Mike Allison and Greg Weeks are discussing the value (or lack thereof) of discussants on panels. Given that one of my major problems with the rising challenge to panels in our discipline, the similarly-poorly-attended poster session, is the lack of discussants, I can’t really concur in whole with Greg’s position that discussants aren’t helpful. I do mostly concur with his advice for discussants, however:
1. Do not try to tie the papers together artificially. There is no point.
2. Keep your comments as brief and focused as possible. No preambles or tangents. The audience did not come to listen to you, unless you are very clearly an expert on the panel’s topic.
3. Don’t whine about how long it took someone to get their paper to you. We’re all busy.
4. If time is short after the last presentation, give it up to the audience Q&A and give the authors your comments privately. Interested audience members very often have better insights.
That said, when I have discussed papers I usually try to see if I can identify common themes and ways the papers speak to each other, in part because I think scholars at the pre-publication stage can often strengthen their papers by looking beyond the literature they’ve embedded themselves in during the drafting process. Sometimes, though, that is futile on “potpourri” panels that often get titles like “New Directions in Research on X.”
Once upon a time (I can’t remember where; possibly at one of the iterations of the job rumors site) I saw a suggestion that took things to the opposite extreme—that panels might be better organized by having the discussant briefly present all of the papers, followed by feedback and discussion from the authors and the audience. It might be an interesting experiment to try, and I think it would certainly be a good test of whether or not the papers communicate their ideas clearly enough to their readers, although I think for it to work effectively you’d need to organize the conference in a way that completed papers would be due much sooner than is the norm in political science—where usually the “deadline” is enforced about as rigidly as most undergraduates would like their assignments’ deadlines to be.