Last year’s ETS and SBL annual meetings are now behind us, and with them some great memories are fading, but some very unpleasant memories of poor chairing of sessions still linger. You know the ones we mean—where the chair didn’t keep speakers to time so your paper had to be shortened, or the question time got out of control, or, the most dreadful of thoughts, the chair wasn’t very chair-like (or even very professional) and dominated the Q&A.
In light of this, and with regional ETS and SBL meetings ensuing in the next couple of months, we thought it would be appropriate to discuss how to successfully chair a session at a scholarly conference. As many of you know, many of these conference meetings have parallel sessions, in which three to four papers are presented, each allowing anywhere from 25-40 minutes for presenting a paper and answering any questions. Chairing a session seems—at least on the surface—to be a simple enough task. After all, all you need to do is introduce the presenters, make sure each one stays within the allotted time, and control the following discussion time. It indeed sounds simple, and if it is done well, we often don’t even realize what is happening and how much is actually being done. Unfortunately, we have also been a part of sessions where the experience could have been more enjoyable and productive had the chair of the session done a better job—in fact, if the chair had done even a mediocre job compared to what we experienced. So based on our experiences, here are a few suggestions for chairing a session well.
(1) Making Sure the Speakers are Present and Ready to Go. This may seem like something the chair should not have to worry about—after all, all of the speakers are grown-ups, aren’t they? However, things happen—speakers get lost or sick or never show up or can’t find the room or lose their papers or have their computer crash or any number of other things. You as chair need to make a decision on how to proceed. Do you keep to the schedule and hope someone shows up, do you adjust the schedule and throw everyone off, or what? We suggest that you think through what you might do, in the hopes that you never have to do it. At the least, you should make sure you have located the presenters and let them know that you are the chair and that you will be following a few simple guidelines to ensure the success of the session.
(2) Time Management. Because many of these conferences have strict schedules, and because the time each presenter has is quite limited, sometimes only 25 minutes for reading an entire paper (which ends up being around a 2,500-word paper—we estimate 100 words read per minute is a good way to calculate), it is imperative that each presenter stick to their allotted time slot, and the chair is responsible to ensure that happens. If one presenter goes too long, it messes things up for the following presenters, leaving them even less time to present their paper and answer any questions. We suggest that you include a time for questions in the allotted time—this means that the chair will need to be sure that the speaker has finished by that time. Some chairs might have cue cards, maybe a 5-min. card and a 1-min. card, to help presenters know how to manage their time. After that, we suggest the chair stand up and gracefully but firmly stop the speaker and move on to the next presenter (or program item). There is no reason for everyone to suffer because of one inconsiderate presenter.
(3) Leading the Discussion. The chair is also responsible to control the discussion period, which sometimes is only 5 minutes long. We think that a better format is to have at least 10-15 minutes for discussion, as often these times can be fruitful and provide new ideas for further thought. But given the time limit for discussion, in order to ensure that the discussion stays on topic, and to prevent unrelated questions from the audience, the chair must take leadership of the discussion time. This usually means inviting questions and indicating the person to ask the next question. Sometimes audience members like to ask questions that have only a tangential relation to the paper presented, but are actually more topics directly related to the questioner’s own research interests. In cases where the discussion moves away from the subject of the paper, the chair can discerningly move the discussion back to the paper topic. The chair may also need to ensure that the presenter keeps answers brief enough to ensure that the question time is used as productively as possible.
(4) Staying Neutral. The chair should always act as a neutral guide of the entire presentation including the discussion, rather than taking sides, especially when a disagreement ensues during the discussion. On more occasions than we want to remember, we have seen chairs actually argue with a presenter, leaving the audience to simply watch instead of engage with presenters. Because the chair has the most power in the session, it is a misuse of that power to use any of the time to engage with the presenter rather than give the audience a chance to interact. If the chair thinks that he or she needs to engage with the speaker, the chair has an obligation either to step down from the chair and turn it over to someone else or hold their tongue and talk to the presenter later. A quick comment might be acceptable, but a chair should never engage in a lengthy rebuttal of something said.
(5) Have a Question Ready. There may be an occasion when no one in the audience has a question (or dares to ask one) after a presentation. In such circumstances, the chair should have a question or two ready to show the presenter that someone was listening and thinking during their presentation. There is nothing worse than deadly silence after a paper, when the speaker begins to wonder why he or she ever chose this academic field or why such disinterested bystanders attended the session. Nevertheless, asking a question to get the discussion going is not a license to dominate the discussion, but simply to get the discussion started.
(6) Conclude Well. Once the time for a given speaker is ended, including presentation and discussion, the chair should suitably close that session and then proceed to the next order of business—a break, introducing the next speaker, or thanking those who have attended the session.
Of course, there may be exceptions to these guidelines; for example, if a conversation is particularly stimulating and there is no scheduled event after the session in question, it may be acceptable to go over the time limit by five minutes or so. But the main job of the chair is to lead the session so that all of the presenters have an equal opportunity to present and answer questions, and audience members have an equal opportunity to engage with the paper.
A good chair may not ensure that a particular session is going to be good, but a bad chair can turn a potentially great session into a disaster.
— Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon