By Kelsey Larsen, Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida

One of the defining things about conferencing is wondering what your audience will be like. Maybe you’re the person is so excited that you can’t help but wonder what lies ahead—whether the audience will have good feedback, whether they’ll be engaged while you talk, whether they’ll see the world the way you see it. You think about which room you have and if it’s near foot traffic. You think about what time your panel is and if it’s late enough to still encourage people to come. You wonder if the presenter’s holy grail—The Audience Member Who Nods—will finally be found.

Or, alternatively, maybe you’re the person who doesn’t really care what the audience is like, just that there is one—you thrive on the quick dopamine hit that comes from talking to a room, more than any benefit you derive from talking with a room.

The point is, no matter what benefit we seek, we all inherently participate in a peer review exercise like MPSA in hopes of someone there to receive what we’re saying. It’s not to say that we don’t all also have very active mental hamster wheels that stay internalized—we bounce our research around, and around, and around in our minds without much attention paid to what others think of it most days—but eventually we need the reader to help define us as writers. I Think and I Satisfy Reviewer #2, Therefore I Am.

Which is why it can be so jarring when you strut into your 9:45am Thursday panel and find… one person, like I did (shout out to my girl Carol). After the preparation and/or anticipation of experiencing the speaker-listener dynamic, your brain doesn’t totally know how to compute what’s happening. Who will give me feedback? Who will share a piece of literature I didn’t know about? Who will laugh at my meticulously curated Simpsons joke?

But such is life when a conference is trying to coordinate the individual lives of more than 5,000 attendees across more than 100 countries! People get sick; people get lost; technology fails; then technology fails again for good measure. This is life, especially after a worldwide pandemic readjusted how we define priorities, attention, and commitment. It happens. And yet, your brain is hard-wired to frame that empty room as a disappointment.

But, dear MPSAers, as someone whose research has often been so boutique as to basically guarantee the empty-ish conference audience, let me propose a reframing: when walking into a conference audience, less can be—and often is—actually more.

Seriously. It’s not just something I mutter to myself as I slowly descend the Palmer House lobby escalator, looking around and wondering where all these people were 90 minutes ago. It’s a very powerful truth, a genuine edict, an undeniable reality: sparse sessions are the unmined diamonds of the academic world.

Why? Because when attendee numbers fall, so do the veils that we all can hide behind. Feeling like an imposter, as I talked about in a previous post? No time for that when you’re unexpectedly stepping in as Chair plus Discussant plus Zoom host plus Air Conditioning Manager. Planning to breeze through your methodology hoping no one asks you to explain your marginal effects plots in detail? Not gonna happen when your one audience member is in the front row trying to follow your findings. Planning to free-ride on other folks’ questions under the guise of being ‘just here to listen’? Impossible when the panel of three stares at the audience of two and says: that’s all we have, what do you both think?

It’s as if the emptiest rooms distill us down to the truest academics we are. We all of a sudden don’t blend in, and we are forced to stand out. We sever the need for an audience in order to exist as a speaker, and step into that existence on our own. It’s the underlying principle of the TV show Alone: you learn the most about yourself when you’re marooned in a remote place, forced to rely on your own ingenuity and know-how, trekking to Water Tower Parlor with no map while foraging for mere scraps of wi-fi.

Don’t believe me? I’ll share that I had one of the most enriching conversations of the conference (so far!) with my fellow two Teaching Undergraduate Research Methods Roundtable-mates and our 2, then 1, audience member(s). We took notes on each other’s approaches; we guided the discussion ourselves; we traded business cards and ideas. We laughed, we commiserated. It was the best first session I think I might have ever had at MPSA, precisely because it felt so real and productive.

So I no longer fear the empty panel; indeed, I welcome it and all of the benefits it brings. I encourage you to do the same—whether you’re in a small group of presenters, or a small audience. Let’s all resolve to try and embrace that as an opportunity to have a good laugh and a great conversation, okay?

As I write this, I’m about to walk into an 8:00am Saturday Roundtable—so looks like I’ll be going first.


About the Author

Kelsey Larsen is an Assistant Professor at the University of Central Florida, where she conducts research on political psychology and national security. Her first MPSA presentation was in 2008, when we were still using transparencies and projectors to present papers. And yet somehow she has not aged a day.

Find her on Twitter at @DrKelseyLarsen