|A chair's eye view...|
The Class of 1968 Seminar Room in the Weigle Information Commons at UPenn's Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center
Photo by Weigle Information Commons
From an early stage in most historians’ careers, they find themselves being asked to chair seminar papers or conference panels. As with most things, nobody tells you how to do this; you’re meant to learn the dos and don’ts through observation alone. Chairing is meant to be straightforward compared with the greater intellectual challenges of research and teaching, but it’s not that simple.
The chair of a History paper is a mixture of game-show host, compere and master of ceremonies. They are meant to be welcoming and witty, to inject a bit of energy into proceedings and keep the show on the road, but also to act as a mere facilitator, a warm up act, for the guest speaker/s. As chair, you have to introduce the speaker, by giving a précis of their career which they will approve of and recognise. By convention, the chair asks the opening question in the post-paper discussion, so during the talk there is pressure to think of a menu of possible lines of enquiry. Even if the audience starts to flag or fidget or yawn during the talk, there is a moral responsibility to look attentive, encouraging and fascinated, as if to set the audience a good example. If the speaker speaks for more than their allotted time, the chair has to stop them, but has no real tools with which to do so. You’re caught between the sense that it’s very rude to interrupt someone, to bluntly and publicly ask them to stop talking, and the sense that that is precisely what the audience keenly expect you to do. With the overrunning speaker, one can start with subtle cues: leaning towards them attentively as if they are coming to their concluding sentence, adopting an anxious body language, and of course slowly pushing your watch back and forth across the table.
|Photo by smaedli|
There is a risk that, after the paper, the audience are not inspired to ask more than a couple of desultory questions, and then it falls to you to engage in a spontaneous, public, unprepared tutorial-style dialogue with the speaker, on a topic about which you may know almost nothing. As for the speaker, you don’t want them to respond to questions at too much length, using them as an opportunity to quote whole paragraphs they had earlier edited out of their paper, seeing the discussion as simply a chance to continue with their delivery in extra time. Equally, you don’t want the speaker’s answer to be too short, meaning that the precious store of communal questions gets used up too quickly. As a chair, it can feel like a personal failure if the session ends obviously early.
But despite all the potential intellectual and social pitfalls, while chairing you’re always aware of how much harder it is to be in the speaker’s seat - where, at a conference, you might well find yourself sitting in about 20 minutes’ time.