I was the discussant (or academic MC) on a panel with 4 papers and the topic of state repression/human rights violation – at least that is what I signed up for. By the time of the conference, there were two more papers added which were not quite as good as the original 4.
Why the addition? Well, as the Wutang clan would say:
Cash Rules Everything Around Me
Get the money
Dollar, dollar bill Y’allllllllllll
Now, I’m not hating. Everybody and every entity has the right to flourish but had I been given the option to stay or go after the conference additions, I would have said no. Nobody asked me though. They just imposed their conception of what they wanted upon me.
And, I took it. I read 4 of the papers., as two were late (yeah, you guessed it, the two additions). I wasn’t going to read the late ones but decided to in the end. At the panel, each presenter was given 7-8 minutes and I was given 11-12.
When I was up, I did my best to summarize the common threads across the 6, pointed out some insights and then suggested some new areas of investigation. Once finished, the panel was opened up to the audience: 2 questions and 1 long comment. With that, we were done – in so many ways.
After I got outside, I reflected about the experience on the way down the elevator. Upon reaching the lobby, I ran into Will for our usual dinner. He was chatting with someone and finished up after a few minutes.
As we walked to the spot, I kind of stewed with my thoughts for a bit – pissed to have gone along with the charade. Perceiving that something was going on, Will asked what was up. Given the cue, I went off on what had happened and what I thought had been happening since we joined the profession. He then described something very similar that he had experienced recently. His additions included a horrible time slot and 4 out of 6 of the papers dropping out, after he read them.
At one point during dinner, I asked why we were accepting this. If you met new people, some energy from the audience that would be cool but that was not the case. Worst of all, the panelists got no good/useful/detailed comments. As a consequence of all this: papers did not get better, they just got completed. We had to be able to do something better than this. In this context, we came up with the idea for the Virtual Workshop.
The basic idea was simple:
- We should try to get authors comments – detailed and helpful (diminishing the performative aspect of the exchange as much as possible where folks just wanted to show how smart they were by degrading/tricking the speaker).
We then added other stuff:
- We should try to help younger scholars who were not yet networked and especially those from less privileged institutions;
- We should try to get people from different ranks and types of institutions;
- We should try to balance genders amongst participants;
- We should try to give enough time for comments and exchange;
- We should try to make it as public as possible so everyone could learn something;
- We should try to have some fun.
When thinking of the format, I remembered how much I loved Charles (Chuck) Tilly’s workshop rules (recalled by Roy Licklider). We adopted these immediately and then got down to the business of inviting people.
Now, we have tried to be honest about all aspects of this process (most on Will’s blog):
- our efforts to get people to submit their work and then again
- the appreciation shown for providing comments and
- trying to get some traffic to the site by blogging about the papers after: here, here and here for some examples
Some stuff worked: for example, the sessions were almost always fabulous. People were so giving with their time and to a person the authors were grateful. We even got some people to steal the format: as we asked them to do. Why not adopt the technology of the new age to improve what we were doing?
Some stuff was a little harder: trying to get non-political scientists was always a bit of a struggle but we were occasionally able to pull one. We seemed to always have a hard time trying to get a gender balance in the sessions but on more than one occasion we ended up with an all female panel. I joked that we knew we made it when we had an all African American one. Neither of us laughed that long because we knew it would be some time before that happened. We also got used to people saying no to us after they got the invite (some no's were just expected after a couple of prior rejections but we kept asking anyway). This was no joke actually We basically had to go through about 25 invites to get 5 people to say yes, which kind of wore on you after a while.
It was all worth it though. After each session we would debrief, going over what worked and what didn’t. Invariably, one of us would remark that we could not believe how good the session was, how surprised we were about the participants selflessness and willingness to assist their colleague. And, we would reflect on what the next one would be like and if our streak of winners would be over. Oddly, that never happened. We loved them all and Will felt that these represented one of the best things that he had facilitated within the discipline. As usual, I agreed.