’t want to overgeneralize, but many senior white men) don’t tend to make people feel as welcome as I would like them to. I’ve also increasingly felt that when chairs don’t even make the effort to prepare and get the bio of the person they’re introducing, it’s more often men who tend to be careless like that.

I do think a chair can make a positive difference, they can help equal the playing field at least a little bit, to make sure that people who aren’t well known in the community, who are maybe marginalized or very early career, get the respect they deserve and are made to feel welcome.

Honestly, when chairing myself, I’ve gotten the side eye a few times, and I think it’s because of that: because I’m trying to make people feel welcome and maybe some people (for whom that’s unnecessary because they’re not feeling unwelcome or out of place in academia) perceive that as over the top, uncomfortable, or even cringe. I didn’t ask them about it, but I definitely noticed something. Maybe these people just cannot understand why I’m doing that, because they’ve never felt unwelcome in academic spaces.

But for example, when there’s a panel of four submissions, and one of them (just one of them) is a woman and she is the most early career presenter in the whole panel, she needs to be properly introduced. I want to give her the room, make sure that the men before her don’t go over time. Make sure that the audience doesn’t bombard the other famous speakers with questions (resulting in not respecting the time because, maybe secretly, the male chair is also more interested in questions for their famous peer than in what a female PhD student has to say). So that it doesn’t happen in my panel, as it does in many others, that the female speaker towards the end of the panel doesn’t get her full time, that people are already leaving during her talk or there is no more time for questions because the chair didn’t do their job. And honestly, I have seen that happen multiple times, chairs not doing their job and pretending like it’s not necessary to introduce anybody (and invest the work up front to look up the bios) because “everybody already knows everybody anyway”. Plot twist: They don’t.

I as a woman strongly feel that when I’m in an academic community where nobody knows me yet and the chair doesn’t introduce who I am and my achievements, people take me less seriously. I don’t know if that’s just my perception, but I do feel that way.

But beware if you don’t put the male PostDoc presenter’s bio exactly like they think it should be presented. For example, I once introduced someone (I prepared a substantial intro with detailed bios for everybody) and this male speaker interrupted me as I was introducing him and was like “You forgot Princeton” or something like that. I wasn’t even finished. I had jotted Princeton down in my notes (which I had not finished presenting) and also, of course, the Princeton logo was all over his slides so that nobody could miss it. That was very weird.

On the one hand, the speakers seemed to find it cringe that I did such a lot of moderating but they also couldn’t get enough of me mentioning their prestigious affiliation. Very weird experience for me. Not that it was super uncomfortable per se but…

I did feel the cognitive dissonance of someone super privileged (white male with Ivy League affiliation) picky about the details of how I introduced him (he did get lots of praise!) and then not getting how maybe it sucks to not be introduced properly (and that’s why we should do it). He did, obviously, understand the power and privilege that there is in affiliations and past achievements to help speakers be taken more seriously.

Sometimes, chairs only introduce people they know themselves (ergo their bros). That reinforces their own “citation network” while rendering others invisible. Or they narrate the whole bio of their academic hero who truly doesn’t need that much introducing and glorifying because everybody already knows them. This shows whom people deem worth introducing. And no, it’s not the marginalized early career scholar who would benefit most from that introduction. A case in which an introduction makes a lot of sense because nobody knows them yet.

I think people should acknowledge the political aspect of chairing panels more (and, accordingly, try to do better). To recognize it as a tool for making people get seen and remembered. To make them feel welcome and appreciated. To make sure that they get some helpful questions and networking out of their conference talk.

Often, only respected, established or more senior scholars are asked to chair. For example, in the history of science, you would have to get a respectable scholar to chair your panel if the panel is made up of only early-career scholars (if that’s allowed at all, sometimes you can’t even do a panel if nobody on it has a PhD yet).

There are power structures all over the place and that comes with responsibility. If you don’t do a good job as a moderator or chair, you can help perpetuate or even reinforce inequality, and, I don’t know, maybe how I’m trying to do it is cringe, but I’d rather be cringe than excluding people and gatekeeping. Also, let’s be real: when there’s one of those “academic heroes” on the panel, it’s not unheard of that the chair (who admires them too) will narrate the entirety of their hero’s publication list. Which even I think it utterly unnecessary and, for that matter, cringe.

Take home message: Chairing as a political act

Beyond the obvious organizational duties, the chair, in my personal opinion (I’m not sure everybody would agree), has the responsibility to foster inclusivity and equity within academia. I have the strong opinion that chairing is a political act and how people chair greatly determines the respective inclusivity or exclusivity of academic events. It can promote diversity in academia or maintain the status quo.

In my personal experience, chairs can significantly impact participants’ sense of belonging and whether they feel welcome or more like an imposter. For instance, ensuring equitable treatment, especially for underrepresented or early-career scholars, is crucial. Individuals from marginalized groups (basically anyone who is not privileged under the patriarchy, read more in Cathy Mazak, Making Time to Write: How to Resist the Patriarchy and Take Control of Your Academic Career Through Writing, Morgan James Publishing 2022) is made to feel like they don’t belong in academia.

The more privileged somebody is, the less they need you as a chair. However, as I have often found, it is the people who are best known in the field (the grey eminences, so to speak) that receive the longest introductions, while many chairs don’t bother to look up the bio of an early career scholar. I think this is just awful.

I’m certainly not perfect at chairing and quite sure that some people, especially those who need the least introducing, find my style of chairing somewhat cringe. I do talk and comment a lot, trying to give guidance to those less familiar with how things are going and to level the playing field as much as possible for less privileged presenters. I think that’s a worthwhile endeavour.

Neglecting these aspects perpetuates existing power dynamics and inequalities. Therefore, understanding and executing chairing as a political role is vital not only for the session’s success but also for empowering young academics and making academia a more inclusive place.

Do you agree or have a different perspective?
What are your experiences chairing panels or with panel chairs?


Cite this blog post
Sarah Lang (2024, March 5). On the Art and Politics of Chairing Panels. Epigrammetry. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vyg6

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2 Responses

  1. Ulrike Stockhausen says:

    Was für eine wichtige Perspektive! Danke für diesen super Beitrag und das Anliegen, das dahinter steht. Ich hoffe, er wird viel gelesen und beherzigt. Danke für dieses tolle Blog!

    Viele Grüße aus Bonn vom Community Management 🙂

    • Sarah Lang says:

      Danke für das Feeback! Ich habe den Post inzwischen noch etwas besser strukturiert, damit die langen Erklärungen etwas lesbarer werden – dann kommt die Message hoffentlich noch besser in weiten Kreisen an 😉

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