Academics at Worldcon – What Went Wrong?

I spent much of my time at Worldcon in Capital Suite 6 where the academic track was taking place. Most of the panels I attended went very well. There were occasional moments of embarrassment, and future conventions please note that Ronald Meyers should never be allowed to moderate a panel again. His performance in the session featuring Maureen Kincaid Speller and Gillian Polack was a disgrace and deeply disrespectful to his panelists. From my point of view, however, the only real issue was the microphones.

Well actually microphone technique was a major issue throughout the convention. Far too many panelists either refused to use them, or forgot they were doing so, and were inaudible a lot of the time as a result. Academics were particularly bad in this respect because they are used to having to address a large room without use of a mic. It is matter of professional pride to them to not need one. But I’m a radio presenter, and if I don’t use the mic properly no one outside of the studio will hear me, so from my point of view good mic technique is essential. More convention panelists need to be aware of how to use a mic properly.

However, out there in Internet land I am seeing several people complaining about the academic track and saying how badly it worked. This surprised me. We have had such things at Worldcons many times before. If large numbers of audience members were unfamiliar with the format, and for example kept interrupting the papers, that must have been because they were new to the idea, not because academic tracks were new to Worldcon. There is, of course, an open question as to whether the three-paper plus questions at the end format is appropriate within a convention setting, especially if the papers don’t have a lot in common (and you can’t always guarantee that they will). But I’m really surprised to see people questioning whether an academic track has any place at Worldcon. We are planning to have one at Archipelacon, so feedback would be appreciated.

22 thoughts on “Academics at Worldcon – What Went Wrong?

  1. I don’t know how much help this is, but I love academic tracks. Of course, they work much better if you’ve got people who know how to use mikes, and, if you can’t get academics who already have some experience with conventions, it’s a good idea to prep them a little, since odds are they’ll encounter audiences they’re not used to. We’re lucky over here that we have a number of academics who are either active in the fandom already or familiar enough to be able to function in the context of a convention, but it’s not the case with everybody.

    However, the three-paper format works, in my opinion, only if the papers really are connected in some way. Maybe that was the reason why people felt dissatisfied? Particularly if they weren’t used to the idea of an academic track in the first place, it might have seemed too demanding and… well, too stuffy, perhaps? Feeling a little like a metalhead forced to sit through an entire classical concert without clapping, jumping or singing, and being offered Bach, Tchaikovsky and Glass in a single sitting at the same time, making it even harder to swallow? I know it’s not a perfect metaphor, but you get the idea, right?

  2. I’m sorry to see this. From my perspective (and I wasn’t in the Meyers-moderated panel) the academic track worked very well, though perhaps better when there were only two panellists and less opportunity for one to overrun. Microphones were a problem generally for the reasons you describe, but also because panellists didn’t want to hide themselves from the audience in some rooms thanks to the calibration there.

  3. Interesting comment about mic technique – this was something that bugged me in many panels and something I tried to do correctly in my own panels – not sure I always succeeded, primarily because I’m more used to holding the mic than having it on a stand, but whatever, panelists need to have good mic technique and mics that actually work!

    Regarding the academic track. I attended a couple in Capital Suite 6 and while I did enjoy the various angles the academics took, I wasn’t always convinced that the panel description matched what was dished up by the academics. This was a particular problem for me in the Gender in Horror session, which ended up being gender in fantasy, science fiction and vampire fiction. There was very, very little about gender in actual horror. That said, the moderator was great and the papers presented were very interesting. The papers+questions structure worked for me, but I can see how that might not work for everyone in this setting.

    I sincerely hope the academic track remains as part of the program in Archipelacon. I find it fascinating as both an author and reader/fan to see what’s happening in academic fields.

    1. The academic track will definitely be part of Archipelacon – we’re hosting the annual Finnish sf/f researchers’ network’s conference.

  4. So, I only attended one event on the academic track, and it was reasonably good, except for one huge problem: All three presenters had too much material to cover in their time slot. One spent around six minutes of their fifteen defining a term, which they then didn’t get to use. As someone who spends a lot of time constructing presentations (though in a business, rather than academic, world), this drove me to distraction, because from the slides that whipped past at the end, there was much interesting material there. It just seemed so sloppy and unprofessional to me.

    (Also, I think anyone on the non-classics session should have a pin shoved into their leg for every slide that mentions the Greeks. Not painful enough to entirely dissuade you, but painful enough that you keep it to the absolute minimum you need)

  5. Interesting observations. I only went to two items in the academic track, in the end – there were lots more in my shortlist but apparently I can still only be in one place at a time…

    I agree that there was a problem with microphone technique throughout the con, and I was pleased that a lot of us in audiences were willing to call out to correct that. I don’t think it’s specific to the academic track. I think it’ll improve as public awareness of possible access needs continues to improve.

    I really enjoyed both the academic track items I attended. The papers were linked enough to generate discussion between panellists as well as with the audience. They were presented in an engaging manner. The panellists were happy to engage in conversation. I think there are advantages and disadvantages to the the three-papers-and-a-discussion format, but I don’t think it’s better or worse overall than the more conventional convention panel. The academic format allows for more in-depth examination of specifics, and sometimes that’s very rewarding.

    In summary: yes please to academic tracks at future cons.

  6. First of all, I think you should have an academic track. Academic study of sff is an important part of the overall field, and it deserves to be represented as much as any other aspect. I don’t know what people are objecting to about the Loncon programme. I did feel it seemed a little tucked away in a corner, but Emma put together a really interesting set of papers, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to more of them.

    I have seen some academics reporting hostility to academia, and I think some of the people who felt the programme didn’t work are those fans who are actively suspicious of academia, seeing academics as outsiders, and people who are determined to suck the fun out of the texts that we all love. Both of these views are nonsense, of course, as plenty of fans are also academics, and academics are almost always enthusiasts for the texts they study (if they’re not, they shouldn’t be studying them). It’s particularly galling when people say things like this and then go off and produce detailed critiques of texts themselves. Attitudes like this make the presence of an academic track even more important, to correct such opinions.

    Academics are not generally trained in mic technique; as you note, they’re trained to be able to communicate in large rooms without needing one. So why insist on mics? Capital Suite 6 was not significantly larger than a number of rooms I teach in without the use of a mic, and certainly not larger than rooms I’ve given conference papers in without using mics. I would like to be given the opportunity of establishing whether I could be heard by everyone – instead, all too often the mic is forced upon me. If you have a mic I think that tends to make you speak down rather than up. The mics on the tables encouraged people to sit at the tables to give their papers, which makes them naturally quieter, and in a room without staging sitting is not good if the room is full, as people at the back miss the visual cues to what is being said. Yes, some people stood up, and that improved things – but you’re then trying to juggle a microphone, your notes, and the PowerPoint, which can contribute to overrunning. (A lectern would have helped here.) What I’m saying is that I don’t think the set-up in Capital 6, and the way in which people were made to use it, was conducive to getting the best out of the academics. I think there would be better results if we were allowed to use those presentation skills that we’ve honed, rather than be forced into employing skills we haven’t got.

    (Also, if there is only one laptop for all the presentations, invest in a USB remote for PowerPoint – I used one in the session for my paper, and it saved a fair amount of shuffling about to be near the laptop.)

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t care for the three papers plus consolidated questions format. It may work when a themed panel has been organised outside the conference and is presented as a unit, but when panels are being constructed from individual submissions that may not relate very closely to one another, I think this format tends to encourage questions to one paper dominating over questions to the others. It’s worth noting that this is not a universal format in academic conferences – in my own field, it’s rare, and much more common is paper+questions, paper+questions, paper+questions. I think this is fairer on all concerned; one advantage is that short overruns merely eat into questions for that particular speaker. This is what Nine Worlds used for their academic papers, and it seemed to work fine there.

    There’s also an argument that fifteen minutes is too short, and that perhaps twenty would have prevented a lot of overruns (though I managed to keep my paper to the allotted time). What certainly is needed is more ruthlessness in moderation. Time-keeping can be managed – I did it at a conference that I ran in Liverpool last year, but making it clear to moderators that I expected them to act with ruthless efficiency (and surprise, and fear …). I’ve seen widespread use of a system of yellow (5 minutes left) and red (stop talking) cards, and that does seem to help. And it is also for moderators to shut down audience members who think that they are entitled to interrupt with whatever they have to say (which I dislike in panels as well, and have seen less of over the years).

    1. Agreed re lectern and means of manipulating slides. Also the p/q/p/q/p/q might well be better, though I suspect it needs tougher moderation or the later presenters may be cut short.

      There are many reasons for wanting people to use a mic. These include (but are not limited to):

      – the room acoustics may be bad
      – the audience may not be as young and be harder of hearing than a typical student audience
      – the convention may be recording sessions (and trust me, recording direct from the mic makes a huge difference to quality)

      Also I don’t think anyone at L3 was forced to use a mic, unless by “forced” you mean people in the audience yelling out “use the mic” because they can’t hear, which happened a lot.

  7. So I only attended the academic panel I was appearing on, where I was not only one of the bad-mic-technique people (I know mic technique from being in bands, but it’s difficult to do well when sitting down and concentrating on your script) but one of those who had to rattle through at a fair clip to actually get the whole paper out in 15 mins (which I did just about manage to do, somehow). 20 mins seems to be the sweet-spot for a lot of academic presenters, myself included, but YMMV.

    Panel format is a tricky thing, rife with multiple differing precedents, but I must admit I prefer the paper/questions/paper/questions model to the paper/paper/paper/questions model; the latter works well for disciplines where a certain thematic tightness is easily achieved (engineering and the sciences being good examples), but the arts and humanities usually need a little more room to unpack themselves before the links become apparent. That said, a good moderator should be able to find a way to link papers together, and to encourage questions for more than one panellist — and I thought John Kessel did a good job of this, in fact, despite only having those ten people to work with! (And a very weird trio of papers… I don’t think we got that Sunday morning graveyard slot by accident. 🙂 )

    For my money, I like that cons have an academic track, and while I understand the need to account for popular opinion, I’d be willing to bet you could rustle up just as many people who’d rather not have (for example) con tracks devoted to Doctor Who as people who’d rather not have an academic track. (Well, maybe not quite as many, but you see my point.) What I found most impressive about this, my first Worldcon, was exactly the way it was big enough to accommodate the many fan-related interests of young and old, heartlanders and edge-dwellers alike; for my ten cents, if we can have panels on recreational bondage at Eastercon, we can surely keep having academic panels at Woldcon. Both are equally easy to walk out of if you’re not enjoying them. *shrug*

    1. Yeah, worth thinking about who is vocal & visible … the inclined-to-judge-academics-harshly folk will rustle up *themselves*

      I don’t think I would have gone at all if there hadn’t been the academic track. Fandom is intimidating too. And, now that I have been, I’ll go to other conventions, so ha ha ha ha.

  8. Silly question: was the academic panel format explained to the audience in some way (before each panel, or in the program book) or was it just assumed that everyone knows how it works? I’ve moderated a lot of panels, and found that if you decide to use a format other than the usual free-form discussion, and you explain at the beginning that, for instance, questions won’t be taken until the last few minutes, the audience will generally cooperate.

    1. Ack, that should read “was there an attempt to explain”, since it’s clear from this post that whatever happened, it resulted in an audience that didn’t know what to do.

    2. I’m pretty sure that it was explained in the panels I went to, but I can’t remember for certain, and I certainly can’t speak for all of the panels.

  9. I noticed the mic problem as well when I was on my panel. Luckily we had enough of them, as some panels didn’t, but still one basically had to either eat the mic or to yell into it. For various accessibility reasons the mics were one of the things I wasn’t happy about.

  10. Disclaimer: I put together the academic programme so thank you for the feedback, even though it is horrible to read.

    From what I can work out you and the commentators are saying the academic track went wrong because of:
    – mic technique
    – one particularly problematic moderator
    – audience/presenter expectations not matching
    – p,p,p+q format

    Regarding the first two points it helps if audiences (a) call out and address the issue/s there and then, or (b) contact the organiser DURING THE EVENT. I cannot stress this enough. I have heard negative feedback from two places, the second was here and the first was two days ago (three days after the con ended). Had I known there were issues during the event I could have addressed them directly (for example, with mics I could have produced extra instructions and put them in table card packs, on the desk, and emailed participants).

    The session format was indeed more of an issue. Unfortunately, we were constrained by the fixed schedule of the convention. We had to fit into the 50 minute/80 minute time frame and into the number of rooms. We explored various options with the number and length of papers as well as the p+q/p+q, or p,p,p+q format and this was the most workable option if we wanted to be fair to everyone. It was certainly not ideal (I prefer giving presenters 30 minutes to do what they want with so people can work to their strengths, be that presenting or answering q&as).

    Ironically, another problem we had was our success – we had about 150 submissions and we wanted as many people as possible to be able to present. In hindsight I should have cut about 20 presenters and adjusted the format accordingly.

    For people running academic tracks at conventions in the future (especially Worldcons), the main lesson I have learnt (thanks to your feedback) is to build academic sessions around the schedule rather than try to fit academic sessions into the schedule. So, for example, if you know you have 50 minute sessions and 80 minute sessions, have different things in each timeslot. This may mean more active participation in attracting people who are prepared to do things other than present papers. I tried very hard to get academics to propose things other than papers but people just didn’t seem to want to. The sessions with different formats (Bettina Beinhoff’s experiment, the three roundtables, the lectures etc) happened because I pushed them forward.

    1. Thanks for dropping by Emma. I hope it wasn’t too horrible. I started this thread because I was surprised at the complaints I was seeing elsewhere, having had a mostly positive experience.

      With regard to the mics, audience members were complaining, sometimes vociferously. The problem wasn’t that people didn’t know there were issues, it was that some of them were refusing to do anything about it. Insisting “I don’t need a microphone” when the audience is asking you to use it is not helpful. I know you could have had words, but I’m not sure you would have had any more luck than we did.

      1. In my experience, the people who most often claim, “I don’t need a microphone” are the ones who are most likely to need a microphone. We had similar issues at the WSFS Business Meeting, with people like me and Mary Robinette Kowal getting sufficiently frustrated that we would get up and adjust the microphone stands while the speakers were talking because they simply did not understand that nobody could hear them. Mind you, in a WSFS debate, if you stand up there and waste your time mumbling and not speaking into the microphone, you’re likely to ruin your own side’s argument. For examples of what this sounds like, go watch the videos (all ten of them are on YouTube; search for “WSFS Business Meeting”). The camera was halfway back in the room, and did not have a direct feed from the audio board. If the camera couldn’t hear what the speaker was saying, the odds are that hardly anyone else in the room could hear it, either.

  11. (I feel really bad for missing the mic issue on the first panel I moderated, but hey-ho (& ay-yo) a learning experience, & that aside …)

    Has it been said that even if the academic track wasn’t for the vast majority of people at the con (& totally supporting reasonable efforts to make it accessible & fun), it was still something worth doing in its own right — a great conference as a conference, which also embedded in a great context with which it interacted fruitfully?

    LonCon was such a huge & various & spangle-stranded Thing. It’s totally fine for there to be this little eco-system that operates according to its own standards. Perhaps a comparison could be drawn with, I don’t know, the games tent? Not for everybody! And maybe something you dip into and find out is not for you, without necessarily feeling the urge to give negative feedback: perhaps the issue is that academic panels are superficially similar enough to normal convention panels that you might think it’s OK to apply the same values to both & tacitly argue for a rejiggle, rather than recognise a plurality of standards.

    (Does that argue for a big neon ACADEMIC TRACK sign outside the entrance? Oh, wait, I just realised something: I guess I’m a bit jumpy & maybe projecting a bit, because the academy is being put in a position where it has to sell itself to society more generally … sometimes there can be really fruitful intellectual processes which include forbidding and frustrating encounters, where those encounters are constitutive. That said, I wonder if there could be an “Introduction to the Academic Track” slot specfically for non-academic fans early in a con? &/or a panel specifically about the relationship of academia to fandom, to have some of these conversations while the Thing is still happening?).

    Also, that said … I didn’t get a strong sense that the academic track was necessarily more *scholarly*, if that’s the right word. What I mean is: some panels *outside* the academic track were perfectly willing to prioritise getting to the bottom of something even if the journey wasn’t necessarily thrilling every step of the way, were willing to arrest that nagging drift towards crowdpleasing (“it’s been about four minutes, I better say something jolly”), in the service of some subtle, intricate and interesting-in-the-long-term arguments. Likewise, some papers within the academic track had image macros, chattiness, gratuitious pictures of kittens, & just really bouncy moments were the stand-up peeks through the scholar. It varied person by person more than anything.

    So yeah: obviously that impression is just a function of the tiny path I wiggled through everything that was going on, but I felt like there was a lot of stylistic overlap between the academic track & everything else 🙂

    Side note: I found myself answering questions more like a humanities academic than ever before — insisting on textuality, reading texts “backwards” into their conditions of possibility rather than extrapolating “forwards” into supplementary fannish worldbuilding, etc. … which was interesting for me, since it made me realise how at academic conferences I usually position myself more fannishly, i.e. trying to personalise texts, dream up new ways of consuming and using them, imagining what other accomplishments they could lay the foundations for …

    20 minute papers are obviously a bit more usual, so


    20 minute papers are obv a bit more usual, so maybe the point about papers covering too much material were some people struggling to adapt to the format. That said every conference I’ve ever been to has had its share of fast-talking “I’ll just skip these seventeen slides” “and I was going to talk a bit about, uh, identity but I think I’ll leave it there”-ers

    Anyway I had an excellent time

  13. I liked any of the academic talks I went to. Even if the talks in a session were not necessarily that closely related to each other, the format of allowing someone to set forth a coherent and worked through argument before beginning a discussion worked very well. For me, anyway.

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