On Moderation: Notes Toward Good Conferencing Practices

With my first “major” academic conference around the corner, I have found myself researching how to moderate a panel effectively. Although it is not my first time moderating, I am particularly committed to making this the best one yet. Based on my research, here are 3 hot tips on maximizing your moderating:

  1. Time management.

In academia, we are not especially endowed with the natural ability to keep time. But at a conference, time is power.

Whether you’re a student, early-career researcher (ECR), or time-tested tenured faculty, we are all intuitively aware of how social hierarchies are produced from the classroom to the conference room. At a conference, time (having enough, not taking too much, leaving some for others) must be doled out with care.

As a moderator, you must demand moderation from your audience. Power will not be redistributed equitably unless you do it yourself. It’s your job to make the room aware of itself; why did participants come to this panel? What are they hoping the presentations will contribute to their own work? Did they come to foster (read: redirect) discussion?

The same people who have been conditioned to ask questions first will be the ones to raise their hands first. Others will take a little more time. Don’t be afraid to wait those extra couple moments.

2. Don’t fall for ageism.

Remember: Not all people who “pass” as graduate students or ECR’s are as young or unqualified as you think. Assume that everybody who looks “junior” attending the conference, whether on the panel or in the audience, has something to contribute.

In the same way, not all people who “pass” as senior scholars are actually senior scholars. Age does not always correlate with seniority in academic spaces. Increasingly, people are going back for graduate schooling later in life—a move which is probably more financially savvy that thundering through successive degrees. Even if the scholar has garnered an impressive body of work, assume that they came to the conference to learn and be part of the community.

In short, do not feel intimidated because of your or anyone else’s age. This applies to perceived race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, and class as well. Future posts will address these directly.

3. Prep work is key.

Prepare your technique for keeping time well in advance. If you’re working from your phone (which I don’t recommend), prepare an obnoxious, yet funny tone to go off. It doesn’t have to be a quacking duck, but that’d actually be on the right track. If you’re working from a watch, prepare the phrase you’re going to use when you have to cut someone off, because chances are, you’ll have to do it.

Prepare time-cards with a five-minute, two-minute, and one-minute warning. Use either bright paper or a bright marker on the cards—something that will catch the panelist’s eye without completely removing them from the focus of their presentation. I suggest taking off your watch and discreetly checking on the table in front of you; some panelists and audience members will interpret the dramatic watch-checking gesture as impolite. For example, I have a Fitbit which I won’t be using to keep time, since waking the display involves a pretty dramatic double-tap.

At this conference in particular, I noticed on the program that many people who opted to facilitate a panel were also participating on that panel. This is not something I would recommend for a couple of reasons. First, it is very hard to facilitate a panel and do just about any other thing at the same time. You need to be time-keeping judiciously, jotting down notes and key phrases, coming up with generous questions, and generally reading the dynamic of the room to prepare for the Q&A period. Add the in-real-time preparation and delivery of your presentation, organizing your physical handouts, and even the slightest case of nerves, and you officially have too many balls to juggle.

Second, and this one may be intuitive: it is very hard to deliver a conference presentation and do just about any other thing at the same time. You have crafted a paper with a quick, original, insightful argument; you have added marginalia and practiced witty phrases and found little moments to interject your personality. You have timed the delivery of your “Ah-ha!” statement and it’s going to be a home-run—if you can pull it off. And pulling it off depends on a mixture of focus, mental clarity, and energy control on the day of your presentation.

These are just a couple preliminary thoughts. I will update you post-conference to let you know how these strategies worked for me.

Talk soon,


Dorsch, Michael. “How to Prepare the Most Effective Conference Presentations: A Futures Initiative Discussion.” Hastac, 24 Mar 2016. Accessed at https://www.hastac.org/blogs/michael-dorsch/2016/03/24/how-prepare-most-effective-conference-presentations-futures

Farr, Jason S. “Toward a More Accessible Conference Presentation.” Academia.edu, N.d. Access the PDF here.

Katopodis, Christina. “Don’t Skip a Step! Own Your Role as Moderator.” Hastac, 17 Jan 2018.  Accessed at https://www.hastac.org/blogs/ckatopodis/2018/01/17/dont-skip-step-own-your-role-moderator

Savonick, Danica. “Timekeeping as feminist pedagogy.” Hastac, 20 June 2017. Accessed at https://www.hastac.org/blogs/danicasavonick/2017/06/20/timekeeping-feminist-pedagogy

Further Reading:

Ahmed, Sara. “Diversity Work As Complaint.” feministkilljoys, 19 Dec 2017. Accessed at https://feministkilljoys.com/

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