Alternative panel formats for academic conferences: a few comments and examples

Academic conferences are a great way to share one’s work, get feedback from a broader audience, and to start conversations that may otherwise never happen. However, day-long successions of short presentations and even shorter discussions do not always allow these conversations to flourish. This issue has become even more accute recently, as the relevance of international conferences is being more and more questioned due to raising awareness on the environmental crisis and to the COVID-19 epidemic. As organisers of EuroSEAS 2022, we want the event to be worth the move, and for this reason we are encouraging scholars who may feel frustrated by the classic presentations-discussion panel format to experiment other ways of thinking together at the conference.
Even the classic four-papers-and-a-discussion panel can be organised in various ways: papers can be circulated in advance or only shared at the moment of the presentations, each presentation can be followed by a discussion or questions kept for a general discussion at the end of the panel. Roundtables are an example of a format where discussion is favoured over individual papers and each participant’s input is generally based on long term experience in a given research field or topic. Book symposiums are another way to encourage collective thinking, on the basis of a shared, substantial reading.
We would like to share three examples of alternative ways to organise a panel for collective thinking, with the hope that they may inspire panel convenors to use them or develop their own. Although they aim at giving more space to discussion, all three entail pre-circulated material, as it is necessary for an academic conference to maintain a high level of preliminary intellectual investment for each panel participant. Of course, an email contact can be provided in the panel description so conference participants presenting in other panels but willing to take part in the conversation can get access to pre-circulated material.

1. Avatars

Participants prepare several short texts (a few pages long) proposing a given perspective on the panel’s central question or topic. These short motions can be written by one or several panel participants. A single participant can take part in the writing of more than one motion. Motions are given a name (or “avatar”) and circulated between the participants (and interested audience). As avatars, they are not associated with their particular authors. This anonymity can be relative (although it is sometimes hard to guess who is hiding behind a given avatar), but the idea is that these motions are discussed for themselves. On the day of the panel, each motion is presented and commented by a participant who was not involved in its elaboration, and discussed collectively by all the participants.
This panel format is particularly relevant for collectively building epistemological, theoretical or comparative perspectives. It is inspired by a series of workshops and seminars on kinship held at Collège de France’s Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale.

2. Circulating speech

This is both a panel format and a pattern for discussion that can be added to any other kind of panel. Used independently, it should be based on pre-circulated papers, which may be shortly presented at the beginning of the panel. Participants should sit in a circle, as they would do for a seminar rather than for a lecture. Following the paper presentations or a framing introduction by the convenors, all participants are invited to speak following the sitting order around the table. Once a participant has the floor, their speaking time is limited to a few minutes (usually between one and three). Once they are done speaking, or once they are out of time, the next participant has the floor. The speaking time is adjusted so that there are many rounds and each participant gets to speak numerous times. Speaking for only a few minutes at once may feel short or frustrating in the context of an academic event, but this is intentional. You never get the time to say everything, which encourages each participant to engage more synthetically and more directly with the others. They will tend to interact more with each other’s ideas, but if necessary they may get back to their previous arguments. Convenors should make sure the speaking times are respected, especially in the beginning. After a few rounds, everyone tends to naturally adjust and the conversation becomes more fluid. As for all the formats presented in this post, variants can be considered: speaking time may become longer in the final rounds (which requires extra attention from the conveners), volunteers among the audience can be included into the circle, etc.
This format is close to an open discussion on pre-circulated papers, but it adds rules to the way speaking time is shared. This makes the conversation dynamics more interactive and more engaging. It also gives more space to those who tend to be hesitant when speaking in public and to encourage the more talkative to go straight to the point ! This demanding panel format was used at an interdisciplinary workshop on theatrical metaphors in the social sciences and humanities at Université de Lausanne.

3. Dominos

Described by their creators as a tool for “scientific maieutics”, Dominos are more than a panel format, as they are a method for online collaboration in preparation of a conclusive meeting. Like a conference panel, each game of Dominos starts with a topic/issue/question formulated by the convenors. However, instead of having participants indivually prepare papers that will only be shared once they are written, the game starts with one participant sharing a “domino” consisting of two elements: a piece of multimedia material (picture, video, sound…) and a text commenting or starting from it, in response to the convenor’s question. Another participant will then respond by proposing a second domino, in relation to the panel’s topic of course, but also connected to one or both “sides” of the previous domino. Its can, for instance, be a response to the first domino’s argument or it can offer an image that resonates with the first domino’s media content. Then, a third will send their own domino in connection with any of the dominos that were previously shared. Each participant can share one or several dominos, the number of rounds depending on the number of participants and time available for preparation ahead of the panel. On the day of the panel, the Dominos game is presented and can be successively commented by those who played it and be interpreted by discussants or the audience. Participants may also prepare a last domino that will only be presented to their fellow players during the panel.
This format is demanding as it requires a strong engagement from participants in advance. Aimed at interactively fueling thought with more material than just words, it can create unexpected and fertile connections between concepts, theories, research material. The Dominos game was developped and is regularly used at EHESS-CNRS’s Centre d’Etudes en Sciences Sociales du Religieux. A Dominos game on “religious inscription” can be seen here (in French).
Although they can be fun ways to think together and are meant to favour intellectual serendipity, these alternative panel formats tend to entail more preparation work for panel convenors and participants than the usual writing of a paper. While more classical panels or roundtables remain relevant in some cases, we believe that these formats are good examples of how the scope of practices for collective thinking at academic conferences can be broadened.