Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

How Not to Be a Jackass at Your Next Academic Conference

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If you’ve spent any time at an academic conference, you know the scene: A stage full of scholars have just finished presenting their papers. As the Q&A session begins, a woman rises from the audience and prefaces her remarks by saying, in so many words, that she hadn’t been invited to appear on the panel. But here, anyway, are the highlights of her paper—and her credentials and biography, too.

Or maybe a senior professor speaks up. He barks at a graduate student on the panel, embarrassing the student by ripping his paper to pieces. Another professor steps forward and asks the panelists a series of multipart questions she already seems to know the answers to.

Perhaps a guy raises his hand to comment and quotes verbatim from Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Or he decides to show off his French by citing Frantz Fanon’s manifesto Les Damnés de la Terre, when he could have kept it simple by using the English title, The Wretched of the Earth.

Some of these moments may be byproducts of social awkwardness; others are signs of bad manners. Some might not even bother you. But they’re all fairly common. I witnessed several of them earlier this month—including the Habermas and Fanon name-checks—at the American Historical Association meeting.

Why do so many academics risk coming off like jackasses at conference Q&A sessions? Some scholars say it’s because those sessions are more about pageantry than conversation: Showing other scholars how much you know is often more important than actually listening and learning.

There’s another reason, too: Developing good conference manners—and social skills in general—just isn’t part of graduate school training. I gathered a list of behaviors, both comical and aggravating, from a few dozen academics. As I read through them, I wondered: What would Emily Post, the famous etiquette author, do?

I decided to call up someone who would know. Emily Post’s great-great granddaughter, Anna Post, keeps the flame alive, conducting business-etiquette seminars across the country as an etiquette guru at the Emily Post Institute. She carved out some time to chat with me about academic disorders and how to cure them. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

During the Q&A portion of a panel, why do academics often disguise speeches as questions?

It’s about grabbing the microphone. It’s understandable, though, because people are passionate about the topic. So they are champing at the bit to be part of the conversation, to have their voice and their opinion heard.

But the trick is to remember time and place. I’d like to call this “opting into your environment.” In this particular instance, your environment is not being on the panel but in the Q&A line, which means you are there to ask a question. There is a fine line between raising a question and giving a sampler of your opinion in order to give your question context, and hogging the microphone to give a one-sided dissertation. The litmus test for me is whether or not the person is more interested in getting an answer to their question of sounding off. That’s not a question. It’s a statement.

To respect the process, academics need to be willing to be invested in a back-and-forth conversation. Sometimes what you see in the Q&A line are people who spend the whole time formulating what they’re going to say and how it’s going to blow people’s minds. But when they speak, they end up saying, “That’s nice, what you had to say on the panel, but here’s what I have to say.”

In etiquette and life, it’s so often not just about what you do or say but how you do or say it. Don’t co-opt the Q&A. Get your name, voice, and ideas out there, but remember that you are participating in a community. How you do it matters.

What do you make of academics who use the Q&A session to stand up and list their CV or bibliography, or to show off the foreign languages they know?

Talking on and on about yourself and your work, or listing your accomplishments, is usually a sign of insecurity. People who do that are usually not the most popular people in the room. If you’re talking about the work of someone who is French, then it’s fine to pronounce their name with a French accent. If there’s an English version of a book title that you’re citing, then that should be used.

Some academics seem to ask questions mostly to show up other scholars. What’s a more collegial way to ask critical questions of a panelist?

You shouldn’t ask rhetorical questions or a question where there is no good answer. There’s a difference between saying, “I noticed you didn’t reference these five books, do you think it would have changed your paper,” and saying “Your findings are interesting, and I learned X, Y, and Z, but did you consider this?” Your line of questioning has to be productive.

The people listening to you aren’t sitting there and thinking, Wow! That person won the point. They are sitting there quietly rolling their eyes. Showing people up should never be the goal. Before you ask a question or comment, pause and ask yourself: What is your objective?

Can you talk about potentially distracting behaviors like arriving to a session late and walking to the front of the room to find a seat? Or texting or talking during someone’s presentation?

These behaviors are different versions of not opting into your environment. It’s socially rude, and you are breaking the rules of the environment you’re in.

At the Emily Post Institute we have three principles of etiquette: Show consideration, show respect, and be honest. Those are the three core things that Emily Post talked about 90 years ago, and they are timeless. Respect is a feeling and it is demonstrated in action. One of the ways we demonstrate respect is by giving people our full attention. If you divide your attention—say, by texting during someone’s presentation—you are still dividing your attention and diminishing the respect you are being paid. People feel that.

Let’s talk about conference etiquette beyond the Q&A session. What about attire? What should academics wear to conferences?

Good attire is about showing respect. You might think that the way you dress is the least important thing in the world, but your perspective is not the only one that matters. When you stand up to speak, you want people to be focused 100 percent on what you have to say.

Dressing for your environment means you’re a really smart person who knows how to be flexible and adapt to the situation that keeps the focus on your work. If you don’t know what to put on, then I say keep it ‘simple classic.’ You should be ironed, showered, groomed, and trim your beard. And check your breath to eliminate the distraction. You don’t want people thinking about how gross your breath is; you want them to focus on what’s important.

In other words, if you’ve got gum then chew it? Got a breath mint, suck on it? Fight the power!

Yes!

Some scholars tell me that one of the most annoying habits they see is name-badge gazing. Why do people do this?

You can use it as a good way to start a conversation and make new connections. Once it has served its purpose, don’t stare at the name badge. It’s a visual distraction. All you need to do is glance.

And don’t wear you badge on your hip, stomach, or over your breasts. They should be worn on the right hand side so that as you shake someone’s hand, their eyes will go to the right and they can get a glance at the badge to reinforce and remember who you are.

What do you do if you’re on a panel sitting next to someone who slurps their coffee?

As frustrating as it is, just let it go. To shoot them a dirty look or to say something or police their behavior is even more distracting.

What about presenting your academic paper? I’ve seen presenters just read their papers, and I’ve seen them say “‘quote,’ blah, blah, blah, ‘end quote.’”

The “quote”/“end quote” thing is really annoying. You should not read as though you are dictating to your computer what to type. You are talking to an audience. It is important to engage your audience by looking up, making regular, frequent, and varied eye contact with different people. This keeps them more engaged when you acknowledge them.

The next big thing people can do is smile when they start their presentation. That doesn’t mean you have to keep a big, daffy grin on your face. Vary your tone a little when you present. Monotone is deadly. Speed up to build and slow down for emphasis, and don’t speak too fast because you’ll leave your listeners out of breath. These are skills that are learned over time. It’s a good idea to practice your paper and time yourself.

Many people, in and outside of academe, seem to have a perception that academics have really bad social skills. Do you think their manners are worse than those of people in other fields?

Academics by training are more inclined to argue some of the finer points of etiquette because of the exploratory nature of their work and their desire to see things from the other side. But sometimes they do this at the expense of seeing the bigger picture. Academia is about questioning. That’s the great, positive side.

The trick is to know when to stop questioning. Academics need to remember that to be interesting, you need to be interested. You need to be open and truly listening rather than needing to get that word in edgewise so that everyone hears you.

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