Ecology conferences should have discussant sessions

Here’s a type of conference session that’s common in economics (and I think in other social sciences), but not in ecology as far as I know: talks plus a discussant.

Here’s how it works. The first part is a conventional symposium: a series of, say, five talks or so by different people on the same broad topic. The difference is at the end. After the regular talks are done, the discussant speaks. As the name suggests, the discussant’s jobs are to (i) discuss the other talks, and (ii) kick off a discussion involving the other speakers and possibly the audience as well.

Which is hard! You need to be familiar with the other talks, which likely means reading the papers or draft mss on which they’re based well in advance.* But you shouldn’t get bogged down in technical details; that’s boring. Just summarizing the talks is pointless After all, everybody in the audience just saw them. Saying how great they all were is boring too. Trying to find a common thread running through the talks is a common mistake, since there may well not be one (and if there is, it may be too broad or obvious to be interesting). And turning your discussion into a plug for your own work is a no-no. Instead, your goal is to say interesting, provocative things about the other talks, which often includes (but isn’t necessarily limited to) being constructively critical. It often also includes putting the talks in a broader context. Basically, think of the best peer review you’ve ever gotten–the really smart, thoughtful one, that zeroed in on the important issues. A discussant’s job is to be like a really smart, thoughtful reviewer for every talk in the session, both individually and collectively. Oh, and ideally you should also be entertaining. Here, here, here, and here are further tips for good discussants (from which my brief remarks are derived).

The idea, as I understand it, is that the best person to kick off a really good discussion or debate in a symposium is someone who’s already familiar with the content of the talks and has taken the time to think up good, challenging questions. Not an audience member or a moderator or even one of the symposium participants, since they’ve all just seen the talks for the first time. It’s harder to think up good, challenging questions on the spot.

I think it would be great to try out discussant sessions at the ESA meeting. Symposium organizers presumably could try it without needing permission from ESA, since they have considerable freedom to organize their symposia as they see fit.

What do you think?

*In the social sciences, conference presentations typically involve the speaker summarizing a single paper or draft paper of theirs; the discussant is expected to have received and read that paper in advance.

12 thoughts on “Ecology conferences should have discussant sessions

  1. We already have these (sort of) at ESA. They’re called “Inspire” sessions now, but they used to be called “Ignite” sessions. Started about 5 years ago. The only difference is that the moderator or organizer acts as initial discussant. But in my experience, these short talks are great, and the discussions afterwards are really good.

    I have suggested that all sessions at ESA be in this format – if nothing else, the shorter talks would allow for more talks and less concurrent overlap. But there is much resistance to giving up on 15 (contributed) or 30 (symposium)-minute talks. On the other hand, I appreciate the longer talks as they allow for better naps. Unlike the Inspire talks and discussions, which definitely keep my attention and keep me awake.

    • I agree Inspire sessions are the way forward for many of the reasons stated here. Moderators are now separate from organizers and presenters, and have great leeway. We are seeing a lot of experiments in how they handle the second half of the Inspire session. To my mind, Inspire sessions are built so that an audience member invests the whole 1.5 h, allowing for a couple great communal learning experiences every AM and every PM of the meeting.
      And if yer interested, check out “Not the usual suspects: micronutrients with macro effects” at 3:30 on Th. Gonna be a fun one!

    • @amellison17:

      Sure, symposia and Inspire sessions often have opening, stage-setting talks. But your experience has been different than mine. In my experience, those initial talks generally do some combination of summarize the speaker’s own work and briefly summarize the talks to come. I’ve certainly never heard any say a critical word about any of the talks to come.

      Going to disagree with you on all talks being 5 min. long. I think the current variety of lengths is close to optimal. I’d probably slightly prefer 10-12 min. talks scheduled 15 min apart, as it was back in the mid-90s, over 15-17 min talks scheduled 20 min apart. But I wouldn’t want to go to all Inspire sessions.

  2. This is quite a good idea! We have a small UK theoretical meets experimental workshop in pattern formation/developmental biology coming up, and I think I will suggest something like this as a possible way to organize it. I suspect the approach, roughly speaking, can transcend fields and perhaps be especially useful for very different talks and speakers.

  3. At CIEEM in the UK we often structure our conferences to have 3-5 speakers and then a discussion session which the chair of the session will kick off. Feedback from delegates often scores these discussion sessions as very valuable.
    From my own experience I also feel these sessions are more valuable than the usual Q&A after each talk as there is the opportunity to hear different perspectives from a number of speakers on the same question/comment/issue.

      • I REALLY like it. The Chairs can modify a bit the structure of the sessions by having independent discussions after each talk or a single discussion in the form of a panel at the end of the session. I have had the chance to participate as a speaker and did a type of panel discussion at the end, and I have also participated as a discussion leader during the previous to the last Conference in 2016. I think the format of the conference, which is basically provided by the GRC organization (some room but not much to change it) works amazingly well.

      • Hmm…panel discussions can be great too. But the interesting (well, interesting to me…) premise of the discussant model is that you get a better discussion (panel-based or otherwise) if you kick it off with a thoughtful, productively-critical talk by someone who’s read all the papers in advance.

        Judging from the comments so far, mine is a minority view. Most folks seem to like having a discussion session to conclude a symposium (or Inspire session, or whatever), but don’t think those discussions are necessarily any better if they’re kicked off by a discussant talk.

        To which, fair enough. I’ve never been in any discussant sessions myself, whether as a speaker, discussant, or audience member. So I don’t have even anecdotal evidence that they actually lead to better discussions on average than other models, such as just having a panel discussion at the end without a discussant talk as a lead-in.

  4. Pingback: Poll: should #ESA2019 be nothing but Insipire sessions? And should Inspire sessions drop the 15 seconds per slide rule? | Dynamic Ecology

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