By Emily Boykin, Doctoral Candidate in Public Administration at Florida State University

Social science scholars continually choose to attend MPSA’s annual conference in part due to the quality of panel attendance and corresponding richness of paper or poster feedback. The role of the discussant is essential in fertilizing this experience. As a first-time discussant myself, I was extra observant for how discussants interacted with my own papers as well as the presentations I attended. Here are a few potential best practices I observed and will henceforth adopt in this capacity with my personal pedagogy and service to the profession:

Panel Discussant
For MPSA, at least two discussants per panel, workshop, and lightning talk were allocated. The role of the discussant changed depending on the number of papers per panel where the potential trade-offs of saving time and providing robust feedback was associated with denser panels. Discussants of these panels often prepared several comments promised of future email delivery and paid close attention to one overarching concern or takeaway during the actual discussion. The chair is an essential leader in facilitating this discussion and ensuring efficient volleying between discussant comments, equal attention paid to panelists, available time for audience, and remaining time available for session turnover.

Poster Discussant
As a poster discussant, one has arguably the most flexibility in ascribing meaningful comments and feedback. On one hand, the discussant may not prepare for the poster session and allow an organic session per the nature of rotating poster sessions. On the other, the discussant may reach out to panelists to inquire about poster .pdfs or potentially corresponding research papers; while the necessity of a corresponding paper for dissemination is relaxed, discussants may choose to reach out to “panelists” to offer review of research proposals or completed papers before or after the conference. This is especially fruitful for undergraduate students. As a last note of which I found particularly delightful, I observed a fellow poster discussant provide each undergraduate poster presenter a one-page sheet with resources for continued education, awards, and grants accessible for junior scholars alongside individualized written comments on their poster and their professional contact information.

Virtual Discussant
New techniques and practices for discussants have emerged over the past few years as conferences such as MPSA have transitioned to hybrid and virtual platforms. For example, one of the first panels I attended this conference featured one discussant in-person and the other online. The discussants took turns providing comments to all authors, where the online participant provided written comments via slides through a shared screen. This preparation paid off as the audience had trouble hearing the virtual discussant due to technical difficulties, yet was still able to follow along and respond to questions effectively.

Chairs as Discussants
While not part of the job description, the exceptional chairs of panels I’ve witnessed share the role of the discussant. When volunteering for a chair position, there is a likelihood that one may rise to and thus prepare for the need of complementing or substituting discussant comments. Chairs of panels may generally adopt the philosophy of providing valuable feedback for panel participants ceteris paribus. The most exceptional panels I’ve had the pleasure of attending are when all discussants show up for themselves and their authors—which are made all the better when the chair voluntarily assumes a supplemental role.

Discussants as Chairs (and the Role of the Presenter)
Some discussants assume the chair role by not only keeping time but sometimes also starting the pre-conference conversation with fellow panel participates in disseminating relevant documents, slide decks, and papers via email. Perhaps one best practice scholars can agree upon no matter the capacity they hold as conference attendees: circulation of materials should be done within a timely manner, preferably no later than a week before conference kickstart, to provide ample time for discussants, chairs, and fellow peers the opportunity to maximize their own conference experiences.


About the Author

Emily Boykin is a doctoral candidate in Public Administration at Florida State University. Her research interests are in public management and public budgeting and finance. Outside of writing, you can find her teaching Pilates and cuddling her dog, Dutch. Emily is on twitter at @EmilyBoykinPA.