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.