Don’t Be a Conference Room Hog

As academe works to make conferences more accessible and humane, it's a pervasive problem that's also easy to fix, writes Jonathan Beecher Field.

December 6, 2018

Scenario No. 1: You worked hard on your proposal, and it was accepted. You worked hard on your paper and traveled a long way to present your work at a conference. Your panel is a success, with a lively conversation continuing a few minutes past the stated end of your panel. And afterward, panel attendees come up to the presenters’ table, introducing themselves and suggesting future collaborations. It’s all that you could want from presenting at a conference.

Scenario No. 2: You worked hard on your proposal, and it was accepted. You worked hard on your paper and traveled a long way to present your work at a conference. When you arrived at the conference room for your panel, the room was still full of people from the previous panel, lingering around the presenters’ table -- making access difficult and A/V setup impossible. Finally, the previous panel participants ceded the space to your panel, but they left a mess behind and prevented your panel from starting on time.

Most academics have probably been on both sides of this situation. We are all familiar with stories of the -- usually senior, usually male -- panelist, who generously delivers a 35-minute paper in a 20-minute time slot, keeping other panelists from presenting or discussing their work. Traditionally, panel moderators are expected to rein in such behavior by communicating clear expectations ahead of the conference and reminding panelists about their time during presentations. But room hogging, to coin a phrase, is probably more common, and has the effect of preventing some scholars from having their fair share of time to present.

At a moment when academe is working to make conferences more accessible and humane -- providing pronouns on badges, fragrance-free environments, gender-neutral restrooms and more -- room hogging seems like a pervasive problem that is also easy to fix. You simply should be aware of membership in a scholarly community that is larger than your own panel. At the same time, a more broad-based awareness of this issue across scholarly communities is also important. That’s because the people who gain and lose time for their platform mirror other forms of power differentials in the academy, including those associated with prestige, age, gender, size and physical mobility. For conference attendees with sensory, mobility or cognitive disabilities, who are moving through the conference space in what Alison Kafer and other disability scholars call “crip time,” a clear path to the speakers’ table is especially important.

A panel that is likely to run over will probably include established and/or popular scholars, and it is difficult for a grad student organizing their first panel to tell a star academic that it’s their turn to use the room. In addition, conference rooms are often crowded, and the physical bulk of a larger male scholar who refuses to leave the presenters’ table is a significant obstacle to a smaller scholar who is simply trying to set up her laptop to introduce her panelists. And for panelists who use wheelchairs, crutches or other mobility devices, a crowded conference room can be simply impassable. To this end, Ohio State’s Composing Access website offers a wealth of practical ideas for conference organizers and participants seeking to make the experience more accessible for all.

As with many things in academe and life, the quickest way toward a solution is to endeavor not to be a jerk -- which is to say, to be cognizant of other people around you whose interests and needs may overlap with yours but are not identical to them. That level of awareness might be too much to ask of many academics, but some structural tweaks might help. Most conferences operate on a format where panels run about an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes, followed by a 15-minute transition to allow attendees to get from one panel to another. What happens in conference rooms during that transitional time is not specified, which creates space for the conflicts that I’ve described. It is not clear whether that 15 minutes belongs to the preceding or following panel, but the preceding panel is already occupying the room, and thus tends, de facto, to control the space for much of the break.

Language on conference programs requesting panelists to vacate the room at the conclusion of their panel and to continue their conversations elsewhere might help. So, too, might specific instruction to panel chairs that they are responsible for making the room accessible for the next panel.

Until such mandates are in place, however, and with conference season getting into full swing, remember: don’t be a room hog.


Jonathan Beecher Field is an associate professor of English at Clemson University. He would like to thank Margaret Price and Chad Iwertz of Ohio State University for their thoughts on conference accessibility.


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