Wednesday, January 12, 2011

AHA: Academic Knock-Down Drag-Outs

Have you ever given a presentation that just went wrong? Like nothing you said was what you meant to say, or everybody was misunderstanding you, and the whole thing was a dud from the first? This can happen at a conference, and then the audience and the panel is stuck there for a couple of hours trying to figure out how they're going to make it right.

I'm a generally congenial person. But those of you who might have experienced being in a course with me also know that I have an edge. An edge that likes to manifest in verbal brutality when one of the following happens:

1) someone is lying
2) someone is wasting everyone's time
3) someone is rude

When those things happen it's all I can do not to go off like a Roman candle and give them a piece of my mind! But I've gotten better at controlling those urges. Unfortunately one of the places my intellectual rage is welcome is at conferences, where two people going head to head on a specialized subject is among the best dreams an academic can experience. In that environment, a hastily-worded question can devolve a roundtable into a very hostile, very long mess.

Most panel discussions I've witnessed are pretty passive events. A few get a little heated. But rare is the panel that started off simmering and then sustains fire for hours. My tips for avoiding this in the future:

1) if things get bad, and you can get out, LEAVE
2) feel out the situation and keep your mouth shut once things start to really head downhill
3) decompress afterward, either with people who were part of the discussion who are as shell-shocked as you, or with people who weren't there
4) make a note of the people involved in the intellectual skirmish for future reference
5) anticipate the response to your question. I failed here, and in doing so, really failed everyone in the room by throwing my verbal brandy in the fire pail.

As it was, we emerged mostly unscathed, and toddled over to recover over coffee and donuts while just staring at each other, eyes wide. Now that I've had a few days to think about it, I am able to chalk it up as a learning experience entitled How Not to Run a Panel.

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