Democracy in a Knowledge Economy: Annual Meeting, Seattle, WA, USA, August 1-6, 2003, Academy of Management

home > making sessions exciting! > the discussant role in professional meetings

the discussant role in professional meetings

By Karl E. Weick, University of Michigan

Presented at Workshop on “How To Make AoM Sessions Exciting,” Aug. 8, 1999, Chicago, Illinois

Realistic job preview of discussant role

1. You’ll get none of the papers in advance.

2. At the session there will be no time left for you to make your comments.

3. If there is time left, you’ll be introduced as the person who will pull all of this together.

4. The audience wants you to sit down so they can ask their questions.

5. It’s fun to do because you have a chance to spot connections and you don’t have to scramble to write a quasi-paper during the December holidays to get a slot at the annual meeting.

The psychology of a symposium

1. Participants want to publicize and call attention to an emerging body of neat stuff. Or they may want to talk to see if among them they may have stumbled onto some neat stuff. Or they want to clear the air on a contentious issue. Symposium is like a special issue of a journal.

2. Part of audience have come just to see what speakers look like, some want to learn what all the fuss is about, some should be on the panel rather than in the audience, some have come to give speakers moral support, some want to meet speaker afterward, and some are just tapped out on the convention and want a place to rest.

3. Safest assumption is that participants are thinking what they want to say and are not listening to others, at least not until they give their talk. Thus, the 1st speaker will have heard more of what is said than the 2nd, etc. The first speaker often has been at a different symposium than the last speaker. First speaker is more of an ally for discussant. Because participants are preoccupied with talking rather than listening, they will not have picked up on many connections between the papers. When the discussant mentions some obvious ones, that will usually be the first time the participants have thought of them.

4. Also, because listening may be very uneven, it is a huge help if discussant says what the core idea is in each paper. This is tough and risky. Many papers were written in haste and don’t have a core idea (possible remark: “this overview touched on several timely issues but I want to discuss just one.”)

5. Participants and the audience as well want the discussant to give a context that makes sense of the papers, be enthusiastic about the work, and improve it by extending it and by making constructive replacements of poorer methods and arguments with better ones. Chances are you weren’t their first choice as a discussant. Being a discussant is like being a book reviewer; it’s an acquired taste and not a lot of people are eager to do it.

Building the commentary itself

1. Start a folder on the topic right away.

2. Act as if the proposal is all you’ll know. Given that title, what might she say? That prediction will be an anchor for you to listen to what they do say.

3. Read their stuff multiple times. Each time you’ll see something different because you will have had different intervening experiences and you are a different reader.

4. Have definitions of key terms. Authors may not do this. You can always say, these people are not talking about this phenomenon as it is usually defined. It is usually defined as X. They ignore x1, and they add x1 + n. Does that help them or not?

5. Sample leads

a. Do you realize who’s in trouble if these people are right?

b. You can do even more with this argument than what we’ve heard here. For instance,…

c. Notice what these panelists didn’t say. They could have asserted that X. They didn’t. Why not?

d. The predominant citation in these papers is X. What if it had been Y?

e. We all came in to this symposium with some assumptions. Those assumptions are the filters that determine some of our reactions to what we hear. Remember, there are at least four reactions people can have: That’s absurd (deny assumption), that’s interesting (disconfirm weak assumption), that’s obvious (affirms assumptions), that’s irrelevant (do not speak to assumptions). What is the pattern of reactions to what we have heard?
f. Given this topic, I expected these people to say X. Much to my surprise they said Y. What make of that?

6. Give each panelist a copy of your remarks. You’ve thought about their work more than most people. Leave your observations with them so that they can think about them in quieter times.

How to cope when you didn’t get the papers in advance

1. Take notes on 2-column paper so you can write comments in left-hand column. “Remember when she said X. There is a body of data that are inconsistent with that.”

2. Write key phrases on post-its so can arrange sequence.

3. To get your bearings. Why did she title the paper this way? Is there a better title? Is this the correct sequence for these papers?

4. Draw audience in: “before we get to your questions, let me ask you in the audience to take on the role of discussant for the moment. What do you think are the big ideas we heard, what did you hear that surprised you, what’s controversial here, what will you takeaway from this discussion, what symposium does this suggest we should propose next year?

5. Skim a recent newspaper prior to session. Something in it will have been relevant to the topic. “There is a certain timeliness to these presentations, at least judging from this item in today’s NYT.”

Possible questions

1. Should your discussion focus on individual papers and comment on each paper?

Ans. You probably will do this because it’s an obvious way to organize the discussion. I usually do this because I like to point out really neat stuff that may have gone unnoticed. Also sometimes, due to time pressure, authors leave out good stuff. I like to use some of my time to put that material on the table. But, if you do go paper by paper, each author expects equal time and if you don’t give equal time that feels evaluative (less discussion implies a poorer paper). What is really troublesome is that some papers, often good ones, are self-contained and there just isn’t much to say about them. So the implied evaluation is precisely the opposite of the actual evaluation.

2. How to get audience involved?

Ans: That’s a non-starter for me. I don’t worry about that. They’ll wade in the moment they’re given a chance.

3. Isn’t being a discussant just the same as being a manuscript reviewer?

Ans: Probably, but it shouldn’t be. In symposium author has a chance to correct misperceptions of discussant right away. Mindset of discussant is not, show me why this is a major contribution to the literature. Mindset is, you wouldn’t have put all this work into this topic unless you thought there was something important to be said. Let’s be sure we talk about what that important thing is.

4. How do you make AoM sessions exciting?

Ans: My definition of “exciting” is a session in which motivated people prepare, do their homework, make a coherent argument within their allotted time, and have something interesting to say. For me that’s “exciting”, in part because it is so rare. Here are particulars of how you make sessions exciting. By people preparing for them rather than blowing them off. By being engaged with the topic. By having handouts so people can follow you, take notes, and follow-up. By pointing out implications for teaching that people can put into use in a month when school starts. By being enthusiastic about your topic. By not taking yourself too seriously. By staying within your time limits and organizing the presentation so that it coheres within those time constraints. By having examples. By knowing when you have an argument that needs to be studied closely, and keeping it out of an AoM session. By reading your paper out loud before the session and smoothing out places where you stumble while speaking or where you run out of breath. By telling people upfront, early why this IS an exciting session (turn the self-fulfilling prophecy to your advantage).

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